Inside the Country Club Community Council
On July 23, Sharon Franklin went to the Miami-Dade elections office in the Stephen P. Clark Center in downtown Miami to register as a candidate for the Country Club of Miami Community Council. One of fourteen local zoning boards that approve (or not) applications in unincorporated Miami-Dade, it had been chaired for the past two years by Agustin "Gus" Exposito.
As she walked up to the glass-encased counter where candidates submit their paperwork, Franklin bumped into Exposito, her old nemesis from countless battles. He turned pale on seeing Franklin: "I think Gus was a little shocked to see me," the 53-year-old community activist laughed. "He had this look on his face like, 'What are you doing here?'" Although Franklin has been an irregular attendee at community council meetings, she felt compelled to oppose Exposito, whose controversial six-year run ended when he recently resigned.
"I'm running because I don't like how Gus [does] things," Franklin explains. "He seems easily swayed by developers." But when she saw him, she thought the 41-year-old Gus was filing again for re-election.
Three days later she learned that her opponent in the September 10 vote was not the ethically challenged Exposito, but his employee, Edward Redondo, a supervisor for Exposito's Town & Country Car Wash in Kendall and a reported partner in his Hialeah-based Z-Jeff Roofing Inc. But Franklin feels she's still running against her long-time foe anyway. "I think Gus is doing a lot of things behind the scenes," Franklin said. "I think this guy is going to be his puppet."
But it appears that Exposito's seeming fervent support of developers and builders in his community may have finally caught up with him. His resignation from the Country Club community council came shortly after the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust, the county police's public corruption unit, and the State Attorney's Office launched an investigation into allegations that Exposito had broken the county's Conflict of Interest and Code of Ethics ordinance, and the state's Sunshine Law (which prohibits elected officials from discussing voting matters in private, and from trying to influence officials' votes).
In the past two months, investigators have interviewed witnesses who claim Exposito was trying to get Stuart Arguello, a fellow councilman, to change his vote on a denial of a zoning application by the Capo family, influential West Miami-Dade developers, to build a mixture of single-family and townhouses on a vacant parcel between Interstate 75 and NW 97th Avenue. The project had been voted down 3-2 by the community council. Exposito was one of two council members to vote in favor of the $75 million deal.
Investigators also want to know how Exposito was elected to the council despite having two felony convictions. (According to public records, Exposito was sentenced to eight months in prison in April 1990 for possession of counterfeit Federal Reserve notes. A year later he was sentenced to Federal Prison Camp Eglin for one year for mail and credit card fraud. In addition, he received 36 months' probation and was ordered to pay $2854 restitution for intent to defraud by credit card. State law prohibits convicted felons from holding elected office.)
But investigators refused to elaborate: "I can't comment on investigations that we may or may not be working on," says Robert Meyers, executive director of the ethics commission.
Although Exposito insists he resigned to focus on family and his businesses, his detractors allege he's simply gone underground.
Gus may also be laying low since he's been implicated in the public corruption case against former county commissioner Miriam Alonso and her husband, Leonel. According to court documents, Exposito recanted his statement that he had been paid $3000 for working on the Miriam Alonso anti-recall effort in 1999. When initially questioned under oath by state prosecutors, Exposito said he had received the money as payment for distributing flyers in Country Club and other expenses. The court documents say Exposito flipped his story after a recent meeting with the Alonsos, who told the former community council man that they should all "stick to their stories."
Exposito declined to be interviewed for this story. "I don't want to make the newspapers anymore," he told New Times. "I saw the community council as a way of giving back [to the community], but it's a thankless job. People just want my head on a platter." His protégé Redondo didn't respond to requests for an interview, either. The phone number listed on Redondo's election forms is disconnected.
The Exposito investigation is the latest in a string of scandals and controversies that have dogged Miami-Dade's community council system since its inception (through a voter referendum) in 1996. Sixteen community councils were created to handle requests for zoning variances in the unincorporated area of Miami-Dade, where more than one million people live. (Two councils have since been abolished after residents in Miami Lakes and Palmetto Bay voted to become muncipalities.)
