Miami-Dade County Commission Chairman Bruno Barreiro is holding court at a Little Havana library. It's still early and his audience consists of about two dozen three- and four-year-old students from nearby Lincoln Marti School and Pin Pon Nursery School. The photogenic 41-year-old Cuban American is narrating We've All Got Belly Buttons by children's author David Martin. "We've all got belly buttons for tickle-tickle-tickling," Barreiro raps with an enthusiastic cadence.
The chairman is clearly more at ease here than on the county commission dais, where his voice barely rises to an audible mumble. "I think being quiet can be perceived as a sign of weakness," Barreiro says. "I don't waste my time on that stuff."
The library is an apt place for Barreiro to practice his oratory. Elected commission chair this past November, he's been largely ineffective. He took the job after a political career filled with conflicts of interest, and has been ham-handed in dealing with his colleagues and the public ever since. With a recent pronouncement that the state's public information laws should be curtailed and New Times discovery that he funnels county money to family members he's reached a historic low.
"He's the invisible man," offers Alvaro Fernandez, publisher of Progreso Weekly, an online alternative magazine commenting on South Florida's role in U.S.-Cuba relations. "He has always worked behind the scenes against the people's interests," adds Fernandez, who ran against Barreiro in 2002. "Now he wants the commission to meet in secret, as if we could trust them to begin with."
Since he began his political career fifteen years ago as a Republican state representative, Barreiro has rarely been viewed as a leader. When he ran for county commission in 1998 against Janitza Kaplan, his opponent's campaign manager, former state Rep. Luis Rojas, informed New Times (Prestige Politics," May 28, 1998) that Barreiro "does not have what it takes to survive on the county commission. He gets confused. He doesn't have the depth and competence to be a commissioner." He also described Barreiro as "malleable," a nice way of saying the Miami Beach native can be easily manipulated.
In his years in Tallahassee, Barreiro kept company with one of Miami's most dubious elected officials: then-state Sen. Al Gutman. In 1992, when Barreiro was first elected to the legislature, his family owned a small, financially struggling medical center in Little Havana known as Clinica Fatima. The clinic failed to maintain a $500,000 cash reserve as required by state law. Two of Gutman's friends, Isadore Schwartz and Clara Oliver, bailed the Barreiros out by paying them $580,000 to take controlling interest in that operation.
Soon the clinic won a lucrative state Medicaid contract. Subsequently Schwartz and Clara flipped the HMO to a subsidiary of Physician Corporation of America for $10 million. Gutman, who accepted campaign contributions from PCA, brokered the deal and received $500,000 in commission. Barreiro netted about $200,000.
Between the time Schwartz and Oliver entered the picture and Clinica Fatima was sold to PCA, Barreiro was on a House committee overseeing health care legislation while Gutman was chairman of the Senate's Health Committee. Both of them blocked legislation that would have toughened laws regulating HMOS like PCA. The deal sparked public outrage and critical editorials, but Barreiro and Gutman were not investigated for wrongdoing. In 1999 Gutman was forced to resign as a condition of a plea deal stemming from his arrest in an unrelated Medicaid fraud scheme.
Then and now, Barreiro denies the PCA deal influenced his vote on the House committee. "My voting record was more in favor of doctors than for the HMO industry and health care companies," the commissioner says.
Colleagues in the legislature nicknamed Barreiro "el mudo" ("the mute") because he rarely spoke and five times during his early years the Miami Herald ranked him among the least effective politicians. Twice he ranked in the bottom quartile and for three years straight he was rated next to worst though he eventually improved that showing. None of that hindered Barreiro from winning his county commission seat.
Two re-elections and nine years later, Barreiro has the worst attendance record and the least proposed legislative items of any Miami-Dade commissioner, according to a New Times review of county records. Indeed since becoming chairman, he has proposed nada. And his net worth doubled from $423,000 in 2002 to $800,000 in 2005, according to his most recent financial disclosure statements.
But Barreiro Jr. is a good family man. The county pays Bruno Barreiro Sr. and his wife, Alicia, $28,981 a year to lease space in their medical office building at 1454 SW First St. for Barreiro Jr.'s district office, according to a lease agreement obtained by New Times. Not only was the lease negotiated at the chairman's request, Barreiro also voted on it when the agreement was approved by the county commission without discussion in 2001. The rent being charged to the county is about double the Barreiros' 2006 property taxes for their building.
Strangely it's all legal. In 2000 the county commission conveniently amended Miami-Dade's conflict of interest and ethics ordinance, giving commissioners immunity from conflict of interest rules if the cost of the goods or service represented 80 percent or less of fair market value. Still, leasing office space from your mommy and daddy on taxpayers' dime is probably not the smartest way to build public trust, opines Robert Jarvis, an ethics law professor at Nova Southeastern University. "If his parents really wanted to help [Barreiro] provide the community a service, you have to wonder why they didn't offer the space for free," Jarvis says. "On deals like this, you have to make sure everyone knows this is not an arm's length transaction."
Barreiro concedes that using his office funds to rent space from his parents raises an ethical dilemma. But, he notes, the county hired an independent appraiser to verify that taxpayers weren't getting screwed. The county paid $10.71 per square foot to the Barreiros, who could have leased the space at $13.50, according to the report by the Hollywood, Florida-based real estate appraisal firm J.B. Alhale and Associates Inc. "This was not a sweetheart deal by any means," Barreiro said.
Soon after Barreiro's peers narrowly selected him by a seven-to-six vote, over Dennis Moss, to replace Joe Martinez as chairman, the commission lost political ground. "They picked Bruno because he is the most pliable," Fernandez observes. "They can tell him to do whatever they want him to do." Barreiro's timid personality was no match for Mayor Carlos Alvarez's charismatic spell over voters during the strong-mayor election this past January 23. Fewer than 150,000 of the 1,050,000 voters in Miami-Dade cast ballots, but it was enough for the strong mayor initiative to pass with 57 percent of the vote.
Indeed Barreiro screwed up his first official act as chairman: commissioners' committee appointments. After informing commissioners of his choices, there were bruised egos and he was forced to change several of them. "I had to make readjustments to conform to people's schedules," he insists. Worse, he's politicized the process, giving plum jobs to those who voted for him like Joe Martinez, Jose "Pepe" Diaz, and Natacha Seijas. He tapped Martinez as head of the budget and finance committee while putting Diaz in charge of the airport and tourism committee. And Barreiro not only allowed Seijas to keep her iron hand over land use and environmental decisions, but also handed her control of the elections and technology departments. "I felt it was proper to allow her to have some of the same departments under her previous committee for continuity purposes," Barreiro asserts. "Under no circumstances does she influence my decisions."
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Recently Barreiro has faced criticism of a resolution he sponsored last month urging the state legislature to get rid of the open government law that prohibits two or more elected officials from conducting business in private. The proposal has been roundly criticized by journalists and public advocates. Barreiro is nonchalant about it. "No other state in the country has approved the Sunshine Law," Barreiro says.
Moreover Barreiro has done nothing to expand his profile beyond his district other than making an appearance at the Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Liberty City earlier this year. "No one from his staff is stationed at county hall so it's always a mission to track him down for anything," says an anonymous commission aide. "Whenever someone asks, 'Where's Bruno?' the reply is always, 'He's over the bridge,' since he is always at his district office."
Says Barreiro, "I like to decentralize. Decentralize. That's the word that comes to mind."