Across Hialeah in the early morning darkness of October 21, more than 125 people awoke with the same purpose and pulled themselves from bed. Drawn from the ranks of the elderly and the unemployed, they shared a 7:00 a.m. rendezvous and, unknown to them at the time, a full day of "work" ahead of them. Several were infirm and walked with difficulty; for some the outing would be a welcome break from days filled with a steady regime of medical checkups. Arriving by car and foot they converged on the parking lot in front of a boarded-up supermarket in a plaza ringed by shopping centers and apartment complexes in western Hialeah. Those who drove left their cars there for the day.
Three buses idled in the lot on West Eighteenth Avenue and 49th Street, waiting to whisk the group downtown to the seat of county government, the chambers of the Board of County Commissioners, for a public hearing.
Before the commissioners that day was a controversial zoning application. It would determine whether a 360-acre dump near Miami Lakes, owned by a company called Peerless Dade, would be allowed to grow in height from 12 feet to 90 feet. As an incentive the company was promising eventually to build a neighborhood park atop the giant landfill. The deal involved big money and consequently attracted high-powered interest. If the commission voted in favor of expanding the landfill, politically connected backers of the zoning change stood to earn roughly $270 million over 30 years. Opposition to a bigger dump was also fierce, coming from neighborhood associations bankrolled in part by the billion-dollar company Waste Management, Inc. (The Texas-based conglomerate and Peerless are the two largest private landfill firms that dispose of construction and demolition material in Miami-Dade County.)
Although they were organized to favor the Peerless dump expansion, most of those boarding the buses had little clue what they were supporting, and why. What they did know was that they were promised $50. All they had to do was show up.
"We have no idea what this is about," said one woman, who requested anonymity. "This is the way politics are done here."
In Hialeah it is an open secret that people are paid to be instant supporters of politicians and issues. One politician of Cuban origin who is disdainful of the practice says such people often are called claques, Cuban slang that can mean "garbage" or "the lower class." But the practice of manufacturing -- and paying for -- grassroots "support" is so prevalent and long-standing in South Florida that the slur is hardly fair.
On the bus the "instant supporters" were given dark-green T-shirts and baseball caps. Some put the shirts on over the clothes they wore. Others stripped down in the bus, leaving their undergarments behind when they went to the commission. Written across the front of the jerseys in white letters was the slogan "We're for the park." On the back was printed "A park is in our future. Let's work together."
Organizers told the bus riders little about what those sayings signified. They were informed they were assembled to support the noble idea of a park for children. The whole process would take only three hours, one recalls the organizer assuring them. A man who a participant identified as Hialeah activist Carlos "Cuco" Carcas also advised the people in green not to talk to any outsiders once the bus riders arrived. (Carcas says he only helped bring his friends from Miami Lakes, North Miami, and the edge of Hialeah. He denies paying them or telling them not to talk.)
By 8:30 a.m. the three buses had pulled in front of the Stephen P. Clark Government Center; they were joined by another that had fetched people from South Miami and West Miami. In addition a number of employees of Peerless and their families were on hand. They filed into the government center. Only some were allowed into commission chambers, where they filled a far-right section of seats. Because they were so many, others waited patiently on the ground floor for the hearing to begin. Eventually folding chairs were produced for those outside the chambers.
Opponents of the dump also arrived in equal numbers, dressed in white T-shirts that read "Miami Lakes Country: Keep it Clean." Those in white were furious about the possibility of a larger garbage dump in their neighborhood; they derided their green-shirted opponents. We weren't paid to be here, insisted Gerri Fontanella, although some who supported the Peerless effort disputed that claim.
When pressed, participants in green were vague and confused about the relationship between a landfill and a county park. A young man from West Miami who declined to be named explained it like this: "They are going to tear down a park in Miami Gardens and put up a waste dump."
José Garcia from Hialeah had a similar take on their mission. "We want a park instead of a dump," he asserted.
Septuagenarian Ismael Campos from South Miami admitted he didn't really know why they were there but ventured, "We want a park and we don't want the garbage."
Said Flor Beltran: "We are here so they can make more parks."