The councils were seen as a way to relieve the Miami-Dade County Commission of a thankless, time-consuming job plagued by insider dealing and back-room lobbying; simultaneously, the change was meant to encourage grassroots democracy by shifting zoning decisions to the neighborhood level.
Each council has six elected members, who have to run every four years. A seventh member is appointed by the county commissioner who represents the district where the council resides. Councils meet once a month to handle requests for zoning changes, and alternate months to discuss local community issues. Members receive $100-a-year honorariums.
In reality the councils represent the last thing Miami-Dade needed: another breeding ground for corrupt and ethically loose politicians who are beholden to the deep pockets of local developers. Since 1996 the makeup of the councils has been dominated by people in real estate and construction. Dozens of council members are realtors, zoning consultants, property appraisers, and roofers, and have had real and perceived conflicts of interest due to their direct or indirect relationships with developers. And most of these people were never elected at all. Of the 88 council seats currently occupied -- 10 are vacant -- 47 members were appointed to fill vacancies. If that's not enough, council members could appoint replacements for colleagues who leave their positions. Thus council members were soon appointing friends and cronies. The county commission passed an ordinance in February giving the commissioner for each district power to make those appointments, instead of leaving it up to the councils.
"There are serious problems with some community councils, and there have been since their inception," says Robert Meyers, executive director of the ethics commission. "I think it's more than a few bad apples, and they are receiving a good bit of attention from our office, the state attorney, and the Office of the Inspector General."
The ethics commission is in charge of enforcing the county's Conflict of Interest and Code of Ethics ordinance. The commission can levy civil penalties against people who violate the ordinance. "Our focus," Meyers explains, "is to look for voting conflicts and [false] residency requirements. One conflict is enough to proceed against a community councilman." The county's inspector general, police public-corruption unit, and the State Attorney's Office focus on the activities of council members who allegedly violate the county ordinance.
There is no question investigators have gone after rogue council members with a vengeance.
In 2000, the ethics commission initiated an investigation that led to the indictment of Manuel G. Vera, a former West Kendall community councilman, and developers Javier Enrique Siu and Robert Vinas. The state attorney brought third-degree felony counts of unlawful compensation, mortgage fraud, and fabrication of evidence against the three men. Vera, a land surveyor, is accused of accepting a $425,000 home from the developers in exchange for favorable zoning approvals of their projects, according to court documents. That case is still pending.
The investigation into Vera, Siu, and Vinas also implicated Robert Curbelo, Jr., Jacqueline Nunes, Wilfredo Garcia, and Gwen Calloway, all of whom served on the council. Curbelo is a residential developer, Nunes a mortgage broker, Garcia an appraiser, and Calloway a zoning consultant. All four have resigned from the council.
The county Inspector General's investigation of Kathy (or Ketly) Achille, who served on the Biscayne Shores council, led to her removal from office in 2000. Achille had given a false address and was not registered to vote. She pleaded no contest, resigned, and served 40 hours of community service.
In July the state attorney's office charged Maytee Dulce Armesto, a former member of the Kendall council, with two third-degree felonies for knowingly falsifying her candidate certification for re-election. Armesto, the sister of Eladio José Armesto, the Take Back Miami-Dade spokesman, could face up to one year in county jail if convicted.
"Gus" Exposito was born on March 16, 1961, according to public records. He and his wife own a single-family home at 6264 Northwest Lane in Country Village. (His father, Agustin D. Exposito, is a member of the Northwest Community Council. I briefly spoke with him at his son's car wash on Miami Gardens Drive. Exposito, Sr. says he is going to resign from the Northwest Council. "Eso community councils son mierda," he said. When asked to elaborate, he clammed up. "It doesn't do me any good to talk to the press," he lamented.)
Exposito, Jr. first caught the attention of ethics investigators in 1999, when Barbara Hagan, president of the Country Club Civic Association, filed a complaint alleging Exposito was talking to developers before zoning hearings. In an affidavit to the Ethics Commission, Hagan said she believed Exposito was meeting secretly with the principals of Oakview Developers, who were proposing a 72-unit townhouse project in Country Club. Exposito was one of five council members who voted for the project, which was approved January 7, 1999. The Ethics Commission dismissed the complaint on September 9, 1999 when investigators could not find probable cause against Exposito. A year later, Hagan alleged in a police report that Exposito was threatening her to stop her from complaining to the EC about his dealings with developers; she also complained to the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) about alleged pollution emanating from his car wash business, behind a Pizza Hut on Miami Gardens Drive and NW 76th Avenue. Miami-Dade police did not charge Exposito, Hagan says, because it was her word against his.
