A Cool $20 Million
Mark Mitnick, a portly, even-tempered 43-year-old bachelor, had worked as a grocery clerk, card dealer, bartender, factory worker, airman first class, and assistant manager at Pizza Hut. In October 2001 he spotted an ad in the newspaper for a job as a Wackenhut security guard. He had the necessary experience. The pay looked nice.
A month later he spent Thanksgiving, his first day of work, patrolling Metromover platforms between the Bayside and College North stations. It was just him and some homeless guys.
Soon things got complicated. During his first year as a guard, four different supervisors asked him to sign for time he didn't work, according to a sworn deposition he gave this past June. After receiving a promotion in 2002, he claims he tried to submit an honest record of hours. "I came to find out quickly that it's unacceptable," he said.
Occasionally during the next two years, Mitnick admits, he asked guards to sign for hours not worked at posts they hadn't manned. "I was trying not to lose any contract hours," Mitnick said, referring to Wackenhut Corporation's massive security accord with Miami-Dade County.
In late 2004, after climbing to the rank of acting major, Mitnick claims he decided to stop lying about hours once and for all. "I think maybe enough is enough," he opined in his deposition.
Mitnick contends that a few months later, in January 2005, his boss ordered him to move some boxes full of company records out of a train station storage room. The request came around the time the county's Office of the Inspector General began auditing another Wackenhut job site, the Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC), where thousands of juvenile arrestees are processed.
Mitnick's boss allegedly wanted him to move the containers into a company vehicle. Someone would destroy them the following morning. "He told me ... we need to protect the company and our contract," Mitnick said in the deposition.
But he refused. "I told him I wasn't going to be a part of destroying anything that may be used in court...," Mitnick said in his deposition. "As far as I was concerned, that was criminal."
A month later Mitnick was fired for allegedly losing thousands of dollars' worth of Metrorail passes. He denied any wrongdoing; indeed he never even had access to the passes. "He didn't do nothing wrong," one of his superiors, Maj. William Acosta, recalled in a deposition. An investigative report written by Wackenhut's human resources director cleared Mitnick of wrongdoing. What's more, his personnel file reflected six years of squeaky-clean service.
In the past year, Mitnick and three other former Wackenhut guards Omar Rosario, Michelle Trimble, and Ben Gilbert have sued Wackenhut, claiming they were fired for piping up about systematic understaffing and overbilling.
Trimble claims that, beginning in 1998, Wackenhut stole more than $20 million $4.5 million per year from taxpayers by submitting trumped-up records.
The former employees assert that the security company and its county overseers have endangered citizens by inadequately staffing the transit system and the JAC. Indeed a two-month New Times investigation which included review of nineteen sworn depositions by current and former Wackenhut employees, nine taped statements from guards and supervisors, and internal Wackenhut audits and memos turned up the following:
Wilberto Colon, a guard and supervisor hired in 2001, claims 1500 Metrorail posts were abandoned annually between 2001 and 2004. He says Wackenhut's administrative supervisors encouraged the practice.
Villanueva Velasquez, a guard who has worked for the company intermittently since September 1999, claims administrators called him at home several times and told him to head to a nearby train station and sign for unworked hours.
Rudolfo Vazquez, project manager of the JAC from 1998 to 2005, contends that at each week's end, he wrote favored employees' names in open time slots on sign-in sheets. His supervisor and Wackenhut executives knew about the practice, he asserts.
Pelagues Cine, who supervises Wackenhut employees at the JAC, claims that since he began working at the facility in 1997, every one of his supervisors has doctored time records. Staff shortages there "absolutely" make for dangerous situations, he says.
For its part, Wackenhut has denied all allegations of wrongdoing at the JAC and Metrorail. Citing a 78 percent decline in crime on the transit system and efficient operation of the juvenile facility since taking over, the company says there's no problem. The complaints, Wackenhut says, come from a few disgruntled employees. On January 19, 2006, the company's regional vice president, Rene Pedrayes, told Miami-Dade commissioners: "We have the proper staff, the proper supervision, the proper rovers in place, and there is nothing we should be ashamed about in the seventeen years we've provided the service to the riding public."
Wackenhut attorney Robert Kilbride implored Miami New Times to allow the legal process to take its course before publishing a story. "We believe that the truth will exonerate us ... and all behind-the-scenes manipulators and distorters will be unmasked," he wrote in response to a list of faxed questions.
Wackenhut was founded under the name Special Agent Investigators 50 years ago in Coral Gables by hard-nosed ex-G man George Wackenhut and three FBI buddies. According to Mr. Wackenhut's 2005 obituary in the Washington Post, he wrested control of the operation in 1958 (he came to blows with one partner) and named the company after himself. From then on, Wackenhut grew and grew placing guards all over the world, from nuclear power plants to foreign embassies to private prisons.
