A Primer on Prosecuting Corruption

On January 23, New Times published a cover story entitled "You Call This a Fairway?" revealing that, for nearly two years, Dade County Manager Armando Vidal had accepted dozens of free rounds of golf from the company hired to manage the county-owned Golf Club of Miami. The story also established that, at the same time Vidal was enjoying the firm's hospitality, he was recommending changes to the company's existing contract with the county that would financially benefit the firm.

The story was followed three weeks later by a column, "Bounty Manager," that chronicled how, in addition to free rounds of golf, Vidal had acquired other gifts from this company, including a case of wine and a new golf bag. The column also pointed out that the State Attorney's Office had begun a "review" of Vidal's actions to determine if a formal investigation was warranted. That review is continuing.

Adding a sense of irony to the story, I noted that, while this preliminary review was under way -- and on the same day Mayor Alex Penelas was in New York trying to convince Wall Street officials that the ethics of his administration were beyond reproach -- Vidal was celebrating his 50th birthday at a surprise party in his honor, and the guest list included some of the county's biggest lobbyists and influence peddlers.

Almost immediately after that column appeared, my phone began to ring with calls from irate readers. "You screwed up," one person told me. "I can't believe you did this," added another caller.

My mistake wasn't in attacking the county manager. As far as these readers were concerned, my criticism of Dade's top bureaucrat was certainly justified. Their anger was rooted instead in the fact that my column had been incomplete. "Why didn't you write that the state attorney was also a guest at the party?" complained one of the callers, who, like the others, had also attended the party.

My apologies. Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle was at Vidal's birthday party. For those who were aghast at my omission, Rundle's presence held significance because it suggested that the state attorney and the county manager are friends. And if they are friends, it might be difficult for Rundle, in her official capacity as state attorney, to investigate allegations of wrongdoing on Vidal's part.

Incredulous that anyone might think she's incapable of doing her job, Rundle says she was invited to attend Vidal's birthday party along with a host of other government officials, including Joseph Farina, chief judge of Dade's circuit court. "I was in and out," she says. "I've never socialized with [Vidal]. I've never had dinner with him." The state attorney says she knows Vidal only through her job, which often brings her in contact with county administrators. "We have to sit down all of the time and work on a variety of issues," she says, "such as Operation Clean Sweep."

As Rundle is well aware, the perception of independence is often as important as actual independence. She claims, though, that no one should doubt her office's ability to weed out corruption, and she notes that her staff charged three county commissioners with violating the state's Sunshine Law. (It should also be mentioned that the case was handed to her on an engraved, sterling silver platter by the Miami Herald and it still took her office nearly two years to complete the probe.) "We have an entire unit that does nothing but public integrity cases," Rundle says.

All of which now leads to last week's New Times cover story, "The Dumping Ground," that documented how the Dade County Aviation Department has become a wasteland of political appointees, as well as for friends and relatives of county commissioners. Rundle's "public integrity unit" may wish to brush up on the county charter, and specifically on Section 3.05, Restriction on Commission Members:

"Neither the Mayor nor any Commissioner shall direct or request the appointment of any person to, or his or her removal from, office by the Manager or any of the Manager's subordinates, or take part in the appointment or removal of officers and employees in the administrative services of the county. Except for the purpose of inquiry, as provided in section 1.01a(20), the Mayor and Commissioners shall deal with the administrative services solely through the Manager and neither the Mayor nor any Commissioner shall give orders to any subordinates of the Manager, either publicly or privately. Any willful violation of the provisions of this Section by the Mayor or any Commissioner shall be grounds for his or her removal from office by an action brought in the Circuit Court by the State Attorney of this county."

Let's just take one example outlined in the aviation department story -- the hiring of Miriam Alonso's son-in-law, Kevin Miles. In October Alonso was elected to the county commission; by December Miles was given a $60,000-a-year job as a marketing specialist at Miami International Airport. If it turns out that Alonso requested her son-in-law be given the position, the State Attorney's Office could go to court and have Alonso removed from office for violating the charter.

Neither Alonso nor Miles nor Vidal would explain why Miles was unexpectedly hired, and they are within their rights not to answer my questions or return phone calls. After all, I am only a member of the press. But simply because they have the right to stonewall the media doesn't mean they shouldn't be held accountable for their actions.

The question becomes, Who polices the commission? Clearly, the county commission can't hold itself accountable. And the mayor can't conduct his own review of these allegations, since he may have violated the charter himself when his father-in-law was hired at the airport two years ago. The responsibility falls to Rundle, as the state attorney, to investigate this matter.

On Friday Rundle announced that her office was indeed going to examine the question of whether commissioners have violated the charter by interfering in personnel decisions at the airport. "We are reviewing the allegations and we will look into the matter," she affirmed.

In an effort to get her review started down the right path, we at New Times have decided to help Rundle by passing along a few helpful hints, a how-to guide for conducting this investigation.

