If the Suits Fit
The city hall in Hialeah Gardens is inherently ugly. But the tiny building's boxy concrete walls also are sullied by a garish, headache-inducing coat of sickly pink paint, with dark turquoise accents adding a further affront to the senses. Even transporting such horrendous colors into the City of Coral Gables would probably invite a stiff fine. Unattractive as the structure is, what goes on indoors, both on the city administration and police station sides of the pink pillbox, can be far uglier.
And in March 1998, in the mayor's office, the ugliness was reaching its nadir.
Mayor Gilda Cabrera Oliveros emerged from her office and handed a four-page document to her assistant, Robert Godwin, ordering him, he says, to make 100 copies. Godwin knew the temperamental mayor had been stung by a recent anonymous memo that had appeared within city hall. Titled "Corruption? You Decide," it lambasted the mayor for her "steady pattern of conflicts leading to lawsuits." It also criticized other politicians, staffers, and Police Chief Harold Keith Joy, whose political support for Oliveros, the document claims, had helped him get the chief's job, despite his criminal record. As far as Godwin knew, the critique was largely on target. Especially about the lawsuits.
As Godwin made the copies (wearing clear plastic food-service gloves to cover his fingerprints, as the mayor had instructed) he examined the document Oliveros had given him. It was called "Corruption in Hialeah Gardens, Chapter 2," and the torrent of salacious gossip it contained left Godwin stunned: Chief Joy "will sleep with anything when drunk." The mayor's secretary would "rendevoz" [sic] with former Hialeah Mayor Julio Martinez. Carmen Caldwell, a Hialeah councilwoman who then worked for Hialeah Gardens's crime prevention program, had "turned lesbian" with Ofcr. Debbie Collins Kidwell, then the Hialeah Gardens Police Department's emergency management coordinator. Another cop was accused of sleeping with a secretary, who in turn was bedding the city clerk; two other city employees were doing it in a broom closet; several male police officers were said to be having "homosexual sex" with one another.
Godwin himself was smeared, which didn't surprise him; the mayor had often expressed her disgust and contempt for his open homosexuality. In the memorandum, she wrote, "And Roberto Goodwin [sic], a gringo with a Cuban Soul, why does he like Cubans, because his long time affair is [city council member] Miguel Haddad." The mayor had also included a couple of paragraphs about herself, a sly attempt to count herself out as a possible source for the memo, Godwin deduced.
After he made the copies, he gave them to another city hall employee, paralegal Manuel Carrera, to mail out to Hialeah Gardens voters. The letters were sent. Godwin says he felt bad about helping propagate this filth, but he did it out of the curious blend of loyalty and terror Oliveros commands from her employees. "I was afraid of her," he says simply. Although she would not agree to an interview, Oliveros, in response to faxed questions from New Times, denies writing "Corruption 2."
After all, sending out a lascivious memo might be stepping dangerously close to libel, but Godwin says he had already broken several Florida laws under orders from Oliveros: He worked on her 1997 mayoral re-election campaign, using the city hall office and supplies, and collecting contributions from local businesses, all during his regular work days as an hourly employee of the city. He adds he did the same thing for Councilwoman Lucy Valdes in her 1998 campaign against Miriam Alonso for a seat on the Miami-Dade County Commission -- again, he says, at the behest of Oliveros, who served as Valdes's campaign treasurer.
County records reveal further suspicious behavior on Godwin's part that suggest the possibility of voter fraud. According to voter-registration rolls, Godwin, who now resides in Hialeah, twice changed his registration to an address in Hialeah Gardens, just in time for the mayoral and city-council elections of 1997 and 1998. In his first "move," the Hialeah Gardens address was the single-family home of a high-ranking city employee.
Godwin's explanation: He has never lived in Hialeah Gardens, but he changed his registration so he could vote in that city's elections. Why did he participate in such blatant vote fraud? Because Mayor Gilda Cabrera Oliveros ordered him to do so, he asserts.