By the late 1960s, George Wackenhut was living large in a 57-room Gables mansion called Tyecliffe Castle. Tyecliffe was known to locals as "Castle Wackenhut." Although a huge financial success, his company has been plagued by scandal. Through the years, it fumbled myriad prison contracts owing to allegations of guard abuse (rape in Texas, mismanagement in New Mexico, beatings in Alabama). It lost a $12-million-per-year deal in Texas, relinquished its juvenile facility in Alabama, and suffered a hellacious riot when Wackenhut-guarded prisoners in New Mexico were told by the governor that violence would get them transferred to state-run jails.
In 1991 Congress grilled a Wackenhut executive for spying on whistleblowers on behalf of a consortium of oil companies. The company fired the exec following a media frenzy and a Congressional investigation. No one was indicted.
Locally Wackenhut has done much better. In 1989 the county booted an ineffectual minority contractor from Metrorail and handed the $2.3-million-per-year security deal to Wackenhut. Since then, commissioners have awarded Wackenhut three no-bid renewals and the total cost of the contract has increased almost tenfold. By the time the firm's deal is up in 2009, Metrorail security will be worth almost $20 million per year.
In late 1997, commissioners hired Wackenhut to help oversee the JAC, where arrested juveniles make first contact with the criminal justice system. Today that deal is worth roughly $1.3 million per year.
Complaints about Wackenhut's performance began to crop up last fall. Former employee Michelle Trimble filed one lawsuit alleging bogus termination and then another to recoup the money she said was stolen from the public. Next Ben Gilbert sued, claiming he was fired for threatening to go to the media with dirt on the JAC. Then came Mark Mitnick's claim. Omar Rosario, a Metrorail guard, filed the final whistleblower action in January 2006.
During that time, H. Mark Vieth, the quartet's attorney, hired a private investigator to interview current and former Wackenhut employees. The result of his work thousands of pages of depositions and transcribed interviews, a small part of which made it into the Miami Herald this past winter prompted county commissioners to consider the charges.
"Wackenhut has been able to keep enough staff to patrol all the posts," Miami-Dade Transit Director Roosevelt Bradley told county commissioners this past January 19. An audit expected soon could change all of that. Heads are already starting to roll.
Yanir Hill was hired as Wackenhut's human resources director in 2003 around the same time Mitnick was fired. After reviewing the guard's objections, she decided to investigate. A voluminous March 3, 2005 memo directed to her superior, Eduardo Esquivel, indicated Mitnick had done nothing wrong.
His case was just the beginning, she reported. Employees had complained to her in exit interviews about huge staff shortages that forced them to work more than 200 hours in two weeks. Wackenhut still couldn't fill all the required posts, they claimed. "[Metrorail guards] talked to me about being uncomfortable with signing times on sign-in sheets and not being there those times," she said in her deposition.
"We are facing a major problem with morale [on Metrorail]," Hill concluded in her memo regarding Mitnick's termination. "The officers feel mistreated and feel they have no job security ... they feel betrayed by their chain of command and have lost faith and respect in said chain of command."
In late 2005 she claimed she told Esquivel about the faked time sheets. According to her sworn deposition, "if it was not in writing, he did not want to hear it."
Hill says Maj. Arnold Bair, a Wackenhut higherup, overheard the conversation and pulled her into his office. "Close the door; I'm going to show you something," she recalls Bair mentioning before handing her a thin stack of paper and saying, "It [is] an audit I did before. Be careful."
The audit mirrors many of the claims made by current guards and supervisors. It details more than 100 billing discrepancies between December 1998 and April 1999. "Great emphasis seems to be placed on ensuring that the invoice total hours never reflect a lack of coverage on a station," Bair wrote in the report. Time sheets had been doctored "after the fact" with correction fluid.
Bair told Hill he had submitted the report to Wackenhut brass in mid-1999. Bair claims a company vice president assured him he would "talk to the [county] and compensate them for any losses." (Esquivel denies seeing the audit. He also claims neither to have received a report from Hill about Mitnick's termination nor heard about unmanned posts.)
In response, Rene Pedrayes contends the company "tweaked" Metrorail sign-in procedures. "There was no loss of hours ... no money reimbursed," he said in a deposition. The county did not see a copy of the audit until last year, when it was presented to them by the Herald.
According to guards, shenanigans of all types have played out at the rail since Bair's audit. A quick review reads like a twisted version of the twelve days of Christmas. One guard admits to falsely signing blank time sheets given to him by high-level supervisors. Two supervisors state they witnessed blank sheets being handed out willy-nilly. Three guards describe a habitual double-billing. Six admitted they were paid for unworked hours. And some nights there were as many as seven posts where no security was present.
Maj. José Mora (a current Metrorail supervisor) claims he regularly reported, up the chain of command, hours his men could not fill. "What happens then," he added, "is beyond me."
