A Merciful Court of Public Opinion

Humberto Hernandez is
A) a former attorney for the City of Miami fired in 1994 by his boss for allegedly conducting outside legal work on city time.

B) an attorney who the Florida Bar determined should have his license suspended following charges that he violated Bar regulations by soliciting family members in the ValuJet crash.

C) an attorney whose two former paralegals face criminal charges in the same ValuJet solicitation incident.

D) an attorney who was elected to the Miami City Commission in November 1996 despite widespread publicity that he was under federal investigation for possible criminal wrongdoing and despite charges that he ran a campaign tainted by racism.

E) an attorney who, nine months after defeating the city's only black commissioner, was arrested by the FBI, charged with 23 felony counts of bank fraud and money laundering, and removed from office by Gov. Lawton Chiles.

F) an attorney who, three months after being indicted, was embraced by the citizens of newly created District 3 and handily elected to the city commission.

G) All of the above.
For sheer gumption, it's hard to top 35-year-old Humberto Hernandez. He has managed to add all of the above to his curriculum vitae in just four short years. And he's not stopping there: In the coming months he'll be working overtime attempting to represent the citizens of his district while also diligently preparing for trial, which is scheduled to begin September 8, 1998.

Hernandez and seven other people are charged with fraudulently obtaining more than eight million dollars in loans from various banks and mortgage lenders. He and his co-defendants are alleged to have organized "flip" sales of condominiums in Key Biscayne and Coconut Grove, a penthouse in the Brickell area, and an office building in Coral Gables. The flip, according to federal prosecutors, involves "arranging a purchase from an arms-length buyer and a second sale to a collusive buyer at an inflated price, financing the first purchase with mortgage proceeds for the second deal and keeping the cash difference."

According to the indictment, among other misdeeds Hernandez allegedly forged financial and legal papers required to obtain and launder the loans and to set up an investment firm to be used in the scheme. If convicted of all counts, he would face penalties of ten to twenty years in prison and at least $250,000 in fines, and would be required to forfeit up to ten million dollars in personal assets, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami.

Despite such complications, Hernandez won a resounding victory in District 3. Which means that for sheer devotion, it's hard to top the 6063 people who voted for him. (His opponent, Miriam Alonso, daughter of the Dade County commissioner of the same name, garnered a mere 3205 votes.)

District 3 was meticulously shaped by Hernandez and his commission colleagues this past summer. The southern boundary, formed by South Dixie Highway and South Miami Avenue, hems in the shaded yards and renovated homes of the Roads neighborhood. The district heads north from there, the houses and trees giving way to block after block of low-rise and low-income apartment buildings. This is the dominant landscape from SW Eighth Street all the way to the district's northern boundary along the Miami River and State Road 836. As Hernandez proved last week, it is definitely Humberto Country.

"Here one is not guilty until he is convicted," says a retiree originally from Matanzas, Cuba, who voted for Hernandez but declined to give his name for publication. "It was the same thing with Raul Martinez, and then it became clear that he wasn't guilty," he says, sliding shut the parking lot gate at the Shenandoah Christian Preschool on SW Eighth Street near 22nd Avenue. This is Precinct 563, where Hernandez made his biggest score (aside from the absentee-ballot arena, where he pulled in more than three times as many as Alonso).

Precinct 563 and four other Hernandez strongholds -- Precincts 543, 564, 565, and 566 -- compose the heart of Little Havana, where the vast majority of residents not only live in close proximity to each other but apparently think together as well, particularly about the belief that their new city commissioner's experience overrides his indictment.

"[Hernandez] has more connections with other politicians capable of doing something good," said a man who would identify himself only as Rene at the counter of the Cafeteria Rinconcito de la Noche on SW Eighth Avenue near Fifth Street in Precinct 566. "The people have now freely elected him, and the governor can do absolutely nothing about that." (In reality, Governor Chiles could have suspended Hernandez again but chose to let him take office after his election last week.)

"When people who are under suspicion put their names on the ballot, they risk eroding the credibility of the electoral system," says Kenneth Goodman, a University of Miami professor specializing in professional, business, and health ethics. "There is certainly an obligation to weigh the risk of damaging the credibility of the system against the advantages of running for office. The former risk is a very serious one because it risks causing people to see the system as being sleazy, or sleazier than it is."

Hernandez, obviously, opted for the advantages of running. In response to the notion that he might have declined to seek office while under indictment, he declares flatly: "If I had not won an election last year, I probably would not be indicted today." The indictment is a fabrication of political enemies, he charges. When he lost a city commission race in 1995, he says, federal agents allegedly allied with Mayor Joe Carollo halted the investigation and resumed it only after he was elected to the commission in 1996.

Although District 3 was carefully tailored to suit Hernandez's political needs, his support unraveled around the edges. Alonso won majorities in six precincts -- one in the northwest corner of the district and the rest in the Roads-Brickell area on the southeastern fringe. Her largest margin of victory -- 19 votes -- came in Precinct 569, where the tally was 32 to 13.

One of those Precinct 569 residents who rejected Hernandez is well-known local historian Arva Moore Parks. "I believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty," Parks says, "but any leader who has that kind of cloud over him, any leader that I would respect, would step down until that cloud is removed."

Parks says she was "horrified" when she learned that her new commissioner had staged a traffic-jamming demonstration in Little Havana to protest his foiled attempt to swear himself in at city hall the day after his election. "When a public official takes to the streets, that's scary," she says. "I don't think it would have gone over too well on my street."

Certain to be displeased with how his neighbors voted is someone else who lives in Precinct 569, just down the street from Parks: Humberto Hernandez.


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