According to Godwin, after a consultant for the city told him "the mayor doesn't want you here anymore," Godwin left the city offices for the last time in May 1999. Soon thereafter he filed a federal employment-discrimination complaint against the city. He won't be the first, or the last, to make a federal case against Hialeah Gardens. From the time Oliveros became mayor in 1995 to the present, eleven current and former employees have sued the City of Hialeah Gardens. Some, like Godwin, worked in the city administration. Most, however, were police officers or civilian employees of the police department. Their suits concern capricious, arbitrary, and retaliatory demotions or transfers, often based on race or gender discrimination.
Recent police lawsuits also have involved current Police Chief Harold Keith Joy, whom Oliveros appointed to the job in 1995. Two officers who served under him point out that not only is Joy unfit to be chief, he might not even be fit to be a cop. Why? Because of his well-known felony record. In 1992 Joy was charged with drunk driving, battery on a police officer, and resisting arrest after an alleged altercation with a City of Hialeah officer who pulled him over while Joy was off-duty.
Two of the cases concern actions taken by the administration that preceded Oliveros's re-election to mayor in 1995. But those cases dragged on into her current tenure, and where her behavior is not the substance of the complaint, her intransigence has exacerbated whatever problems existed. "She's totally irrational," says one Hialeah Gardens police officer who asked not to be named. "She's the reason the city keeps getting its ass kicked in court."
Only two of the eleven cases have ended without some cost to the city. Hialeah Gardens has either struck monetary settlements with the remaining plaintiffs, or, in three instances, suffered jury verdicts against it: one for more than $300,000, the other two totaling about $100,000.
Yet Oliveros's administration continues to attract litigation. In addition to Godwin's departure, two former city hall employees who worked closely with the mayor quit this year and are preparing to sue the city. One of these, former secretary Nattacha Amador, filed a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint soon after she left, though she declined to be interviewed for this story. The other ex-employee asked not to be named before her suit is filed. But both of these sources describe the same belligerent behavior that Godwin alleges, adding that the mayor's frequent disparaging comments about blacks offended them as Afro-Cubans.
The portrait of Oliveros that emerges from their descriptions, those of other current and former city employees, and the content of several of the now-closed federal suits against the city, is one of a petty dictator who flouts Florida law and bullies anyone who crosses her. The stack of suits against the city, which has its awards and court costs paid out of an insurance policy with the Florida League of Cities, doesn't appear to faze her. With apologies to Carl Hiaasen, Hialeah Gardens looks like the home of the real "Mayor Loca."
Hialeah Gardens, a city of some 18,000 souls, has borders that resemble three triangles jutting out from the southeastern edge of Okeechobee Road. Much like its namesake and neighbor to the east, Hialeah Gardens has evolved from a sparsely populated, semirural Anglo community into an ever-denser suburb in which the citizens are overwhelmingly of Cuban descent.
Gilda Cabrera Oliveros, now 50 years old, is a high school graduate and mother of two, who first entered politics in the city in 1987 after winning a seat on the city council. (At the time she was married to Aldo Oliveros, but they divorced in 1992.) Unlike in Hialeah, where all council candidates run in one election and the top five vote-getters win seats, Hialeah Gardens aspirants and incumbents vie for individual seats. But like Hialeah it has a strong mayor who is elected separately and who works, without a city manager, as the chief administrator of the government, with the power to hire and fire city staff. This is essentially the same system commissioners in the City of Miami are asking voters to approve in November.
After a tenure on the council that most characterize as steady but unremarkable, Oliveros accomplished a truly remarkable feat. In 1989 she ran for mayor and won, becoming the first Hispanic female mayor of any city in the United States. Even her critics don't have much to say about her first two terms as mayor, though some who knew her then say she would show flashes of her later infamous temper. And she did earn notice for regularly wearing short skirts and low-cut tops to council meetings.
In 1994 she remarried, wedding Angel Ramos de Corzo and changing her name to Gilda Cabrera de Corzo. They divorced in 1997, and she resumed using her first husband's name.
Neither her new name nor her sartorial flair nor her policies were enough to keep her in office. In 1993 she lost the mayoral election to George Hameetman. But she didn't stay down for long, spending the next two years running an auto-tag agency in the city with her friend, Rosa Levy, then mounting a successful campaign to recapture the mayoral seat in 1995.
