Ricardo Brutus, the garrulous 31-year-old nephew of North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre, swaggers down a narrow hallway on the second floor of a gritty building just south of Opa-locka Boulevard. Elections are only a few weeks away, and Brutus has been currying favor for Uncle Andre.
Suddenly, a half-dozen cops, badges out, lunge from around a corner. "Hands up!" they shout.
That was March 25. After months of taped phone calls and surveillance, Brutus would be charged with trying to extort money in exchange for political favors. It was the most shocking case in a long chain of alleged criminal and unethical behavior linked to the mayor, yet Pierre barely seems to notice. He's a powerful second-termer after winning re-election in May. "We've all been waiting for six months for Pierre to be arrested, and it's tearing this city apart," says Jacques Despinosse, a former city councilman.
It's time for State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle to step up and indict Pierre already. According to public records and interviews, Pierre not only has established links to the Brutus case but also:
• tried to give away the city's best asset, the huge undeveloped Biscayne Landing property, to a firm owned by his former law partner and campaign manager based on a ludicrous plan to build an indoor ski slope;
• rolled around town in a borrowed $100,000 2010 Porsche Panamera without reporting the ride as a gift;
• ordered his police chief to spend $4,000 on dozens of realistic-looking fake police badges for his cronies and authorized $8,000 for another cop's company to bug city hall offices with video cameras; and
• helped steer more than $160,000 in city cash to two businessmen whom he represented as an attorney without disclosing the relationship.
About 60,000 people call North Miami home, but the town punches above its weight in Dade's ethnic and cultural scene. Idyllic Oleta River State Park lies inside its borders, as does the Museum of Contemporary Art and Florida International University's Biscayne Bay campus. Twenty years ago, Haitian immigrants began settling en masse west of Biscayne Boulevard, soon dwarfing the white population, which dominates nearer to Biscayne Bay. One-third of voters in North Miami are now Haitian. In 2001, they helped anoint Joe Celestin the first Haitian-American mayor of any significant American city.
Two years ago, that crown passed to Pierre, a handsome lawyer with sleepy eyes and a muscular jaw line. He was born in 1969 in Arcahaie, a town of 100,000 on the coast north of Port-au-Prince, and lived in Haiti until he was 14 years old, when he emigrated to Long Island.
Pierre, who didn't return three calls seeking comment and an emailed list of questions, was a good student, graduating from the New York Institute of Technology and working three years as an engineer before moving to Miami to study law. He made his mark soon after graduating from the University of Miami in 1997, earning a glowing Miami Herald profile for helping Haitian immigrants.
When he announced his mayoral candidacy in 2009, many supporters backed the well-spoken outsider. Pierre took challenger Frank Wolland to a runoff and beat him, thanks partly to controversy when his campaign signs were scrawled with racist slogans.
"A lot of Haitians respect Pierre," says Marleine Bastien, director of Haitian women's organization Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami and a former U.S. House candidate. "He comes across as a very smart man with a lot of charisma."
Or at least he did, until he took office. The first warning sign was his handling of Biscayne Landing, a 193-acre former Superfund site near NE 151st Street and Biscayne Boulevard that is now home to a hulking 397-unit apartment complex. In April 2010, he backed a plan to let a company with no visible cash develop an indoor ski park there.
Why support such an idiotic idea? Well, the firm's president was Marc Douthit, Pierre's former law partner; and its vice president, Willis Howard, was his campaign manager. Pierre has denied any influence over the deal. "I didn't make any calls. I didn't lobby anyone," he told the Herald. "Nothing here is questionable."
Pierre doesn't seem the kind of guy to be exposed with such a conflict. He spent weeks flying back and forth from Port-au-Prince after Haiti's devastating earthquake in January 2010 and helped raise more than $100,000 for relief. But then he raised hackles in the city by sitting on the money for almost 12 months. When he finally gave it away, $16,000 went to a local charity not registered with the IRS — not the Red Cross, as the city had originally promised donors.
