Mayor Alex Penelas flew to New York two weeks ago to tell anyone on Wall Street who would listen that Dade County is being led by ethical people whose honesty is beyond reproach. Hoping to distance himself and the county from the negative publicity swirling around the City of Miami, the mayor pledged that his administration will not tolerate even the appearance of wrongdoing. In a meeting with reporters from the Dow Jones News Service on January 29, the mayor defended a decision to exclude certain bond companies from doing business with the county because of doubts about their integrity. "If there's any question, then we should just skip over those people until those question marks are answered," Penelas declared.
The entire trip was a brilliant lie.
The same day the mayor was touting the rectitude and independence of Dade government, County Manager Armando Vidal was celebrating his 50th birthday with a party in his honor in one of the banquet rooms at Miami International Airport. The fete, which was organized by county staffers, on county time, was initially intended for county employees, such as department heads and assistant county managers, as well as members of the county commission and their staffs.
But in assembling the guest list, Vidal's minions decided to include the county's most powerful lobbyists and influence peddlers -- many of whom were major fundraisers for Penelas's mayoral campaign. It was an understandable decision for Vidal's staff to include these all too familiar faces, since they now enjoy free reign over the 29th floor of county hall, where both the manager and the mayor have offices. Among the lobbyists in attendance at the party: Jorge Lopez, Armando Gutierrez, Tom Carlos, Chris Korge, Rick Sisser, Dusty Melton, Susan Freed, and Al Duffy. Developers such as Jesus Fernandez were also invited.
The affair provides another glaring example of the incestuous relationship county administrators have with Dade's core group of lobbyists. A view reinforced a few days later with the mayor's own state of the county speech, which was delivered during a luncheon organized by another prominent lobbyist, Rodney Barreto. The cost for the luncheon was underwritten by twenty local companies who paid $2500 each for a table. Both events increase the perception that access to the upper echelons of county government is restricted to those with money, power, and insider connections.
The 150 invitees to the manager's birthday bash enjoyed a buffet complete with grilled dolphin, roasted chicken, baked ham, wild rice, baby carrots, and a salad bar. There was also a large birthday cake.
Those attending the party were charged $15 per person to cover both the cost of the food and a gift for the manager -- a keychain with a miniature version of the key to the county attached, as well as a charm with the number 50 engraved on it. The food was provided by the catering firm that operates the airport hotel. Last week I called the hotel's catering office, explained that I was interested in having a party just like the one thrown for the county manager, and was told the price would be between $20 to $25 a person.
The $15 charge afforded to the manager's guests, catering officials explained, was a "special price" because the affair was sponsored by the county, which runs the airport. Ordinary citizens, without connections at county hall, would have to pay more.
Dade County Aviation Director Gary Dellapa acted as master of ceremonies for the two-hour shindig, and managed to toss a few gentle barbs at his short-tempered boss, including one about Vidal's penchant for golf. Everyone laughed. The reason for the joke was that New Times had just published a cover story revealing that for the past two years Vidal had accepted dozens of rounds of free golf from the company hired to operate the county-owned Golf Club of Miami. And during the same period Vidal accepted these free outings, he recommended changes to the county contract that financially benefited the company, known as the Muirfield Group. Perhaps adding to the humor was the fact that the Muirfield Group owes the county at least $435,000, with $100,000 of it past-due for more than a year.
Well, if folks at Vidal's birthday party found it humorous to see the manager's ethics questioned, then they will probably bust a gut laughing at the latest developments. Following publication of the story titled "You Call This a Fairway?" the Dade State Attorney's Office has begun a preliminary review of the manager's conduct.
During this initial phase, which is expected to last three to four weeks, investigators will gather information and interview potential witnesses to determine if a formal criminal investigation is warranted.