That election was fraught with mudslinging and backbiting, some of which referred to the employee complaints the city had begun to accumulate under Hameetman's short reign. After her victory Oliveros filed an eleven-count complaint against Hameetman with the State Commission on Ethics, charging that Hameetman had walked off with city property when he vacated city hall. (The commission threw out the charges.) The litigation far from ended once Oliveros took over. Hameetman's police chief and political ally, Glenn Sime, sued the city in state court when Oliveros fired him and replaced him first with interim chief Angel Lopez, then with Harold Keith Joy, who remains chief to this day.
Oliveros moved to consolidate and increase her power, convincing the five council members to amend the city charter and extend the mayoral term from two years to four. In 1997 she won re-election as the city's first four-year mayor. In 1998 the Florida League of Cities appointed her chairwoman of the Criminal Justice, Ethics and Personnel Policy Committee.
Many of her former employees find this appointment risible. Robert Godwin joined her staff in early 1996 as the "council's assistant," then became assistant to the mayor. As the 1997 mayoral election approached, he says, he realized keeping Oliveros in office was part of his job -- in apparent violation of Florida election laws.
"Myself and other employees have been sent, during city time, to pick up checks for her, to make deposits into her campaign account, to pick up campaign signs, to get proofs of campaign signs," recounts the stocky, goateed 36-year-old with a shaved head. "The majority of her employees worked diligently on her campaign on city time."
He adds that much of Oliveros's campaign literature from the 1997 election, including handbills and mailers, was produced within the walls of city hall, on the city's computers, printers, and copying machines, most of it by the mayor herself. Two other ex-employees confirm that Godwin and other city staffers regularly worked on Oliveros's election campaigns on city time. Oliveros denies she ever ordered city employees to conduct campaign work during business hours.
The mayor's alleged illegal activity, and Godwin's admitted part in it, didn't stop there. Before the 1997 mayoral election, Godwin says, he planned on moving from his mother's home in Hialeah to an apartment in Hialeah Gardens, but wasn't going to move in time to vote in the mayoral election. Godwin says the mayor gave him a voter's registration form to sign, which he did; he later learned the address on the form was that of Oliveros's neighbor, Hialeah Gardens parks director Ricardo Vasquez. County voter-registration records show he was indeed registered to vote from the Vasquez home. Godwin says he never lived at that address, and that when he voted in the 1997 election (for Oliveros, of course), he still resided in Hialeah. (Godwin claims several other people, at the mayor's urging, engaged in similar voter fraud. But the registration history of a half-dozen or so people he named does not show clearly suspicious change-of-address patterns.) Oliveros denies asking anyone to change their registration into or out of Hialeah Gardens.
Again Godwin claims he acceded to the mayor's orders out of fear. "When she became mayor [the second time], it was like you gave her this ultimate power, and she became this humongous monster. 'I'm unbeatable, I'm unchallengeable, and I can do whatever I want.' She has commented that Fidel Castro is nothing compared to her. That she rules stronger than he does, and that the city belongs to her."
Godwin's life of crime did weigh on his conscience, he says. But what drove him to leave the office in May was the continual verbal abuse from Oliveros, and her clumsy retaliation against him when he dared to display disloyalty. "She has a mouth like a barmaid," Godwin says. "She'd say, 'You have to do this, porque esa me sale de la papaya,'" he says with disgust. (The phrase translates to, "because it comes out of my pussy.") "She called me maricon de playa [faggot from the beach]. She'd always ask me if I was having trouble sitting down because I'd been having sex the night before. Just very unprofessional."
After his supervisor told him the mayor "didn't want him around," Godwin spent three weeks in the hospital for what he calls "a nervous breakdown." Once he pulled himself together, he hired an attorney and filed a discrimination complaint with the federal EEOC. The complaint makes no mention of election-law violations or voter fraud. He does charge that the mayor discriminated against him as a homosexual; that she forced him and others to participate in a Santería ritual; and that his transfer out of the mayor's office amounted to "a constructive discharge," a bit of legalese that means he was jerked around so much that any reasonable person would have walked.
