Armed with a pen and notebook, 87-year-old George Volsky climbed the stairs in Coral Gables City Hall the afternoon of August 12. With his thick black eyeglasses and the last of his snowy hair parted to the side, he could have passed for just another Florida retiree. But something was burning behind those glasses.
After seeing the city attorney's office was closed, he greeted the mayor's secretary, a polite, nondescript woman named Olga Garcia. A few minutes later, two armed cops and a police major stopped him upstairs.
One officer explained apologetically they'd been sent to give him the boot. Orders came from City Manager David Brown. The claim: The old man had just harassed Garcia.
That was a stretch. The real reason Volsky was tossed: He's a Goral Gables Gazette columnist who exposed Brown for blowing taxpayer money on extravagant lunches and then backdating receipts to cover himself. "It's ridiculous," Volsky says in a gentle Slavic accent. "There was no reason to remove me from the building."
The former New York Times correspondent, U.S. propaganda maven, and leader in the anti-Castro movement is one of the last of the hard-nosed newsmen from the World War II era. His story pits a combative watchdog against a deceitful politician in one of Miami-Dade's wealthiest burgs — a place that despite its high profile and 42,000 residents rarely receives much media scrutiny.
Volsky's reporting proved Brown and his cronies to be both wasteful and arrogant. He has run investigative laps around reporters a fourth of his age.
Fittingly, he was born in the political petri dish of Warsaw, Poland. His dad was an engineer and his mom a doctor. As an adventuresome 19-year-old, he joined Poland's air force in time for World War II and spent two years as a prisoner of war in Russia. (Volsky declined to discuss details of his history, stating "A man my age needs to make peace with his past.")
After leaving the service, he moved to Havana and married his wife, Mercedes, in 1948. Like most who lived on the island, he at first supported Fidel Castro. But he became disillusioned and led an American-backed anti-Castro plan called Operation Leonardo that was designed to break apart the Communist regime. The Cubans threw him in La Cabana prison for a few weeks after they busted him for carrying explosives.
In 1961, the couple moved to Miami, and Volsky, a writer for the New York Times, joined the ranks of the nation's authorities on the island. In the Times, he contemplated Cuban ties to the JFK assassination a few years later.
Strangely, an anonymous source sent New Times a top-secret CIA report about Volsky from this era. It notes he made a good candidate for "communist penetration agent" and that he "bear[s] watching."
Like many South Floridians, Volsky retired here. (He owns a house on Alhambra Circle worth more than $1 million.) In 2000, he began reporting for the Gazette. The weekly paper covers news, real estate, and arts at a circulation of 11,500 and is arguably the best community newspaper in Miami-Dade. As a columnist, he wrote about the inner workings of local government. He didn't receive any payment for his work, but clearly was bound by a need to investigate.
Soon his eyes fell on Brown. "I know this man from way back," Volsky says. "I know what he's done."
So he began to call out the politician on his screwups. A few years ago, Volsky wrote about a female researcher who said Brown hired her because he wanted to date her. He also criticized the city for its efforts to keep public records from citizens.
Lawmen didn't pick up on his work until this spring, when Volsky found that Brown, who makes $174,570 a year with $85,000 in benefits, had used a city-issued Visa to pay for extravagant lunches at the posh Biltmore Hotel and some of Miami's most expensive restaurants. The meals came at a time when Coral Gables being forced to cut its budget. The lunches in question included filet mignon, fine wine, veal, and swordfish. They ranged from $117 to $241. As of this past March, Brown had charged about $22,000 to the card, including expenses on conferences, hotel rooms, and travel since 2005.
Then came something even worse. By examining suspicious-looking receipts, Volsky discovered Brown had back-dated records to make it appear he had paid for $200 worth of food and wine out of his own pocket in 2006 and 2007. The journalist wrote approximately a dozen columns about the scandal, which tipped off the Miami Herald and TV news stations such as CBS4. Few of the reports credited Volsky.
"I have a great respect for George," says his publisher, Justin Prisendorf. "He knows the rules of journalism and abides by them."
Late last month, Brown admitted in court to violating the state public records law that forbids tampering with such documents. He was ordered to pay a $500 fine plus the $2,100 it took to investigate. Asked under oath why he did it, he responded, "To mess with Volsky's head."
It's not clear exactly what he meant, but he told Miami-Dade Judge Beth Bloom on July 30 he wished he could have "a do-over." (Brown did not return calls seeking comment. His secretary told New Times he was, um, out to lunch when we phoned. Olga Garcia, the alleged harassment victim, also did not return calls seeking comment.)
The police report states that around 2 p.m., Voslky "barged into [Garcia's] office unnanounced" and "began asking questions about her current job transfer." She told him she didn't want to speak about it and then called Brown.
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Another receptionist at the mayor's office, who identified herself as Lily, explains Volsky is seen as a pest around city hall. "He doesn't report the positive," she says. "We call him the National Enquirer reporter."
Outspoken Coral Gables political activist Pat O'Rorke, however, thinks it serves a purpose to have him "digging around." "Boy, Brown keeps giving him material," she says. "This administration needs to get its ego in check. It's time for a new city manager."
Adds Volsky: "People think Coral Gables is squeaky-clean. But it's going down the drain."
The muckraker's next political battle won't take place in socialist Cuba or war-torn Europe. He'll fight this one in the Gables. He plans to contact the State Attorney's Office regarding his removal from city hall. "It's not just an attack on me," he says. "It's an attack on the press."