In another development, a review of county records last week revealed that Vidal accepted more than just free rounds of golf from the individuals operating the Golf Club of Miami. According to his most recent financial disclosure form, Vidal reported receiving a case of wine from one of the owners of the Muirfield Group, Sergio Vidal (no relation to the manager). Although there is a space on the form to fill in the value of the gift, Armando Vidal left it blank. The only description the manager provided was that the case contained twelve bottles. "Oh, you can get a case of wine for anywhere from $44 a case up to $5000 a case," says Chip Cassidy, the wine buyer for Crown Liquors. "It varies depending on the type of wine and how old it is. Someone just bought at auction a case of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild in New York for $5200."
Vidal was also given a golf bag from Carlos Morales, the marketing director for the golf course, and John Norton, the club's pro. Once again, Vidal failed to disclose the value of the gift. "A golf bag can cost anywhere from $50 to $400," says Tim Mace, a manager at Edwin Watts Golf Shops. "It really depends on the size of the bag and the type of material the bag is made from." Vidal did not provide a description of the bag.
While it is highly unlikely the county manager was actually given a case of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild or even the most expensive golf bag available, the public really doesn't know. And therein lies the problem Vidal has created. As long as the county manager is foolish enough to take gifts from individuals doing business with Dade County, then the public has every right to assume the worst about him, the mayor he reports to, and the overall integrity of county government.
The county manager also received gifts from Charlie DeLucca, a former Muirfield partner. Vidal reported receiving "golf goods" in 1994 and a "gift basket" in 1995. No further description or value was provided.
He also listed on his disclosure form "rounds of golf" without identifying how many rounds he played. The cost for one round at the Golf Club of Miami is between $20 and $50, depending on both the season and the time of day.
During its own review of the manager's actions, the State Attorney's Office will likely use the county's conflict of interest and ethics ordinance as a guide. The first relevant passage is Section E, which deals with gifts. The law states that "it is unlawful for any person or entity to offer, give, or agree to give to [the county manager] or for the [county manager] to accept or agree to accept from another person or entity, any gift for or because of an official public action taken, or to be taken, or which could be taken," or for "a legal duty performed, or to be performed, or which could be performed."
From a layman's standpoint, an interpretation appears easy. If the only reason the county manager received a gift is that he is the county manager, and the gift is being given by a company doing business with the county, then that is wrong and the manager should be punished for accepting such gifts.
Legally, however, it isn't so simple. In general, prosecutors believe that in order to bring a charge against a person under this section they have to be able to show that the gift was received for a specific action. In other words, they would have to prove that the manager was given free rounds of golf, a case of wine, a new golf bag, assorted golf goods, and a gift basket because he recommended changes in the Golf Club of Miami's contract that financially benefited the firm. While Armando Vidal's conduct might appear sleazy, unethical, and whorish to some people, proving a direct link in a courtroom between all those fabulous gifts and the contract changes could be problematic.
The next area of interest for prosecutors might be Section G: exploitation of official position. Under this passage, administrators such as the county manager shall not "use or attempt to use his official position to secure special privileges or exemptions for himself or others."
It is worth recalling from our earlier story the comments of the former employees for the Golf Club of Miami, located at 6801 Miami Gardens Dr. "He would come out and play for free whenever he wanted," said Harry Ferguson, the former tournament director for the course.
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"The first time I saw the county manager I didn't know who he was. He just came in and grabbed a bucket of range balls and helped himself to a cart," said Glenn Street, a former assistant golf pro at the course in 1995 and 1996. Vidal usually golfed with lobbyist Jorge Lopez. "Most of the time it was the two of them together," said Street. "Sometimes they would bring guests and their guests would be comped as well." And, he added, "they would basically help themselves to anything they wanted."
Whether this type of conduct meets the legal definition of exploitation will be up to prosecutors to determine. If Vidal is charged and convicted of violating either section, he could be sentenced to 30 days in jail and given a $500 fine.
Of course, Penelas is free to discipline the county manager on his own, using his own high standards of conduct. But so far the tough-talking mayor hasn't said a word publicly about his manager's golf habit or his wine collection or his assortment of golf goods.
Let's hope they don't hear about this up in New York; otherwise they might think Dade's young mayor is full of hooey.