Oliveros, through her attorney Harriet Lewis of Adorno & Zeder, declined to comment for this story. Lewis describes the salient points of the city's response to Godwin's EEOC complaint: Godwin "had some problems in his ability to perform his work," and when he was transferred out of the mayor's office, some "homosexual pornography" was found in his computer. She adds that he was never discriminated against because of his sexual orientation, and maintains he was never asked to leave the city, but that he simply stopped showing up.
Godwin and others allege Oliveros's bigotry is not limited to homosexuals. On more than one occasion, according to three sources, she has declared that "her" city is no place for black people. In 1998 the Thunderwheels of Hialeah Gardens roller-skating rink held a series of "Soul Nights," heavily advertised on Power 96 (WPOW-FM 96.5), which attracted a crowd of mostly black teenagers. A former city employee remembers that some of the kids became unruly the first couple of nights, prompting Manuel Carrera, a paralegal in Oliveros's office, to "start using the word nigger."
"He said, 'What you have to do is take these molletos out of the city,'" the ex-employee says, using the derogatory Spanish term for blacks. The mayor's reaction, according to this former staffer? "She said she did not like having those people 'darkening' her city, because she did not want to have a riot," the ex-employee says. "She said they should go have that Soul Night in Liberty City, Overtown, Opa-locka, or Carol City, because she said black people cannot afford to go to a nice place to spend money."
In response the mayor's office issued a memorandum castigating Carrera for using the word molleto, and stating that no such discriminatory terms would be tolerated. This same ex-employee found the memo ironic, bordering on laughable. She and another of her co-workers who are of Afro-Cuban descent, often were subjected to racist comments from Oliveros, she says. The EEOC complaint from former secretary Nattacha Amador, who quit in June 1999, includes a charge of discrimination based on the fact that her mother is Afro-Cuban. Amador would not comment for this story.
Attorney Harriet Lewis says the mayor "vehemently denies" she has ever discriminated against black people, or made racist comments.
Deborah Collins Kidwell is smoking Marlboro Reds in the Florida room of the Davie home she shares with her husband, a cockatoo, and five dogs. One of the dogs, a small white terrier mix, sleeps on the leather couch next to her.
A 43-year-old Miami native with powder-blue eyes and graying, wavy blond hair, Kidwell drags on her cigarette, describing how she came to join the Hialeah Gardens Police Department in 1987. After enlisting in the Coast Guard in the Seventies and doing a five-year hitch, she bounced between maritime jobs and law enforcement before joining Hialeah Gardens' 30-member force as a patrol officer.
"It took me less than a week to say, 'What the hell have I gotten myself into?'" she says. But, since she had already left two jobs after less than a year, she didn't want to get stuck with a reputation for being unable to finish a probationary first year with any department. "By the time the year was up, [the Hialeah Gardens Police Department] had made me so mad, I had decided to stay and be a pain in the ass," she declares, giving a long, hard laugh.
Kidwell became one in a long line of cops to sue the city of Hialeah Gardens. And like most of them, she's gotten paid, albeit not very much. The current recordholder for whipping the city is Diane Scrima, former secretary to the police chief. In 1997 a jury found the city had messed with her duties, hours, and working conditions so egregiously they ordered the city to pay her $294,000; the mayor herself was ordered to pay $27,000 in punitive damages. (The actual amount was settled on appeal; Harriet Lewis says that, under the settlement agreement, the mayor's payment was dropped.)
Kidwell has sued the city twice, once in 1989 (for sexual harassment; the case, which was filed when Oliveros was a councilwoman, was settled), and again in 1997 (for gender discrimination and retaliation; she won a jury verdict of roughly $32,000).
Sitting among her dogs, Kidwell describes how one of Chief Harold Keith Joy's predecessors, Glenn Sime, had promoted her to sergeant in 1993; when the other sergeants protested because she was a woman, he suggested a lateral move to detective, with the same pay as a sergeant. She accepted, but the other sergeants were still angry. (At the time George Hameetman was mayor.)
"I'm appointed a detective September 24, 1993, a Friday. When I came in Monday, [Sime] told me I was no longer a detective. I'm back to being an officer." She complained to the federal EEOC in October; within ten days, she says, she was immediately switched to the midnight shift. "That's a violation of our [Police Benevolent Association] union contract," she says. She promptly added a retaliation charge to her complaint.
