Jeffery Allen, the City of Miami's newest commissioner, has only been in office since October 1, when he was appointed to the seat by three of his colleagues amid a political circus. It's too early to tell what kind of advocate he will be for District 5, which encompasses the city's poorest areas, including Overtown, Model City, and Little Haiti. But already Allen has mastered an arrogant disdain for the fourth estate usually observed in politicians of much longer tenure. Allen apparently believes he should not deign to answer the more impertinent questions about his background, such as: "So who are you, anyway?"
Why, his staffers ask, are we rabid press hounds not satisfied with the brief bio the city distributed? Why do we want to question him closely about his background? Why do we trouble his relatives, neighbors, and students? Why can we not just accept that he's a great guy, an intelligent lawyer contemplating nothing but the best for his constituents? Does not this man, who so selflessly stepped into the public-servant breach left by Art Teele's suspension from office, have some right to privacy?
Well, no, actually he doesn't. Especially considering that Allen lobbied commissioners and the mayor for the job. Commissioner Johnny Winton, who otherwise says he's impressed by Allen, acknowledges his weakness with regard to the press. "He's terrible," Winton notes. "I tried coaching him, but he's resisting."
New Times spent the better part of last week attempting to interview Jeffery Allen. Several phone messages left at his commission office went unreturned. A visit to that Dinner Key office resulted in an engaging conversation with his guarded chief of staff, Milton Vickers, and Neil Shiver, his jovial policy adviser and a well-known Coconut Grove attorney. Allen was busy, they said, but he'd surely have a few minutes to spare the next day. "I want you to come in and spend the day with us," Shiver generously offered. "See how we work, and then you can interview Jeff."
The next morning, a Friday, Shiver informed New Times that Allen wasn't in the office, but he might be found at an event in Overtown, where the Black Archives was receiving a $500,000 grant to design a hotel. New Times dutifully waited through the speeches and the photo ops. Vickers announced that Allen didn't have time for a substantive interview right then, but he would be available later. New Times called later.
Vickers said Allen wasn't feeling well and wouldn't be up for an interview until Monday afternoon. New Times pointed out that a deadline was looming and the 48-year-old Allen had in fact looked fairly hale at the photo op. Vickers then explained that Allen didn't really want to be interviewed at all, so Monday afternoon was a big concession. "He was upset that the press went to his mother's house and intimidated her," he said. "They walked around the St. Thomas University campus [where Allen is an adjunct professor, teaching sports law] and asked students questions like he was a criminal." Two hours later Shiver called and said Monday probably wouldn't work either.
Shiver and Vickers indicated in various conversations that Allen's general attitude was he didn't need to cater to the media. Allen, they said, is not a politician type. He's not concerned with looking good, just doing the job well. His reticence isn't limited to New Times. Public records reveal that several other media outlets, including the Miami Herald, the SunPost, the Miami Times, and WTVJ-TV (Channel 6), have attempted to interview him. So far none has come away with more than a sound bite or two. "He refuses to answer any questions as it relates to his personal life," Shiver declared, "such as the homestead exemption or his relationship with his wife."
Vickers opined that District 5 doesn't need a commissioner who allows himself to be badgered and distracted by the media. "In our neighborhoods, we need people to be able to look up to people like Jeff," he intoned, dismissing the argument that people can't look up to someone they don't know.
It's understandable that Allen initially would be overwhelmed. The events surrounding his surprise appointment played like screwball Dinner Key theater. Although they weren't saying so publicly, city commissioners (except Tomas Regalado) and Mayor Manny Diaz (although he didn't have a vote) were prepared to appoint almost anyone to avoid a special election. Why? Because even though Teele had been suspended from office after his arrest on felony charges, he likely would have run in a special election -- and won. Teele supporters, union members, and unaffiliated community types loudly opposed an appointment. In more than a few cases this position was based on unadulterated self-interest. For example, the Rev. Richard Dunn, a previous commission appointee, lobbied for the job, but when he didn't get the nod, abruptly and vociferously converted to advocating for an election.