The first step is obvious: Armando Vidal should be forced, under oath, to explain his decision to hire Kevin Miles. His responses should either be tape-recorded or taken down by a stenographer so the public will have the ability to review what he says. Vidal should realize that if he lies or obfuscates, he will be charged with perjury. He must understand that if he tries to mislead prosecutors in an attempt to protect Miriam Alonso, his career will be finished.

This explanation is necessary because Vidal has demonstrated that he does not deserve the public's trust. He accepts presents from companies and individuals who do business with the county. He's given selected lobbyists free run of his office. And he appears to have bypassed the county's regular hiring process in order to provide jobs to politically connected individuals.

Dare we be so bold, New Times would even like to take the liberty of drafting a few suggested questions for prosecutors to ask Vidal:

Why did he waive the county's normal hiring procedures in selecting Kevin Miles? Typically, when the county seeks to fill a position, it advertises the job opening, solicits applications, and interviews qualified applicants. Then it selects the person best suited for that post. In this case the position was never advertised and no one else was interviewed. The job was simply handed to Miles.

If filling this position was so important, why wasn't it part of the aviation department's budget that the county commission approved last May? Gary Dellapa, the aviation director, says he didn't know a thing about why Miles was hired. The head of the marketing division, Naomi Nixon, was equally perplexed. Neither of them had requested the additional position, they say. The question for Vidal is what changed between May and December that forced him to take the extraordinary action of hiring Miles -- besides, of course, Alonso's election in October?

What discussions, if any, did Vidal have with Alonso regarding Miles? Did he discuss it with anyone else? Why did he approve such an exorbitant salary for Miles? In giving Miles a $60,000 salary, Vidal jumped him over all the other marketing specialists at the airport. In fact, Miles makes nearly as much as his supervisor.

Kevin Miles should also be handed a subpoena and be compelled to answer some of the same questions regarding his selection. The only person who shouldn't be subpoenaed is Alonso, since she would be the target of the investigation and a subpoena would immediately grant her immunity from prosecution.

Indeed if, in addition to the Alonso/Miles case, the State Attorney's Office is interested in ferreting out other commissioners who may have violated Section 3.05 of the county charter, New Times would suggest questioning all of the following people under oath:

*Armando Vidal, county manager
*Susanne Torriente, executive assistant to Vidal
*Maria Casellas, acting director, county personnel department
*Don Allen, acting deputy director, county personnel department
*Mary Lou Artime, director personnel service division
*Gary Dellapa, director, Dade County Aviation Department (DCAD)
*Joni Ferden Precht, executive assistant to Dellapa
*Amaury Zuriarrain, deputy director, DCAD
*Irving Fourcand, executive assistant to Zuriarrain
*Ana Sotorrio, director of governmental affairs for DCAD
*Bobbie Phillips, assistant aviation director, administration
*Wallace Madry, manager aviation administration services
*Esterlene Lewis, manager aviation facilities management

This is not a haphazard list of names. Every one of these county employees is directly related to the aviation department and is in a position to know the intimate details of its hiring practices. Whether any of them specifically knows anything about commissioners violating the charter is up to the State Attorney's Office to determine.

But here are a few of the questions each of them should be asked:
*Has a county commissioner, or a member of a county commissioner's staff, ever made a request to you regarding the hiring, firing, promotion, or transfer of a county employee?

*If the answer to the first question is yes, describe the conversation. Also include what action, if any, you took in response to the commissioner's request, as well as whomever you notified.

*Has any county employee, whether he or she was your superior or your subordinate, ever told you that he or she received a request by a commissioner, or a member of a commissioner's staff, regarding a personnel matter?

*If the answer to the third question is yes, describe the conversation, and include what action, if any, you may have taken as a result.

Some of the people on the above list were unwilling or afraid to speak to me regarding this story, while others, I suspect, felt little or no remorse in protecting commissioners by lying to me, especially since there is no penalty for doing so. But if they were to be questioned by a prosecutor, under oath, several results would likely occur.

First, those employees who were afraid to speak up might, I hope, be convinced that the prosecutors involved in the case were committed to seeing the matter through to its just conclusion. There are a lot of honest and hardworking employees at the airport who are disgusted by the unethical and sleazy practices of both their superiors and the commissioners. These airport workers would be willing to tell what they know; all they need is a little encouragement from the State Attorney's Office. Prosecutors might even develop leads on other matters relating to corruption at the airport. Wouldn't that be quaint?

Second, those employees who might have publicly lied in the past to protect county commissioners would have to think twice about doing so under oath. They would have to decide if their loyalty was worth risking an indictment for perjury. And they would begin to wonder what the other people who were questioned either said or might say. A lie can be sustained only if everyone agrees to keep it, and since it would take only one person to crack the veil of silence, the chances are good that the truth can be found.

Assuming, of course, that Rundle is more interested in finding the truth than she is in attending the future birthday parties of arrogant bureaucrats and supercilious politicians.


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