Offered a woman from Hialeah: "The way it was explained to me is that we are for a park called Miami Lakes and they are against it."
In fact this is a story about much more than a park; it's about lucrative landfills and the companies that run them; it's about the politicians and the lobbyists and the money behind the deals; and it's about the cynical manipulation of the system and of those elderly immigrants who traditionally have been the backbone of Miami-Dade's political machines. During the course of this day's hearing, specific allegations emerged about illegal lobbying, a co-opted community group, hidden financial interests, paid "supporters," and a proposed 368-acre park that opponents allege is an impromptu façade meant to greenwash a toxic-waste dump.
It was Peerless Dade itself that pulled the curtain partially open on this tawdry tale when the company filed a lawsuit in early September against one of the dump's principal opponents, Carl Dasher, in an effort to muzzle him. In depositions taken by Dasher's lawyer, unpleasant facts broke out like a rash that would not go away.
What exactly is Peerless Dade? And who is behind it? The answers are muddy at best.
According to a deposition taken from Peerless Dade president Kevin Kohn on September 28, the company belongs to a Jacksonville-based entity called Peerless Group, Inc. The firm operates under the name Peerless Waste Industries. According to state records, Peerless Waste Industries also goes by the name Eastern of Georgia, Inc., of which Kohn is also listed as president. Oddly enough Eastern of Georgia, Inc.'s address is 1001 Fannin, suite 4000, Houston, Texas. It is the same corporate address down to the suite number used by Peerless's major Miami competitor, Waste Management, Inc. Eastern of Georgia, it turns out, is a subsidiary of Waste Management.
Kohn insists the Peerless Group has no connection to Waste Management. He claims Eastern of Georgia was purchased by another company, which promised to dissolve the name but never did. "Given the confusion we should probably call Waste Management and ask them to dissolve that corporation," he says.
In 1998 Peerless Dade bought the Northwest Miami-Dade landfill from a company called Dade Recycling Center. In state documents the company's address is care of a firm called United Development & Management. According to Kohn's deposition, an employee with United Development and Management is ex-Hialeah councilman Silvio Cardoso.
The former politician had been a star running back for the University of Miami, but as a public official Cardoso had not fared as well. After serving on the council for eight years, he opted not to run for re-election after an investigation revealed he had interfered with an FBI probe into illegal kickbacks. Cardoso earned a reduced sentence by testifying against Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez. Sentenced to 4 years of probation, 1000 hours of community service, and a $25,000 fine, Cardoso left public life and became a successful developer. (Repeated calls to Cardoso's Key Biscayne residence for comment were not answered.)
As part of the landfill sale agreement, Cardoso would receive a piece of future profits if he could get the zoning changed to allow the dump to expand, Kohn explained in his deposition.
Cardoso did not operate alone in this effort. He received help from Herman Echevarria, depositions revealed. Echevarria is a close advisor to Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and Commissioner Miriam Alonso, in whose district the landfill falls. As a Hialeah City Council president, Echevarria was a protégé of Raul Martinez until he unsuccessfully ran against the mayor in 1997. Now Echevarria is a pivotal player in an ongoing political war that pits Penelas and his supporters against Martinez.
Both Cardoso and Echevarria met with county officials to discuss the Peerless effort leading up to the commission hearing. Neither man is registered as a lobbyist with Miami-Dade County. At least one of the people wearing the green shirts believed it was Echevarria who was ultimately responsible for busing the seniors in from Hialeah to support the dump. (Echevarria declined to respond to over a half-dozen phone calls and a list of faxed questions for this story.)
It is unclear exactly what financial incentive Echevarria had in promoting the expanded dump. But in an article in the Miami Herald that appeared on October 22, the day after the commission meeting, Echevarria acknowledged he had a monetary interest in the Peerless deal.
Some residents who live near the landfill think Commissioner Alonso gave backroom support to the deal as well. A year earlier she had been a sponsor of a private bond-financing initiative to raise construction money for the Peerless landfill. Some of her angrier constituents even started a petition to demand her removal from office.