Ironically Exposito abused his power as a councilman to shut down a business rival, according to public records. Using his council letterhead, Exposito wrote letters in July to DERM and to the owner of Hand Car Wash, at an Amoco station on Miami Gardens Drive and 87th Avenue. He wanted to shut the car wash down even though county code enforcers did not find any violations.
"This car wash is an eyesore and causes traffic problems at this gas station," Exposito eloquently wrote. "There is [sic] bad odors coming from the car wash and the employees are hanging up rags and floor mats on the trees.... We hope that Amoco Corporation can correct this situation as soon as possible."
In 1999 several Country Club residents anonymously reported Exposito to the state's Department of Business and Professional Regulation alleging he was an unlicensed roofer. At the time, Exposito's Tech Roofing Inc. was operating using the roofing contractor's license issued to Z-Jeff Roofing. According to public records, the license was under the name of "Annette de Vera." According to state incorporation records, de Vera is listed as sole director of Z-Jeff until 1994. The records also indicate that the corporation was inactive at the time. Last year, they show Z-Jeff as active, and list Exposito as the company's president and sole director. According to state public records, de Vera did not give Exposito permission to use her roofing license to do work for Tech Roofing. She told state investigators that she only authorized use of the license under Z-Jeff Roofing. On October 16, 2000, the state fined Exposito more than $5000 in fines and legal fees for working as an unlicensed roofing contractor.
Meanwhile residents' suspicions about cozy relationships between Exposito and various developers continued unabated. Their suspicions were fanned when Exposito earlier this year asked the EC if he could solicit roofing jobs from developers who had appeared before the council.
On February 15, the EC told Exposito to forget it.
A few months later, the EC, with the Public Corruption Unit and the State Attorney's office, is once again investigating Exposito. This time it's for his overzealous attempt last May to have the Country Club Community Council reconsider its 3-2 denial of the Capo family's residential project -- worth an estimated $70 million, and grandly called "the Bellaggio."
According to witnesses who attended the hearing in the auditorium of American High School, Exposito confronted Stuart Arguello, the swing vote on the council, after the meeting, and tried to get him to change his mind.
"I observed Exposito make efforts to have the matter reheard so the council could change its vote," said Michael Pizzi, a councilman of the neighboring town of Miami Lakes (whose residents opposed the Bellaggio project). "I thought it was unusual that a member would push so hard for an application to go through [after it had been defeated]," Pizzi told New Times.
Arguello, who has since resigned from the council as well, denies that Exposito tried to pressure him: "He just wanted to know if I was sure I knew what I was voting for," he says. "He never wanted me to reconsider or change my vote."
Pizzi, a criminal defense lawyer who often butts heads with developers and special interests, shared his observations with the Ethics Commission and the State Attorney, who promptly began their investigation.
In a letter to the State Attorney and the EC, Pizzi says he observed Exposito demanding that the council go back on the record so the members could change their votes to defer the application instead of voting to deny it. "I noted to the assistant county attorney that Exposito was violating the Sunshine Law," Pizzi said. "I also observed him conferring with the applicant's attorneys and offering assistance." Pizzi additionally claims he heard Exposito tell Arguello that he needed to tell staff that Arguello wanted to change his vote.
Mirtha Mendez, a 54-year-old resident of Miami Lakes, says Exposito stormed out of the auditorium and told Arguello that there had been "a mistake. He told Arguello the council had to re-vote on the application," claims Mendez, who added that she was interviewed by Public Corruption detectives about a month and a half ago. She said Exposito was extremely agitated following the Bellaggio vote.
"He was ticked off the thing was voted down," she said. "I don't think he expected that to happen. You knew which way he was going to vote on the Bellaggio project even before he sat down for the meeting."
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