Fool Me Thrice
A few hours before the corporate Christmas party in December 2005, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office came to collect Cliff Berry II. They hauled him off on six felony counts, including fraud, racketeering, and grand theft. Another blow to the Yuletide cheer: The company itself, Cliff Berry Inc., would also face felony charges.Cliff Berry Inc. had been bribing contractors at Miami International Airport since 2001. The money persuaded airport personnel to look away when the company's trucks stole millions of gallons of gas, which it then sold illegally.
By the end of a two-year investigation, 27 arrests were made. The company's president, Cliff Berry II, was the only one acquitted. But this past December, a jury convicted Cliff Berry Inc. on two counts of grand theft and two counts of fraud.
It seemed that after 31 years in business, the Cliff Berry name would never again be trusted at a major South Florida transportation hub.
But the company was remade earlier this year. Trucks got a coat of paint and a new logo for a business called Everglades Waste Removal Services. Aside from the aesthetic differences, the company also got a new leader: Cliff Berry Sr., the 78-year-old father of Cliff Berry II.
That rebranding equaled forgiveness. Port Everglades awarded the new company a waste-removal franchise.
Cliff Berry Sr. wasn't exactly a newcomer at the port. He had begun working there in the '50s, founding Cliff Berry Inc. in 1973. Ever since, his was the company to call when a barge ran aground and started spilling oil near South Florida's coast.
The elder Berry retired in 1995 but stayed on as an officer in the company and had a stake in the profits. Cliff Berry II had just turned 30 when he was made company president. His father turned his attention to Cliff Berry Associates, which handled petroleum products that came to Port Everglades.
Cliff Berry Inc.'s job at MIA was to remove rainwater that had mixed with spilled fuel on the ground of the airport's fuel farm, where aviation fuel is stored before it is transferred to jets via tanker trucks. The company charged the airport a fee — 13 cents for every gallon of contaminated water it hauled away.
In 2003, investigators with the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office were tipped off about another company stealing jet fuel from MIA. Authorities widened their investigation and looked at all the materials being trucked out of the fuel farm. Cliff Berry Inc. was a relatively easy bust: No matter how much or how little it rained in a given month, the company claimed to be hauling roughly 400,000 gallons of contaminated water from the airport.
Investigators needed an informant working inside the operation and found one in Richard Caride, a former Hialeah cop and convicted murderer. Caride was working as operations supervisor for the company that managed the fuel farm. According to court documents, he volunteered that Cliff Berry Inc.'s then-environmental director, Jeff Smith, had been paying him to make sure his company went along with the scheme. That included a shoebox with about $25,000 in cash after Caride said the Cliff Berry Inc. contract at the airport was going out to bid in 2000. Caride told investigators he discovered Cliff Berry Inc. was stealing fuel in 2001, with Smith's knowledge. After Caride objected, he said Smith and Cliff Berry II paid him a visit, with Berry stating "he had authorized Jeff [Smith] to do whatever it takes to make [Caride] happy."
Caride informed investigators that he told the pair to talk to Brian Schneir, a co-worker who later came back to tell Caride they'd be getting a kickback on every gallon of stolen fuel hauled away by Cliff Berry Inc. Smith entered a guilty plea in December, and on February 2, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Jacqueline Hogan Scola sentenced him to ten years in prison. Schneir, who testified for the state against Cliff Berry Inc., got 12 years.
Cliff Berry Inc.'s biggest moneymaker, however, was Port Everglades. After the company and President Cliff Berry II were charged, Broward County commissioners, who oversee the port's budget, ordered an audit. Cliff Berry Inc. was among a few firms with a contract to remove waste from incoming ships. The company would dump the waste into the port's sewer system and then, by contract, pay the port two-tenths of one cent per gallon.
The 2005 audit, however, revealed that Cliff Berry Inc. was dramatically underreporting its gallons of waste. Auditors estimated the port had been cheated out of roughly $230,000.
By February 2006, Cliff Berry Inc. had paid the money back, but the county commissioners refused to renew the company's port contract.
So the following month, Cliff Berry Sr. incorporated Everglades Waste Removal Services, making himself the sole shareholder. He then lobbied the county for the franchise that had belonged to Cliff Berry Inc.
At a commission meeting on June 13, 2006, minutes show that Commissioner John Rodstrom expressed reluctance to grant the new company a franchise at the port, at least until the county had conducted a more far-reaching audit of the old company. "I just want to go back and get the records, and I want to make sure we get all of our money that we're due," he said.
This tested Cliff Berry Sr.'s temper. "I resent Mr. Rodstrom's thinking we did it on purpose," he said. "It's our damned bookkeeping, and it ain't nothing I can do about it, because when you get in computers, these things happen."
Rodstrom said he wanted a more thorough audit of Cliff Berry Inc., and Cliff Berry Sr. said: "Bring your auditors on and let's bury the hatchet."
In speaking for the old company, Cliff Berry Sr. contradicted statements he'd made moments before that he was no longer involved with the company. It seems he had authority to agree to an audit of the company but not to take responsibility for crimes of the company.
Florida law forbids the county from conducting business with a company convicted of a public-entity crime such as fraud. But Cliff Berry Sr. assured commissioners he would run the new company and agreed to include language in his franchise agreement stating it would be void if Cliff Berry II, who was then preparing his criminal defense case, was found to be involved in the new business.
Commissioners voted unanimously to award Cliff Berry Sr.'s Everglades Waste Removal a franchise at the port.
A message left at Everglades Waste Removal was returned by the company's operations manager, Kathy Dalton, who said she was calling on Cliff Berry Sr.'s behalf. She said Cliff Berry II had no role in the new company. She confirmed the new company was using "refurbished" equipment from Cliff Berry Inc.
Asked why Everglades Waste Removal had been granted a franchise to work at the port despite the criminal conviction of Cliff Berry Inc., Port Everglades spokeswoman Ellen Kennedy said, "They're considered two different companies."
On February 2, Judge Scola ordered Cliff Berry Inc. to pay roughly $2.5 million in restitution and fines. The company's attorney, Jonathan Goodman, says Cliff Berry Inc. is "surprised and disappointed with the verdict." Goodman wants another chance to cross-examine those who testified for the prosecution. "The state's main witnesses were thieves who were themselves defendants and who cut deals for themselves at the last minute," Goodman wrote in an email to New Times. He added that star witness Schneir "admitted at trial to perjuring himself numerous times." He said Cliff Berry Inc. plans to appeal.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.