Meet the Candidate, Now Call Your Attorney

Merrill Crews is the Republican Party candidate for the Florida House of Representatives in District 119, which encompasses a large portion southern Miami-Dade County. His campaign brochure features a picture of him with his wife and children, and a second snapshot of him with the family pet, a black Labrador named Deuce. They are the images of a serene, stable family man.

The brochure also stresses Crews's professional background, including his tenure as the chief executive officer of South Miami Hospital from 1979 to 1991. It lists his current occupation as executive director of the Humane Society of Greater Miami. "I have the business and leadership background to make a difference in the issues that most affect our district," Crews writes in the handout.

His campaign literature could use a little updating.
In August Crews was asked to resign his post at the Humane Society after board members concluded that his two-and-a-half year stint with the organization had been a dismal failure. Hired with the specific goal of raising money to build a new shelter, Crews failed to bring in any significant contributions.

Even more distressing are allegations by Humane Society employees that Crews was both verbally and physically abusive to them. One former employee, Flora Campos, claims he made bigoted and sexist comments. Another former employee, Ernesto de Palacios, alleges Crews assaulted him. And a third former employee, Nancy Fickett, says she was fired by Crews because she complained that animals at the shelter were being abused.

The allegations made by Campos, de Palacios, and Fickett have cost the Humane Society nearly $100,000 in settlements and judgments, according to court records and knowledgeable sources.

Crews's relationship with South Miami Hospital also ended on a sour note. According to various sources, he was forced out in 1991 amid allegations he was having a scandalous affair with a member of the hospital's staff.

Getting people to talk about Merrill Crews -- who is running against incumbent State Rep. John Cosgrove in next month's election -- is extremely difficult. Under the terms of confidentiality agreements he demanded from both South Miami Hospital and the Humane Society, officers of those two organizations are barred from discussing Merrill Crews's job performance or the reasons for his departure. "Unfortunately I am prohibited from talking to you about him," says Betty Amos, president of the Humane Society. "We have a resignation agreement that prevents me from saying anything." A spokeswoman for South Miami Hospital cited the same reason.

Even people who claim to be his friends are leery of talking about him openly for fear of saying something that might incite his quick temper. They describe the 59-year-old Crews as a throwback to Miami's redneck past, and as someone who is uncomfortable with what he perceives to be the takeover of Miami-Dade County by immigrants.

"Crews is from the old school," says a person who has known him for several years. "He doesn't understand the rules when dealing with women. He calls them 'honey' and 'dear' all the time. He makes remarks he shouldn't make about both women and minorities." This person claims to have been present when Crews made sexist and "racially insensitive" jokes. "He thinks nothing of it," says the source. "He's just a good ol' boy."

He survives in his jobs by charming his bosses and intimidating his subordinates. And he is said to have a rare talent for accomplishing both with relative ease. Eventually, though, his conduct catches up to him.

When Crews applied for the job at the Humane Society in 1995, questions about his behavior at South Miami Hospital followed him. According to a source familiar with Humane Society operations, Crews was remarkably candid about the problems he had at the hospital. He told board members he had been separated from his wife and became involved with a woman who worked at the hospital, according to the source. When he decided to get back together with his wife, he claimed the other woman tried to destroy him by accusing him of sexual harassment. Soon their affair became public knowledge and he was forced to resign.

Very little was written about Crews's departure from the hospital. Medical Business, a South Florida bimonthly journal covering the health care industry, wrote in April 1991 that after a monthlong internal investigation into unspecified charges, Crews resigned. An attorney for the hospital told the publication that the investigation centered on what the journal described as "Crews's administration of the hospital."

A source within the hospital industry maintains that members of the hospital's board of directors "were very surprised and disappointed" in Crews's affair with a member of his staff. "The board was concerned that it would blow up in their face and they would end up in court with a sexual harassment complaint," says the source, who added that Crews never seemed to comprehend that his actions were wrong and that he placed both himself and the hospital in a terrible position. "He doesn't quite get it when it comes to issues of ethics and conflict of interest."