Then there is the midnight-blue Porsche, which the Herald first noticed after residents began asking questions. When the paper questioned him about the ride, the mayor said a local chiropractor named David Kidd had lent it to him. Kidd denied this, though, adding Pierre is "not [a] close friend."
The real hammer fell this past March 25, when Brutus was charged with felony unlawful compensation. An undercover video released by prosecutors illustrated why — and left unanswered questions about the mayor.
Footage from a hidden camera shows Brutus taking $3,500 in cash on January 26 from Shlomo Chelminsky, a local landlord who had asked Brutus to pull an item from the city agenda the night before. Chelminsky casually asks Brutus whom the money is for. Brutus answers, "I gotta take care of everybody." The commission is "money hungry," Brutus adds, and the mayor knows about everyone "taking money on the side." Although Brutus denies on camera paying the mayor himself, Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents later watched Brutus enter Pierre's law office with a white envelope they believe was stuffed with cash, according to a surveillance report. He left empty-handed.
After his arrest, Brutus spoke openly with police. He accused some of Uncle Andre's key allies — Councilwoman Marie Steril and Councilman Jean Marcellus — of wrongdoing. Brutus claimed Steril had rigged a $5 million bid to benefit a friend, a charge she denies. He also alleged he bought Marcellus a plane ticket to Haiti "as a gift." Marcellus has admitted taking the ticket but says it wasn't a bribe.
Amazingly, Brutus's sordid case didn't hurt Pierre at the polls. On May 9, he took 52 percent of the vote to win a second term. (Interestingly, a racist incident propelled his campaign: Pierre's wife caught a rogue supporter of white candidate Carol Keys calling her a "nigger" on video three weeks before the vote.)
Since Pierre regained the mayor's office, two new charges have already been leveled.
In August, the Herald reported that Pierre's city manager had paid $5,000 to a radio show for 12 minutes of content that likely never aired. The show was produced by a company owned by Brutus's fiancée, Sarah Bertrand.
And just two weeks ago, the Herald caught Pierre using a city reception room to hold a graduation party for the wife of a supporter. Pierre didn't pay for the room and authorized overtime for a cop to guard the affair.
New Times has uncovered a third questionable deal by Pierre. In September 2009, records show, the mayor began representing business owners Jean Cerenord and Hamler Noel, who were negotiating to purchase Moca Café, a restaurant just down the street from city hall, from previous owner Kitt Marcellus.
"Andre Pierre was absolutely representing them," Marcellus says today.
Why does that matter? Because in May 2010, Pierre cast the swing vote to steer $10,000 to Cecibon Productions, a firm owned by Cerenord and Noel. Then, on December 14 — after the pair had completed the purchase, though they were fighting Marcellus over payments in court — Pierre voted to give a whopping $145,000 in Community Redevelopment Agency cash to Moca Café's new owners to expand the restaurant.
Pierre never told city officials about his relationship with Noel and Cerenord, according to city Councilman Scott Galvin. "At the very least, the rest of the city council should have been made aware that the mayor had a connection to these men," says Galvin, one of two white members on the five-person council.
As accusations have mounted against Pierre, long-simmering racial tension has boiled over in North Miami. A radio host paid to air Kreyol-language reports by the city was accused earlier this month of egging Haitians to oppose a "white" plan to raise taxes, while Pierre's supporters have argued that anti-Haitian racism lies at the root of the mayor's critics.
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At the city council's meeting last Tuesday, white and Haitian residents accused each other of racist attacks during a public hearing session. Pierre, sitting at the center of the council dais, looked calm through the chaos, but when the meeting adjourned, he bolted from the chambers like a champion sprinter.
Will he be able to continue outrunning criminal charges as well? Rundle's biggest ongoing political case, against Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, fell to pieces last week. Prosecutors are likely gun-shy, especially about indicting a sitting mayor in a racially charged city.
Rundle's foot-dragging is fueling the race-baiting and antagonism in North Miami. "We just can't spend two more years waiting for him to go to jail while the economy dies and our city suffers desperately," Despinosse says.