Former guard Villanueva Velasquez's testimony is perhaps the most damning description of how it worked. After the 9/11 attacks, Velasquez claims there were at least two open posts on the rail every day. He noticed these vacancies during radio roll calls.
He claims a Wackenhut major phoned him at home and told him to go to the nearest train station to sign a blank time sheet. Velasquez says these kinds of requests usually went to select employees. "People that, you know, that was in the circle." (That statement is confirmed by a current supervisor named David Nieves, who claims he saw a major hand a guard a blank time sheet and say, "Here you go, I need somebody to have been here from 2:00 to 4:30.")
If Velasquez is to be believed, Wackenhut hired too few employees and then overworked them. He states that he regularly worked twelve-hour days, six days a week. On occasion he even worked twenty hours nonstop.
Velasquez's deposition further stated that guards who were supposed to be riding trains and buses were ordered to sit at empty rail stations sometimes leaving no officers guarding passengers in transit.
Numerous other statements confirm Velasquez's claims. "The system was set up for everybody to make their money and at the same time go get some rest," said George Nietzche, a former supervisor.
In its response to each of the four lawsuits, Wackenhut has maintained its innocence: "Wackenhut denies each and every allegation of wrongdoing in this complaint whether express or implied."
Daniel Kaslick was hired by Wackenhut after serving in the Coast Guard, and was promoted to captain in February 2003. A year later, he was bumped up to administrative supervisor in charge of the Metrorail project. He reported directly to the firm's Metrorail project manager, Elijah Pendleton. The position allowed Kaslick to bill the county for no more than 50 hours per week. But sometimes he'd come in early and stay late.
From there it gets hazy.
In a deposition he gave last December, Kaslick claims Pendleton authorized him to attribute extra hours to unoccupied guard posts. He did this "no more than ten times" during his two-year employment.
On one occasion, according to the December statement, a passenger was injured at the Dadeland North station where Kaslick was clocked in but not present. "That's the system Pendleton has set up," he explained.
Two weeks later, everything changed. Kaslick was called into Wackenhut's Miami headquarters on Blue Lagoon Drive. His bosses were "confused" about the December deposition.
Some of his answers seemed "vague" and "unclear," Kaslick recalled them saying in a subsequent statement. Kaslick was given a copy of his deposition and instructed to review it for accuracy and then submit necessary changes.
In an errata sheet created a few weeks later, Kaslick alleged his boss hadn't told him he could fake the billing. Furthermore, Kaslick said he had never been paid for posts he didn't work. Six references to his boss's instructions suddenly became products of his own "understanding of the job numbers." All of his confusions were dictated to a company lawyer, who wrote them up.
But it was apparently too late. On January 6, 2006, transit Director Bradley requested that Kaslick and his boss be immediately removed from the rail project until a full county audit could be concluded. "However, in the future, should Mr. Kaslick [and his boss] be completely exonerated of all charges as acceptable by the 'County,' Miami-Dade Transit shall not object to their reinstatement," Bradley wrote.
New Times recently approached Kaslick at a job fair at Parrot Jungle Island. He stood at a Wackenhut table amid a warren of booths, handing out pamphlets promoting the security field. When asked about the errata sheet, he flashed a boyish grin and replied he had no comment. "I'm just here to recruit," he added dutifully. Days later Wackenhut attorneys filed a motion seeking to deny New Times access to sworn depositions.
The county's Juvenile Assessment Center is housed in a five-story glass and concrete building on NW Second Street in downtown Miami. Back in the mid-Nineties it took police officers up to six hours to search, fingerprint, identify, book, and charge an arrested juvenile. After the facility opened in 1997, cops began dropping off youths at the JAC and leaving in less than fifteen minutes.
These days about 1200 juveniles are brought to the facility every month on charges ranging from murder to petty theft. They are held together in a large, open room for anywhere from four to twenty-four hours, guards say. A handful of Miami-Dade Police officers oversees between six and seven Wackenhut employees, who are charged with processing and supervising the youths until they are picked up either by the State Department of Juvenile Justice or their parents. The JAC is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Nine current and former Wackenhut employees have admitted to a private investigator gathering evidence for the plaintiff that they were paid for hours not worked at the JAC. Their taped statements describe practices similar to those on Metrorail. (New Times contacted all of those interviewed. Three confirmed the truth of the statements, two had no comment, and four could not be reached.)
The stories of two former project managers at the JAC Luis Garofalo and Rudolfo Vazquez reveal how this might have happened.
Vazquez began working as a guard at the JAC soon after it opened and took over as its project manager a year later. In two taped statements, he claims staff shortages were constant. Sometimes, he contends, guards had to work sixteen-hour shifts.
Though all of the guard positions weren't always covered, he alleges he always reported the completion of 920 contract hours. Reporting anything less was not acceptable to management. (This is confirmed in Ben Gilbert's deposition.)