Today Crews claims he departed South Miami Hospital simply because he "realized it was time to leave." But he refuses to elaborate. "I'm not going to comment on that," he says. "That deals with my family. Have I made some mistakes? Absolutely."

Believing the problems he experienced at South Miami Hospital were isolated incidents, the Humane Society hired him because the organization believed he could raise the five million dollars it needed to build new headquarters in South Dade. Almost immediately, however, Crews was facing new accusations.

Flora Campos had been with the Humane Society since 1994, working in the accounting department. She claims that when she was hired, she was promised a promotion within a year to comptroller and chief financial officer. But after Crews took over as administrator in 1995, he hired someone else as CFO.

She complained that she was being discriminated against because she is a Hispanic woman. After making her feelings known, she alleges that Crews initiated a campaign to harass her and drive her out of the Humane Society. "Merrill Crews is a pig. Period," spits Campos. "There is no other word for him. He has no respect for anyone. He hates blacks. He hates Hispanics. He treats people terribly."

Crews denies he harbors any animosity toward minorities, and he notes that the majority of employees at the Humane Society are black and Hispanic. "I am not prejudiced against any person in this world," he says.

In 1996 Campos filed a charge of gender and ethnic discrimination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Because of the stress she claimed she was under, she went on sick leave for two months. During that time, the EEOC contacted the Humane Society and Crews in an attempt to investigate. According to Campos's attorney, James Greason, Crews was furious when he learned of the EEOC complaint and ordered Campos's office cleaned out. When Campos returned from sick leave, she found her office empty and her personal belongings missing.

Crews says as far as he was concerned, she had abandoned her job while she was on sick leave and was no longer working at the Humane Society. Attorney Greason claims it was retribution.

Told she would not be allowed to resume her job in the accounting office and could instead be given other assignments around the shelter, Campos officially quit in April 1996 and filed a second EEOC complaint alleging wrongful termination. While still investigating Campos's initial claim of gender and ethnic discrimination, officials at the EEOC referred her latest complaint to the Miami-Dade County Equal Opportunity Board, a local council empowered by the state to hear employee grievances.

Earlier this year the board held a hearing and ruled that Crews's actions were tantamount to a retaliatory firing of Campos and ordered the Humane Society to pay her $56,000 in back wages and $9000 in attorney fees. The Humane Society is appealing the board's ruling in state court. In the meantime, the federal EEOC determined Campos's original allegations had merit and gave her a "right to sue letter" -- the first step in filing a discrimination lawsuit against an employer. In April Campos filed suit against the Humane Society in U.S. District Court. The case is pending.

Crews's temper cost the Humane Society several thousand more dollars after an incident with Ernesto de Palacios, the group's director of operations. On January 14, 1997, Crews wanted to review information contained in one of the Humane Society's manuals. The manual was in de Palacios's office, and when Crews attempted to retrieve the book, the two men began arguing. Crews allegedly grabbed the book out of de Palacios's hand and gave him a shove.

Crews denies he struck de Palacios. "I grabbed for the book," he says matter-of-factly. "It was as simple as that."

The next day de Palacios -- whom co-workers describe as "docile," "quiet," and "easygoing" -- contacted police and filed a report about the incident. The report, however, makes no mention of Crews shoving de Palacios. It merely states that there was "a verbal dispute over company manuals" and that de Palacios called the police because he was concerned "that it might escalate."

A week later de Palacios was fired. After his termination de Palacios hired attorney Randy Fleischer, who wrote to the Humane Society's board on January 31, 1997. After outlining the alleged physical altercation between de Palacios and Crews, Fleischer noted, "You should be aware that Mr. Crews keeps a gun in his office and has previously threatened my client and attempted to instigate a physical altercation by challenging Mr. de Palacios to fight him in the cemetery."