By 1:00 p.m., five hours after the bus riders had arrived downtown, the public hearing on the landfill had still not begun. The greenshirts were growing restless. Some had already eaten the prepared lunches given to them on the buses. One woman joked she felt like a child being taken to school. Lunch consisted of an identical box containing a ham-and-cheese sandwich, potato chips, juice, a cookie, and an apple. Some of the sandwiches didn't even have ham, a few groused. To kill time one woman scribbled on the side of a newspaper the name of a street where they were supposed to live, near the dump. She passed it to other greenshirts so they wouldn't have to say "Hialeah" in the unlikely event they were asked where they resided.
On the first floor Alberto Lorenzo, a political operative who specializes in grassroots campaigns, acknowledged he had taken time from Johnny Winton's election campaign to organize one busload from West Miami. The group was excited about the idea of a new park, he said. "We only [show our support] if we believe in the issue," he insisted.
In a later interview Lorenzo admitted that allowing an expansion of the landfill was a tough call and that some of his friends were on the other side. He denied having a financial stake in the deal and insisted he doesn't give money directly to instant supporters such as the bus riders, though he pays his assistants who help turn out supporters.
The real reason he was at the commission meeting, he confided, was to help his old high school friend Cardoso. "I am very good at mobilizing people and I did that for Silvio," he said later.
Talking with Lorenzo was Francois Illas, the inseparable sidekick of Herman Echevarria. Illas maintained he was just there to have lunch with Lorenzo, but he stayed for the rest of the hearing. Cardoso, Echevarria, and Lorenzo go back a long way. According to state records all three served on the board of directors of a savings and loan called Global Bank that went belly-up in the Eighties.
Also downstairs circulating in the crowd near Lorenzo was Alexander Gomez, vice president of Dade Recycling Center, the former owner of the landfill. Flanked by a publicist, Gomez insisted: "The majority of people here are those who work in the dump and their friends and family."
Lorenzo and Illas led the greenshirts to the ground floor of the government-center food court for another lunch. The seniors upstairs in the commission chambers weren't as lucky; they sat and waited for the hearing, which finally started at 4:19 p.m., nearly eight hours after they had arrived. By that time several of the greenshirts were sound asleep in their seats. Others were talking and laughing loudly in an attempt to keep themselves amused.
Guillermo Olmedillo, director of the county planning and zoning department, opened the hearing. Olmedillo told commissioners that as of the night before, his office had received 1428 protests against the zoning increase and 1193 in favor. The show of support arrived at the last minute. Just the day before, Olmedillo had noted that the numbers were 1306 against and only 2 in favor.
Olmedillo played a crucial role in the history of Peerless Dade's bid to expand.
First he determined the zoning change needed to pass muster with the Developmental Impact Committee, which consists of seven high-ranking county officials. The DIC usually only hears issues of countywide concern, and is also generally viewed as favorable to business. It delivered a 5-1 vote in favor of Peerless Dade.
The vote riled residents fearful of an enlarged dump. Yet what made some neighborhood activists even angrier was the decision to have the county commission, and not one of the fifteen local community zoning appeals boards, hear the application.
Lawyers for Peerless Dade acknowledge they never could have surmounted the residential opposition they would encounter from the community zoning board, whose purpose is to give power back to local communities. Eight months after filing the application, Peerless amended the property boundaries around the landfill to include a right-of-way on NW 170th Street, a parcel of land the company does not even own. (County rules specify that an applicant must only prove ownership of 75 percent of the land they wish to have rezoned.) With the inclusion of the right-of-way, the application area now covered two zoning-board territories. Olmedillo thus decided the hearing should be held by the county commission. Because of perceived influence peddling, outraged residents believed members of the county commission would be more disposed to favor the company's petition.