Guards say they were hopeful the staffing and other shortfalls would end in February 2002, when the county approved two vans and salaries for two additional guards. The guards never appeared, and the vans spent the next two years sitting in a company parking lot, bleeding taxpayers of $3200 a month, according to Bair.
In January 2005 the county's Office of the Inspector General seized the facility's time records and Vazquez was fired. Wackenhut assigned Major Bair to look into the allegations. According to his deposition, Bair noted numerous "questionable" things about time sheets at the JAC (correction fluid used on sign-in records). Bair informed his superior but was not told to investigate further.
Vazquez claims he was terminated for committing fraud. But Wackenhut is unclear on this point. "While employed at the JAC, Rudy Vazquez signed-in for, and was paid for, the time he actually worked," the firm maintains in its answer to Trimble's lawsuit. Bair maintains he discovered Vazquez clocked in simultaneously as a JAC supervisor and a county parks and recreation employee.
Luis Garofalo, a former Metrorail supervisor, replaced Vazquez in February 2005. On paper, Garofalo appears to have done his 40-hour-per-week job diligently. During the first week of August 2005, he signed in for 96 hours in a variety of capacities, which a schedule obtained by New Times reflects.
Yet one year after Garofalo's hiring, a guard named Tameeka Allen alleges she discovered paperwork that seemed to show he had worked one of her eight-hour shifts. She says she reported her discovery to Wackenhut's Palm Beach headquarters, which deployed a company investigator to interview the staff.
The investigator questioned four guards at the JAC, who all told him they hadn't seen Garofalo during times he was signed in. "[Officers] don't understand how he can be working all those hours when a lot of times he won't be in for a full shift," a guard, LaSawn Rene Merrick, said in a taped statement taken August 1, 2005. Another guard recalled seeing paperwork that showed Garofalo claiming 40 hours of a vacationing guard's time.
In his December 2005 deposition, Bair asserted that no one at the JAC had been paid for time not worked since he came to oversee the facility in August last year. "Not while I was the supervisor," Bair stated.
Garofalo resigned this past March while under investigation.
Furthermore, Wackenhut never expressly addressed Attorney Vieth's charges that Garofalo had billed the county for false or inflated hours in its answer to the guards' suit, but maintains its overall innocence. "Wackenhut denies that any investigation by [the inspector general] or anyone at Wackenhut revealed that false or inflated hours were billed to the county."
On January 19, 2006, eleven days after the Miami Herald published an article describing Michelle Trimble's lawsuit, county commissioners asked Wackenhut's Rene Pedrayes to answer the charges. "I guess what was reported in the Herald was actually the allegations of a couple of employees that you had fired?" asked Chairman Carlos Gimenez.
"That's correct," Pedrayes answered. "That's correct."
Gimenez and his colleagues, who are ultimately responsible for the contract, seemed unaware of the scope of the charges. On the previous day, Commissioners Gimenez, Sally Heyman, and Katy Sorenson had scheduled meetings with Wackenhut attorney Joe Bober. Only Gimenez recalled details of the encounter. "If I recall correctly," he said, "Mr. Bober and Roosevelt Bradley assured me that this was an isolated incident, that the individual or individuals responsible had been fired."
Heyman couldn't recall the meeting, but she suggested that the transportation committee revisit the Metrorail contract and consider more subcontract positions. "If you have a contract obligation and cannot fill the capacity, you have to contract out or subcontract out," Heyman said in a recent phone interview.
Sorenson's chief of staff, Sylvia Farina, couldn't remember the substance of the meeting either.
The contract was never revisited.
But it's clear that county oversight has been poor.
Miami-Dade Transit recently spent more than a quarter-million dollars in Homeland Security funds on an automated system to make sure Wackenhut guards are on duty. The county could not verify how often the data is processed.
Last month Bonnie Todd, Miami-Dade Transit's chief of safety and security, was abruptly terminated for "nonperformance," according to Bradley. When pressed for an explanation, Bradley provided a statement alleging that Todd had failed to perform her required duties though Todd's personnel file contained nothing but glowing performance evaluations and commendations. Before her termination, Todd supervised the five people who, among other things, oversee the county's multimillion-dollar contract with Wackenhut. It is unclear whether her firing was prompted by preliminary audit reports or for some other reason.
The lawsuits, in the meantime, continue to thicken with depositions as both sides await a review by the county's Office of Audit and Management. Gilbert's and Rosario's lawsuits are set for trial this month; Mitnick is up in October. Trimble will make her first stab at recovering county money in November.
Wackenhut declined to comment about the specifics of this story. But in a letter to New Times, company attorney Robert Kilbride maintained that an even better one is in store: "We are confident it will be a bigger, and certainly a more substantive, story than the one you are contemplating writing at this premature stage."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.