Kidwell (known then as Debbie Collins) continued doing her job while she waited to receive her right-to-sue letter from the EEOC. By the time Gilda Cabrera Oliveros won back the mayor's seat in 1995, Kidwell still hadn't heard from the EEOC. And though her complaint was rooted in the actions of the previous mayor and police chief, under Oliveros and Joy nothing changed. She also heard some disturbing news through the grapevine.
"I got word that I had been followed and surreptitiously videotaped, for no apparent reason other than nastiness, starting in 1992 [when Gilda was mayor the first time around]," she says, patting a stack of VHS tapes on her lap. Another officer discovered them in 1995, and gave them to Kidwell, she says. In one of the earlier tapes she's shown pulling into the parking lot at Hialeah Hospital in 1992. "When I came out from my doctor's appointment -- I'd fallen during a burglary investigation, and I had bulging discs in my neck -- I came out and I had two flat tires. They videotaped me arriving, and videotaped me standing there looking at my slashed tires. Gee, why didn't they get the guys who flattened my tires?"
She says she knew who made the tapes: Antonio "Tony" Sanchez, who, by 1995, had been hired full-time as a police officer in Hialeah Gardens. At the time the tapes were made he was a reserve officer: what Kidwell calls "an unofficial spy-boy" for the city and Oliveros. Kidwell says Sanchez has admitted to her he made those tapes and slashed her tires, and that he had conducted the surveillance. Kidwell guesses that at least some of the tapes were intended to prove she was faking her injury in order to get paid time off.
Kidwell told Oliveros about them, and went to the mayor's office for a private screening. What they watched was footage showing Kidwell going to and from her Broward home, talking to her neighbors, and walking her dog.
The mayor's take on this? "She turned to me," Kidwell recalls, "and said, 'You know, I used to be very jealous of you because you were single and did all these exciting things, but you're very boring.'" The mayor denies ordering the surveillance.
Kidwell, while she remained at the rank of officer, did get new duties as the city's emergency management coordinator in 1996. She also began writing grant applications for the city, many of which were accepted. In 1997 the EEOC finally issued her right-to-sue letter. Kidwell retained William Amlong, a Fort Lauderdale employment attorney, and proceeded to sue.
Her lawsuit was eventually combined with that of Cathy Thurman, who had been a lieutenant under Sime but resigned owing to pressure in 1994 (before Oliveros's re-election); she, too, was suing because of gender-based discrimination and harassment. Kidwell held on longer, but in March 1998, Chief Joy booted Kidwell out of her nine-by-twelve foot office in city hall into a five-by-five foot office in a satellite station. She left under the Family and Medical Leave Act for three months of unpaid leave. And once again the city started videotaping her at her home. Kidwell says the city provided her attorney with more surveillance tapes of her (at least one dated after her medical absence expired and she was no longer a city employee) during the discovery process for her lawsuit.
"Every time they did something stupid that we could add to our lawsuit [like videotaping her, moving her to a smaller office, failing to promote her for four years], we'd be like, 'How could they continue to be so stupid, and when are they going to get caught?'" she asks incredulously. In February 1999 a jury found in favor of both Kidwell and Thurman, awarding some $110,000 to the pair.
Tony Sanchez, the same cop who allegedly shadowed and taped Kidwell, now is himself suing the city and the police department. Sanchez had risen as high as captain, but after a verbal confrontation with Chief Joy, he was busted to lieutenant, then reassigned, and eventually suspended with pay, confined to his home during working hours. He filed suit in 1997, contending that he was discriminated against because he was Cuban, and that Joy had unlawfully changed his work assignments as retaliation for perceived disloyalty.
Despite the success Kidwell, Scrima, and others have had in court and in settlement negotiations with the city, neither Oliveros nor Joy seem to have learned anything from their numerous spankings.