After Olmedillo introduced the zoning petition, Al Cardenas, chairman of the Florida Republican Party and chief lawyer and lobbyist for Peerless Dade, strode to the podium to start the company's presentation. He began by explaining the waste in the landfill would be odorless construction and demolition material. He then announced a team of stellar legal and professional help who would deliver the case for the dump. The all-star group included Jack Luft (former development director for the City of Miami), a landfill consulting firm, and several traffic experts, among others. Cardenas also introduced co-counsel from the powerful Washington, D.C., law firm Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand, which counts among its members former senators Bob Dole and George Mitchell. Yet during the course of the hearing no one from the firm spoke. Santiago Echemendia, co-counsel from Cardenas's law firm of Tew, Cardenas, Rebak, Kellogg, Lehman, DeMaria & Tague, declined to detail exactly what the influential beltway firm accomplished for his client. He commented cryptically: "Sometimes you need powerful lawyer-lobbyists to do business in Miami-Dade County."
But there was more. Cardenas also introduced nine letters from the construction industry, including the Latin Builders Association and the Association of the Swimming Pool Industry of Florida. He added four glowing testimonials from people who use a landfill that has been converted into a park in Broward. Then he offered Peerless's "community support," and an alleged agreement between the company and a political-action committee called North Dade Citizens Association (NDC).
"I would like to acknowledge those in the green shirts and white caps who are here in support of us," Cardenas informed the commissioners. Those in the white T-shirts laughed and catcalled in response while Commissioner Katy Sorenson, acting chair of the meeting, banged her gavel to restore silence. "Also with us here today are Mr. Willy Hernandez and Frank Serra," continued Cardenas. "They are residents of the project's neighborhoods and they are board members of the North Dade Citizens Association. They will discuss their support for the project, including the settlement agreement and resolution of support."
Cardenas made it clear he would counter any allegations of manufactured support for the zoning change with accusations of his own. In particular he alleged there were forgeries in the 1288 petitions from dump opponents. "Our forensic document examiner has found that there are at least four persons who account for a total of 37 different petitions," he claimed, among other charges. (The team never used the expert. Peerless's counsel, Santiago Echemendia, said that because of the late hour, the examiner had to leave before she could testify.)
He also laid out the undeniable reality that the county is rapidly running out of landfill space for construction and demolition material, a fact that will have broad economic implications.
Cardenas then moved to the pearl of the Peerless plan. "The ultimate conversion [of the landfill] to a park is probably the highlight of our presentation," he told commissioners.
By the end of the landfill's estimated 30-year life span, the company planned to deed the entire 368-acre tract to Miami-Dade County for a park, which would feature baseball, softball, and soccer fields, tennis courts, basketball courts, and miles of paved trails for biking and walking. In addition the company would create a trust fund of up to five million dollars to help maintain the park. As Peerless Dade completed different sections of the landfill it would turn them immediately into parkland so residents wouldn't have to wait the full 30 years. The first section would be ready in five to seven years, Cardenas estimated.
It quickly became apparent, though, that the county attorneys had not had time to study thoroughly the gift they were being offered. After some probing from Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, County Attorney Robert Krawcheck explained that under the Peerless plan, it was possible the county could get stuck with cleaning up a polluted landfill, or lose the promised five-million-dollar trust fund for a park if the deal fell through.
"Is this [park promise] worthless?" Diaz de la Portilla asked.
Krawcheck responded: "In some respects it could be worthless."
By this time many in the Peerless camp had had enough. A number of the greenshirts were in open rebellion. They had been sitting in the commission chambers for almost nine hours straight. One lady fretted her son wouldn't know where she was. Many of them didn't speak English and couldn't follow what the speakers were saying. Instead of listening they talked loudly among themselves, and the lawyers representing Peerless in the front row continually glanced angrily at their "supporters."
At one point Cardenas walked back and exchanged sharp words with one of the women. "Miss, you are here to help us. Please be quiet," he said sternly. "If you don't want to be here, leave."
So some did. About a dozen or so departed the commission chambers soon after, at about 6:30 p.m. They boarded one of the four buses waiting outside the government center. By the time they returned to Hialeah, nearly twelve hours had passed since they had first set out.
Shortly thereafter William Hernandez, vice chairman and a founding member of the North Dade Citizens Association, began reading from a prepared speech. Hernandez had originally opposed the landfill, but changed his mind after Peerless Dade promised to restrict truck access, plant trees around the site, and agree to a citizens review board. These concessions and others formed the basis of an agreement ironed out with the company and approved by eight executive board members of the NDC. Hernandez trumpeted the park as a $30 million asset for the community. It would be called a Christmas park.