Commission and mayoral staffers spent days sifting through the pros and cons of various interested applicants, looking for someone they could agree on who wouldn't be quickly poisoned by the venomous politics of District 5. It's a dispiriting comment on both Miami's black leadership and the capricious gang at City Hall that the choice came down to a smooth-talking lawyer who just happened to be the last man standing at the bell.
Allen's credibility was attacked from the instant he was named, chiefly because he was unknown to almost everyone, including the men who appointed him. The city press release provided only the sketchiest of information -- that he grew up in Miami, is married with two grown children, obtained his bachelor's and his law degree from Southern University in Baton Rouge, teaches classes at St. Thomas's law school, and until his appointment, occasionally mediated code-enforcement cases for the city and the county.
Had New Times been able to sit down with Allen, the interview might have gone something like this:
New Times: So Mr. Allen, what are your plans for District 5? What skills and perspective do you bring to your role as commissioner in the city's most vulnerable neighborhoods? How do you answer critics who allege that, as an appointee, you will be beholden to fellow commissioners rather than your constituents?
Jeffery Allen: ?
Mr. Allen, why do you have a homestead exemption on a three-bedroom, three-bath home in Lake Worth, and yet live in and vote from your mother's house on NW 51st Street in Miami? Public records show that you and your wife, Lauren Young Allen, purchased the Palm Beach County home in 1998.
Jeffery Allen: ?
Mr. Allen, when you briefly ran for a local congressional seat in 1989, why did you lie about your age, your profession, your address, and your party affiliation? You and a dozen other candidates were vying for an open seat to replace the late Claude Pepper. On a résumé you furnished to the media, you said you were a 32-year-old lawyer living at your mother's home, and a Democrat. But when the Miami Herald checked, it turned out you were 33 years old, not a licensed attorney, actually lived in a North Miami Beach apartment, and were a registered Republican. The Herald reporter described your answers as swinging from "contorted confessions to downright denials." You then dropped out of the race. You did become a member of the Florida Bar, but not until 1995.
Jeffery Allen: ?
Mr. Allen, could you explain what happened in 1996, when the Florida Supreme Court granted the Florida Bar an injunction against you for improperly soliciting business from the families of victims of the ValuJet crash? Also, if you can, please explain why the Georgia Supreme Court denied you the right to take the Georgia Bar exam in 2002.
In 1996 the Florida Bar went after several lawyers, including former Miami City Commissioner Humberto Hernandez, for soliciting bereaved family members sequestered at a Miami Springs hotel. In Allen's case, the clincher was a deposition from Bruce Newbold, whose two cousins were killed in the plane crash. Newbold stated that Allen portrayed himself as an attorney who was representing "a large majority" of the black families at the hotel. Newbold told him that his family already had a lawyer, to which he said Allen replied, "Well, we are trying to get all the black families to go with one attorney. There's power in numbers." Newbold also disclosed, under questioning, that Allen intimated he could help with burial costs. Allen really only had one other ValuJet client at the time, according to records.
Allen was also caught on videotape at the hotel by WPLG-TV (Channel 10)'s Jennifer Snell, who was reporting on the brazen ambulance-chasing of lawyer sharks who'd descended on the families. In the broadcast, Snell speaks with Allen, who at first is happy for the free advertising. Then Snell pops the question about his lone client: "Now, did she contact you?"
Allen: "Listen, I don't want to get into that sort of comment. Let's just--"
Snell: "No, no, I'm just trying to figure out how you got in touch with her. Did you come here to the hotel?"
Allen: "No, I'm not commenting on that."
Snell: "Don't you think it is a very vulnerable time for these people? Shouldn't they contact you if they want representation?"
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Allen: "I'm afraid I have to end this conversation."
Snell: "Sir, I think this is a valid question."
Allen walked away without answering the question, which seems to be his first instinct. That disturbed the Georgia Board of Bar Examiners so much they refused to let him take the state's bar exam. His actions in the Florida case, they wrote, "demonstrated a lack of integrity and character." Allen showed "a lack of accountability and candor" in admitting to the facts before the Georgia board. The Georgia Supreme Court sided with the attorneys, stating, "Allen has failed to establish that he is fit to practice law in this state."
New Times: Commissioner Allen, anything to say?