Harriet Lewis, who has represented the city, Oliveros, and Joy in many of these suits, notes the earlier wave of lawsuits emerged immediately after a change in administration, and that Oliveros's "progressive" approach involved restructuring some jobs and cutting others. She points out that, beyond the hefty Scrima, Kidwell, and Thurman verdicts, the city has paid out no more than $5000 to any individual plaintiff. "I agree with you [that it is a lot of cases]," she says, "but in such a small city, the rumors fly, and there's a lot of getting on the bandwagon. I just don't think they all realize where the bandwagon's going."
Another attorney says most of these conflicts could have been resolved before becoming lawsuits. "Part of the problem is that Gilda is stubborn," says José "Pepe" Herrera, a Miami trial lawyer who served as city attorney for Hialeah Gardens from March 1995 to February 1996. "When she gets you in her sights, that's it."
William Amlong, the Fort Lauderdale employment attorney who represented Kidwell and Thurman, echoing three other attorneys contacted for this story who had litigated against the city during Oliveros's tenure, couldn't find any good reason for the city not to have settled the Kidwell and Thurman cases. He chalks it up to Oliveros's irrational obstinacy. "You go into Hialeah Gardens, you're through the looking glass," he says. "And Gilda is the queen: 'Off with their heads!'"
Neil Chonin, a Coral Gables attorney who represented Diane Scrima, concurs. "There's a real abuse of power going on over there," he states. "In my client's case, [Oliveros's behavior] cost the city something like $320,000, not including attorneys' fees."
Testimony from the Sanchez case, which is still pending, touches on an incident that continues to be an embarrassment, both to Joy and the city as a whole. In February 1992 then-Captain Joy drove his pickup through an intersection in Hialeah. A Hialeah cop followed him, eventually into Hialeah Gardens, and pulled him over for speeding. At first Joy would not get out of his car as ordered, the police report states. When he did he became belligerent, allegedly shouting, "You don't know how bad you're fucking up!" The Hialeah cop smelled alcohol and noted that Joy appeared intoxicated, and he asked Joy to submit to a sobriety test. Instead Joy allegedly took a swing at him. The two scuffled, and the Hialeah officer arrested him.
Joy was charged with battery on a police officer, driving under the influence, and resisting arrest. After two years of court proceedings, he eventually pleaded no contest to resisting arrest and was placed on probation for a year; the other charges were dropped. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement placed his certificate on probation, where it remained until March 1999. In 1994, shortly after he entered his plea, then-Chief Glenn Sime fired him. The civilian Joy went to work on Oliveros's election campaign in 1995. After her victory she brought him back as a police officer, and appointed him chief later that year.
Pepe Herrera, then the city attorney, says now he thought it was a mistake appointing Joy to that position while his certificate was still on probation. He shared that opinion both with Joy and Oliveros. "I told Keith, 'This is the wrong thing for you. It's not smart,'" he says.
The little city with a chief who has a criminal record keeps piling up litigation by cops, which has not escaped the notice of the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) president John Rivera. The influential union head can't help but express his frustration with the slew of officer complaints and lawsuits from the tiny department.
"Every time the PBA calls up there, we get stonewalled, and my guys suffer from it," he sighs. "We'll try to fix it the nice way first, but we're getting ready to punch them in the nose with some grievances. The city's playing games with the contract, and engaging in retribution and punishment."
When he tries to resolve some of these matters in conversations with Oliveros and Joy, Rivera says he encounters "a lot of finger-pointing." The mayor blames the attorneys, who blame the chief, who blames the attorneys. But Rivera knows where the ultimate responsibility lies. "This is a mayor who [the PBA] supported, and overall she's not a bad person, but it seems like there's a fuse burnt out in her head."
The eventual outcome of the pending litigation against the city cannot be predicted. Neither Tony Sanchez nor his attorney, Miami's Cristina Saenz, would comment on his case for this story. Saenz also is representing former city staffers Robert Godwin and Nattacha Amador, and did confirm that she will be filing lawsuits based on their employment-discrimination and harassment charges.
As for the voter-registration fraud and campaign-finance violations Godwin has alleged, state and county authorities already are on the case. Ivy Korman, the chief vote-fraud investigator with the Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections, has looked into Godwin's moves in and out of Hialeah Gardens, flagged the pattern as suspicious, and "passed that information along," she says. She won't say to what agency, but Godwin confirms that Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents visited him in mid-August.
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.