"We know that is a good deal for all," he concluded.
Close by, Carl Dasher's attorney Robert Gilbert lay in wait. (Dasher was one of the founders of the NDC; his vehement opposition to the agreement led Peerless to throw a SLAPP suit at him.) Gilbert questioned whether all eight members had in fact approved the deal. "According to my conversations, they gave me the right to enter into that agreement," Hernandez responded. "If they have changed their mind, it is news to me." (Later one of the eight would claim she and her husband, also a board member, had never approved it.) After Hernandez came Frank Serra, another executive officer of North Dade Citizens Association. Serra appeared nervous and read haltingly from his statement. He praised Peerless for giving something back to the community and related how happy he would be to play with his daughters in the Christmas park. "For many years they will be proud that their father made this decision," he said.
Gilbert approached the podium and asked whether Serra had attended a meeting with Cardoso, Echevarria, and Peerless president Kohn.
"Um, please elaborate," Serra requested.
"Sir, did you attend a meeting for approximately three hours on approximately August 25, 1999, on which you negotiated a settlement agreement?" Gilbert asked.
"I cannot answer the question because I haven't spoken to my counselor," Serra replied. "I feel like I am on trial here or something. Aren't we going to talk about the application?" The whiteshirts jeered.
It was now nearly 8:00 p.m. The commission took a break and the rest of those who had come from Hialeah headed for the buses. They were replaced by more greenshirts, many of them workers at the landfill and their family members. When the hearing resumed, some of the greenshirts came forward.
Stephen Helfman, an attorney representing the dump opposition, asked one: "Were you paid anything to be here today? Were you promised anything in exchange for being here today?"
"They don't have to pay me anything," responded Ramon Diaz. "It is a good project. Anyone who was interested in the benefit of the community would have come forward."
On the dais Commissioner Miriam Alonso fidgeted. After the testimony of two more pro-dump supporters, she spoke. "May I say something on the record?" she began. "I have the highest respect for Mr. Steve Helfman, but I deeply resent the question that was posed to the gentleman that was here before. In all the years I have seen zoning, I have never seen the question 'If you are being paid' and I really feel that because this person seems to be poor and Hispanic, maybe he was asked that question ... and I deeply resent that."
Helfman responded quickly. "That is very personal and absolutely untrue," he said hotly. "I have it on good information from several people during the day that several of these people wearing green shirts have been paid to be here. So I think it is only fair to ask at least one of them."
Shortly afterward Helfman continued: "Your lawyers have raised so many issues I don't know whether they will ever see a park," he exclaimed. "Forget about the park."
Helfman then made an impassioned plea for the commissioners to look at the money at stake, the real reason behind all the lobbyists and their presentations.
When Dasher attorney Robert Gilbert took to the podium, he continued in the same vein. He pointed out that in the financial disclosure, those involved with former dump owner Dade Recycling Center had not disclosed their interest despite having a written agreement whereby the company would receive "a substantial financial windfall" if the zoning were changed.
Lawyers for Peerless argue that Dade Recycling has no equitable interest in the landfill so technically they don't have to disclose the sales agreement.
But Gilbert wasn't done. He also alleged undisclosed lobbying. "[Cardoso and Echevarria] represent the interests of Peerless Dade," related Gilbert. "These two gentleman met with senior members of the county staff in connection with this application. Your file of lobbyists bears no indication that Mr. Cardoso or Mr. Echevarria have registered as lobbyists."
In September and October, Echevarria and Cardoso met with both the acting director of public works Aristides Rivera and the director of planning and zoning Guillermo Olmedillo. Both men sit on the Developmental Impact Committee. Rivera had lunch with the two in an unnamed Brickell-area restaurant, he testified in a deposition. Echevarria called him up, Rivera recalled, "to get acquainted with the DIC process."
