On opening night of Miami Book Fair International in October, former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz scored the gig of the weekend: interviewing Tom Wolfe onstage about his new Miami-set novel, Back to Blood. Before a packed house of power players and literary cognoscenti, Diaz set himself up as an independent thinker who had transformed his city from banana republic to world-class metropolis.
That's the same story Diaz told a few days later inside the Freedom Tower, where he read from his own new opus, Miami Transformed: Rebuilding America One Neighborhood, One City at a Time. The book — described by the Miami Herald as a concise case study of how a poor, crime-ridden, and economically stagnant medium-size city can be swiftly changed — paints a glowing portrait of Diaz's eight-year tenure on Dinner Key. The tome even begins with a foreword by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
It's no coincidence that Diaz — a lawyer who parlayed his role in the Elián González saga into the mayoral seat from 2001 to 2009 — released the book fresh off a big role in Barack Obama's local re-election effort, including a gig with the first lady at an October rally and a starring role in an anti-Romney TV ad. Insiders say a switch from independent to Democrat might not be far off as Diaz eyes a return to politics.
"Manny's name always comes up as a Democratic candidate for some major office," Republican political consultant David Custin says. "He can raise money, he was mayor of a major city, and has a good national profile."
Too bad Miami Transformed is the worst kind of self-promoting propaganda, riddled with omissions, distorted facts, and outright lies about his administration. The book brushes over Diaz's key role in approving the financially catastrophic new Marlins Park, his neglect of the black community, and his laughable police force.
"He makes himself sound like Moses," says Dan Ricker, publisher of the Watchdog Report and longtime observer of Diaz's administration. "He doesn't address anything negative. His biggest omission is not acknowledging any of the mistakes he made."
Lest the snow job work, let's revisit the four biggest whoppers in Miami Transformed. Diaz didn't return calls to talk about the book, so we'll let his writing speak for itself:
Erasing City Manager Joe Arriola from history: I wanted people who were not about to embed themselves in City Hall for 20 or 30 years. I wanted people full of energy and passion for change, committed to public service, who would be with me for as long as I could hold them, before they moved on (pg. 91-92).
A self-made millionaire entrepreneur infamous for blunt outspokenness on civic boards, Arriola was handpicked by Diaz in 2003 to be city manager. Soon, Diaz, Arriola, and Commissioner Johnny Winton became bosom buddies who steered the city's agenda. By March 2006, the trio also became business partners, pooling their money to buy a one-acre Coconut Grove estate for $1.3 million.
Of course, the deal was rife with conflicts of interest, because Diaz had the power to fire Arriola. Also, the deal just happened to occur at the same time Arriola and Winton were pushing to give the mayor a $53,000 annual raise. A year later, the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission sharply rebuked the mayor, writing that every act he took in his public capacity could be called into question by the existence of this conflicting relationship.
Diaz's friendship with Arriola fell apart shortly after another searing scandal later that year. This time, it was the revelation that the two men had held a secret meeting in May 2004 with Hank Adorno, a lawyer representing seven residents suing the city over its fire fees. To avoid paying everyone in Miami a refund, Diaz and Arriola surreptitiously agreed to a $7 million settlement. When that deal leaked, it was struck down by a Miami-Dade judge and Arriola was forced to resign in June 2006.
Astoundingly, Diaz's book doesn't mention Arriola a single time, aside from a brief thank-you in the acknowledgments.
Arriola, for one, couldn't care less if he's been erased from Diaz's revisionist history. "God bless him for writing a book," Arriola tells New Times. "I have no intention of buying it or reading it."
Whitewashing John Timoney's record: Miami deserves the best chief of police, and we succeeded in finding him. John Timoney's impressive character was reflected in how he managed the police department and how he earned the trust of those in every community in Miami (pg. 132-133).
While Diaz saw Timoney as a crime-crushing Batman, many Miamians viewed him more as the villainous Two-Face. During the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) negotiations, Timoney trampled on the Constitution by unleashing 2,500 cops in riot gear against 12,000 mostly unarmed protesters. The cops used rubber bullets, shields, batons, concussion grenades, and stun guns to unleash a hurting denounced worldwide by human rights groups.
Then, in 2007, New Times published an investigation titled "America's Worst Cop," revealing that Timoney had taken 30 taxpayer-funded jaunts around the world, from Belfast to Los Angeles, staying at posh hotels such as the Mandarin Oriental. He was out of town for at least 138 days, not counting vacation, during the four years and nine months he was chief, charging taxpayers more than $28,000 for his trips.
