Look Who's Talking
One chunk of the Florida Statutes was created with the notion that all public-policy making should be conducted not behind closed doors but in the open. It's known as the Government-in-the-Sunshine Law, and it prohibits two or more members of the same elected or appointed board from discussing a matter that may foreseeably come before that board for action. It's a Floridian's best assurance that what you get is what you see: no backroom dealing among elected officials, just good, honest, above-board government for the People.
Unfortunately, in Dade -- and this may come as a total surprise --he law is violated about as often as the speed limit. But you'd never know: Nobody ever seems to get caught. "When it's a secret meeting, it's secret," explains Joseph Centorino, chief of the Public Corruption Division of the Dade State Attorney's Office. "There's nothing that prohibits elected officials from meeting. The problem is the content of the conversations. To prove a violation, you have to have someone who was participating in the conversation, or a tape recording, and that's not easy to come by."
Recently, though, three Miami Beach officials got nabbed for talking behind the public's collective back. The guilty: former Miami Beach Housing Authority commissioners Elena Rosales, Michael Schneider, and Johnny Wayne. Centorino says this was only the third case he knows of in which the Dade State Attorney's Office has filed charges for Sunshine Law violations.
The investigation began in 1994, after Wayne confessed at a Housing Authority Commission meeting to having violated the Sunshine Law a year earlier. He said he had met privately with fellow commissioners in 1993 to discuss the appointment of David Nevel as executive director of the housing authority. Nevel assumed the post on October 8, 1993, with a unanimous vote by the five-member board, replacing long-time chief Murray Gilman. The vote was taken without any debate. (The other two board members were Harry Mildner and Howard Galbut.) "Somebody who had been in the position for eighteen years was replaced at the meeting where there was zero discussion: On its face that's a serious violation," Centorino declares. "There's exactly no explanation given to the public why this change is happening. That goes right to the heart of the Sunshine Law."
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Seen as one of the city's so-called power boards, the Housing Authority Commission wields considerable clout. It oversees an $18 million annual budget, as well as all the public-housing properties and federal public-housing subsidies in Miami Beach. The commissioners, all of whom serve voluntarily, are appointed by the mayor. with selections ratified by the city commission.
According to investigative documents at the State Attorney's Office, Wayne, Rosales, and Schneider had discussed Gilman's removal among themselves during the months prior to the October 8 vote. Wayne told investigators he also discussed the upcoming vote with Nevel, who was the housing authority's salaried attorney and special-projects coordinator before being chosen executive director. Wayne claimed he and Nevel had hatched a plan: Wayne would help persuade Rosales to support Nevel while Schneider would work to secure the vote of Mildner.
One alleged discussion took place during the summer of 1993 at Wolfie's, the landmark Miami Beach deli owned by Nevel and his father Joseph. Schneider, Rosales, and Nevel were in attendance. Centorino documented Wayne's version of the meeting: "Wayne said that Nevel had invited the commissioner to lunch and that the issue of Nevel's appointment was the subject of some offhand discussion. Wayne said Nevel initiated the discussion by stating, 'We here got to get that guy [Gilman] out of here. You see what he's doing to me?'. . . Wayne said there was no direct discussion regarding any upcoming vote to replace Gilman, but that it was understood by all present that Nevel was actively seeking Gilman's job, and that he wanted their support."
Wayne told Centorino that once he and Nevel had corraled the necessary three-vote majority -- his, Rosales's, and Schneider's votes -- they all made plans for a vote on October 8, 1993. In explaining the unanimous vote, Wayne told Centorino that the other two housing commissioners, Galbut and Mildner, had gone along with the majority to provide a cohesive front.
Early in Centorino's investigation, Wayne agreed to wear a body bug and lure Nevel and the other commissioners into conversations that might elicit evidence to corroborate his allegations. When these efforts failed, Centorino decided to subpoena the commissioners.
Rosales and Schneider admitted to having had private conversations with Wayne and with one another regarding Nevel's appointment. As for the Wolfie's meeting, their statements diverge: Rosales told Centorino that Schneider broached the subject of Nevel's appointment; Schneider denied that anyone discussed the topic.
Nevel himself admitted to Centorino that he had individually lobbied the commissioners for the job of executive director but denied having discussed the issue with more than one commissioner at a time. "When questioned about whether he had informed any of the commissioners that he had been promised the support of other commissioners, he stated, 'No. I would have been coy A in other words, they would have asked me, and I would have said something like, I think I have the support,'" Centorino wrote. "He denied saying anything to any commissioner for the purpose of conveying a message to another commissioner." (That would have been a violation of the Sunshine Law.)
During questioning, Nevel also cast doubt on the credibility of Wayne and Rosales. He said Wayne had "turned against him" when he refused to hire a friend of the commissioner's, and claimed that Rosales became "vindictive toward him" when he rejected her requests for "personal loans and other favors" after she became commissioner. (Rosales is a public-housing tenant; one of the authority's commission seats is always occupied by a tenant.)
The assistant state attorney concluded that Wayne, Rosales, and Schneider had committed violations of the Sunshine Law. Rosales and Schneider had been granted immunity in exchange for their testimony, and were charged with noncriminal infractions A the most severe charge at the state's disposal. Wayne did not receive immunity but was charged with only a noncriminal infraction owing to "his high level of cooperation and to provide parity between him and the other offending commissioners," as Centorino explained in his memo. None of the commissioners contested the charges. Wayne and Schneider were ordered to pay a $250 fine, and Rosales, who is indigent, completed about 25 hours of community service, the prosecutor says.
Centorino stopped short of charging Nevel. "As an attorney who had advised the Housing Authority on Sunshine Law issues, Nevel arguably bears some responsibility for a deeply flawed decision-making process," the prosecutor scolded in his memo. No law prevented Nevel from lobbying individual commissioners, Centorino noted, provided he didn't act as a communications liaison between them. Centorino felt Nevel's admission of being "coy" may have been "indicative of a lack of care on his part [but] does not prove that he acted as a conduit to promote illegal communications."
As for the controversial Wolfie's lunch, Centorino found that if a discussion about the commission had taken place, it was "apparently unplanned and disjointed and may not have been initiated by Nevel." Wayne's and Rosales's testimony may be "impeached" because of their deteriorating relationships with Nevel, he added.
Wayne resigned this past September after nine years on the board. "I resigned because there was too much backroom politics," he comments. "I don't think anyone has ever gone public like I have. Do you know how many times there have been Sunshine Law violations down there? It goes on all the time! It's a joke!" He says he blew the whistle on himself because he was disgusted by what he calls David Nevel's "master plan: He built up a feeling that Murray Gilman stood in his way to achieve great results for the Housing Authority," explains Wayne, a 58-year-old public relations consultant and long-time Beach resident. "This was political manipulation to take over the housing authority to do with it what he wanted."
Nevel resigned his post this past October. His departure had nothing to do with the investigation, he says, but rather with his desire to re-enter the private sector. (He now serves part-time as the Housing Authority's project and program-development counsel.) "I consider [the state attorney's finding] to be a complete exoneration of me, as if one was even needed," he proclaims. "The [accusations were] basically just an attempted smear by a couple of commissioners and were the result of my refusal to knuckle under."
Centorino is pleased with the results of investigation even though the court was restricted to meting out small civil penalties. "I would not classify this as a nonserious violation," he declares. "It may seem like a minor thing, but these are people who are for the most part upstanding citizens in the community, and for them to be charged with any kind of infraction by the State Attorney's Office is difficult for them to swallow. It made people notice that there is a Sunshine Law and it had a powerful effect." He pauses, then adds, "You have to hope it did.
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