According to Olmedillo's deposition, Echevarria and Cardoso met with him for fifteen to twenty minutes in his office. Anyone who enters the eleventh floor to get to the director's office will see a black sign reminding lobbyists they are required to register with the Clerk of the Board of County Commissioners. Olmedillo says he didn't ask the men whether they were lobbyists or even what role they had in the Peerless deal.
Olmedillo also said in the past three months he had met with Echevarria on another zoning issue. According to the county clerk's office, neither Echevarria nor Cardoso is a registered lobbyist for Peerless or any other company. According to Robert Meyers, executive director of the County Commission on Ethics, the two men's actions would be illegal if it could be proved they worked as lobbyists, and that they were trying to convince staff to work in favor of the dump proposal. "It is a fine line, no question about it," says Meyers.
Back in the commission chambers, at about 9:30 p.m. the residents in white T-shirts began emotional testimony. When told to keep to two minutes, infuriated activists rebuked commissioners for trying to hurry them along. After more than an hour, a weary Cardenas approached the podium one last time. He expressed regret that his client had ever pursued an agreement with the NDC and a lawsuit against Dasher. (Lawyers for Peerless say they are seeking a settlement.)
After the testimony Miriam Alonso again spoke.
She complained that antidump activists who assumed she was supporting the zoning increase had distributed her home phone number and that her husband, recovering from multiple bypass heart surgery, was forced to listen to slurs and angry commentary from constituents. "It has been ugly because of lies and accusations and offenses, and even threats of recall have been sent back and forth," she complained. "I want to put on the record that I will judge this application on the merits, on the facts presented today."
At 11:20 p.m. Alonso offered a motion to deny the application. Those who had assumed the commissioner would support the Peerless effort believe she realized that opposition was too strong and the rezoning request would lose. Then Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, in one last-ditch move to save the application, offered a feeble attempt to postpone the vote. "We have been criticized for taking decisions at this time of the hour," he said weakly. "I would like to be able to digest and sleep on a lot of this information and defer the item. I think the public has gone through a lot...." The commissioner's voice trailed off as his colleagues looked on, perplexed. Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla waited a moment and then seconded Alonso's motion. The other commissioners present followed and the application was rejected 9-0.
Peerless Dade has not yet decided whether to appeal. According to one source close to the company, if it appeals the firm might use a strategy suggesting the commission's decision was not valid because Alonso could not give an impartial vote under threat of recall.
When the first busload of supporters returned to the parking lot in Hialeah, they made an unpleasant discovery: Their cars had been towed. Posted in four locations around the parking lot were signs reading: "Customer Parking Only. All others will be towed at owner expense."
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Carlos "Cuco" Carcas, who was there to meet them, frantically used his cell phone to locate the cars while angry senior citizens yelled obscenities at him. One sign at the entrance revealed Magic Towing to be responsible, and eventually Carcas discovered the company had the cars. Carcas insists the signs were not there in the morning. "Personally I considered it to be a lack of respect," he comments. One participant places responsibility for the towing on Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez. Many in Hialeah credit him with possessing omnipotent powers, and under this logic he had the cars towed to strike against his political enemies: Herman Echevarria and Silvio Cardoso.
Ivan Del Pino, manager of Magic Towing, says the signs had been posted there for weeks, and that the company announced through flyers that it would tow from the lot. He says Carcas appeared the next day to pay for the release of five of the fifteen cars. In the following days, according to one participant, Carcas paid off the elderly supporters. (He denies this.)
The cars never should have been there in the first place, the towing manager believes. "I know who [Cuco] is," says Del Pino. "I'm sure [he] should have known. We sent flyers over to the Building of Commerce and there are a lot of commissioners['s offices] there."
In the end it is unlikely that efforts to rezone the dump will stop here. There's too much money involved, and Miami-Dade needs landfill space to continue to grow. And certainly the manipulation of the elderly, like so many chessmen to satisfy the hidden interests of the wealthy, won't disappear anytime soon either. Yet it's possible that some "instant supporters" involved in the Peerless Dade effort might choose to stay in bed next time around. "It was an abuse of the elderly," reflects one angry retiree.