During his tenure, Timoney also lost the confidence of 4,520 police union members, screamed "Fuck the Cubans!" at an Ocean Drive magazine party, and accepted a free Lexus SUV from a Miami auto dealer and then lied about it. The ethics commission later fined him $500 plus $342 in administrative costs because he didn't disclose the SUV gift, and the city docked him a week's pay of $4,348.
Timoney also butted heads with the city's Civilian Independent Panel, a watchdog agency set up to investigate police misconduct. Timoney flat-out refused to turn over records related to the Lexus.
"I saw some positive things," says Janet McAliley, the CIP's former executive director. "But I also saw the negatives, especially his handling of people in the streets during the FTAA and his dislike of civilian oversight boards."
The Miami Marlins' new ballpark: There is no doubt that our unprecedented investments served to strengthen our neighborhoods, create jobs, increase property values, and lower taxes. It also became evident that for Miami to continue growing, investments in other large-scale projects in the urban core would be necessary (pg. 155-156).
For years, Marlins Park was a pet project for Diaz, who became a major architect of the final deal for the $560 million stadium in Little Havana. A year before the deal passed in 2009, an ecstatic Diaz told the Herald the neighborhood was due for a "major economic boost."
"Wouldn't it be great to have baseball and soccer and shops and restaurants — a place to sit down and have a beer with friends — in that neighborhood?" he added.
Everyone knows how that turned out. Taxpayers have been saddled with $2.5 billion in debt service over the next four decades. The 37,000-seat stadium, which Diaz swore would transform Little Havana, has had a laughably tiny impact.
The Marlins ended up ranking dead last in first-year attendance of any new ballpark in the past decade, drawing an average of only 27,400 fans per game. And that economic prosperity that Diaz pledged is nowhere in sight. Northwest Seventh Street is still a stretch of low-rent markets and cantinas with iron bars on the windows. The 53,281 square feet of retail shops on the first floor of the stadium's garages didn't attract a single tenant during the season.
Now that the Marlins have traded away their best players and slashed payroll, there is no reason to expect a renaissance anytime soon. And to top it off, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is still investigating the city for allegedly lying to bond holders.
Peter Ehrlich, a Miami property owner who cofounded the activist group Scenic Miami, says Diaz outright deceived taxpayers. "When it came to supporting stupid decisions that were contrary to common sense, Manny Diaz was the biggest cheerleader."
Diaz's affordable-housing record: Part of the problem was that the city's affordable-housing efforts relied on people who couldn't get the job done, who had no experience building anything... Some projects went as far back as the 1980s, with nothing built on the land (pg. 107-108).
Diaz boasts in Miami Transformed that his administration secured $1.1 billion in affordable-housing projects by the time he left office. What he doesn't mention are the serious housing scandals that erupted under his nose.
In fact, his regime so mishandled affordable housing that it sparked the Miami Herald's award-winning "House of Lies" series, which reported these findings, among others:
• In Overtown, the city had paid almost $1.4 million between 1997 and 2007 to B.A.M.E. Development Corp., a nonprofit connected to a local church, which proposed to build 40 houses for the poor. After years of delays, the group ran out of money and the city tore down the unfinished homes at a $45,000 cost to taxpayers.
• In Coconut Grove, the city failed to collect on a $272,000 loan given to a shopping center developer 22 years earlier. Nearly a dozen other borrowers were in default for years, some even decades, including a federal magistrate who did not repay a $1.9 million loan he owed the city for 20 years.
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• A $1.1 million debt owed by Diaz's campaign manager, Al Lorenzo, went unpaid for more than a decade until Diaz's administration forgave the loan, which was meant to fix up 61 low-income apartments in Overtown and Wynwood. Most of the buildings fell into disrepair and were eventually torn down at the city's expense.
Then, in late 2003, Diaz's city government cut a new deal with a company owned by Lorenzo's business partner, Salomon Yuken. He received an additional $1.2 million loan, some of which he used to pay down Lorenzo's old debt and unpaid property taxes. Yuken claimed he would use the rest of the money to build 30 houses on the Overtown lots.
Today the properties remain barren, the city has initiated foreclosure proceedings against Yuken, and Lorenzo walked away without paying back a dime.
Max Rameau, a former Miami affordable-housing activist who led a homeless takeover of vacant city-owned land during Diaz's administration, says the ex-mayor's efforts priced out poor residents. "Manny Diaz's assertions that he did something positive for affordable housing is appalling. Instead of building houses and apartments that low-income people could afford, he wanted to provide publicly subsidized housing for the middle class at the expense of Miami's poorest citizens. It is really galling for someone who was significantly responsible for creating the real estate devastation in Miami to take credit for creating affordable housing."