Crews denies this allegation as well. "That's a bunch of crap," he says. "I never challenged him to a fight."

Fleischer also claimed there were "other incidents that can be considered violations of my client's civil rights. Mr. Crews has often referred to my client's Hispanic national origin in a derogatory manner. In addition, Crews has made racially derogatory remarks regarding at least two black employees, including Flora Campos, and has been accused of sexual harassment by another female employee. Mr. de Palacios is a witness to many acts of discrimination by Mr. Crews that violated state and federal civil rights acts."

The Humane Society reached a settlement with de Palacios last year; it includes a provision preventing him from publicly discussing the settlement or his problems with Crews. One knowledgeable source places the amount of the settlement at less than $10,000. Now working for the Humane Society in Fort Meyers, de Palacios, citing his confidentiality agreement, refuses to answer questions about Crews.

Nancy Fickett, the Humane Society's grant writer, also crossed paths with Crews. This past January she observed one of the animal handlers kicking and punching a dog while it was being euthanized. Fickett was outraged and reported the incident to the Humane Society's chief cruelty investigator, Diedra Jorgensen, who in turn wrote a formal complaint and sent a copy to Crews, noting that she would immediately investigate the allegation.

The next day, January 27, Jorgensen was summoned to Crews's office. According to several sources, Crews was angered that a formal complaint had been made in writing and was worried that it would either be leaked to the public or that his superiors on the board of directors would receive a copy. He demanded to know the name of the employee who reported the incident. Jorgensen told Crews it was Fickett. Less than 48 hours later Fickett was fired.

Crews claims it is merely a coincidence that he fired her after learning she had gone to Jorgensen. He says he fired her because she "could not cut it in Miami" and was unable to raise any money through grants. Crews does, however, acknowledge that he was also angry at Fickett for filing a written complaint. He still believes the matter should have been handled quietly, without any formal paperwork. "There was ample opportunity for it to come to me without filing a report," he says, noting that the employee accused of abusing the animal was fired.

His critics claim he seemed more interested in protecting his own image than in protecting the animals in his shelter. After her firing Fickett hired an attorney and filed a complaint with the EEOC. Her attorney negotiated a settlement with the Humane Society earlier this year, which once again contained a provision barring her from discussing the matter. A source familiar with her settlement says the Humane Society paid her between $10,000 and $20,000. Fickett, citing her confidentiality agreement, declines to discuss the matter.

Perhaps Crews's greatest sin, though, was the fact that he failed to raise money for the Humane Society's new shelter. "The reason he was hired was that he was supposed to be an administrator who could raise funds," says a source familiar with Crews's responsibilities. "And he didn't do it. There was absolutely zero fundraising from him."

"Fifty percent of Merrill's job is fundraising, and he was not a successful fundraiser," adds Shay Griese, a former member of the Humane Society board who resigned her position at the beginning of the year. "That was definitely a problem. He managed to raise money for his [political] campaign, so I don't know why he didn't raise money for the shelter." Griese says she personally likes Crews, who serves on the Orange Bowl Committee with her husband, legendary Miami Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese. "I just think he wanted too much to pursue politics," she concludes.

Board members were also concerned that Crews was using the Humane Society to further his political ambition. Denise Morris, a member of the board, recalls one instance earlier this year when she brought some friends to the shelter to adopt a pet. She says she introduced her friends to Crews, and as soon as he discovered her friends lived in his district, he gave an impromptu speech on his candidacy and even tried to solicit a campaign contribution from them.

Morris says she was aghast at Crews's audacity. "He was totally focused on his campaign," Morris recalls. "The whole purpose for their visit -- to adopt an animal -- had been completely overlooked and ignored by him." After that incident, Morris says, she knew Crews would have to resign. "I felt it was best for everyone that we have a different executive director," Morris says.

Crews claims he was merely joking with Morris's friends. "I did it in jest," he says. "I did not politick on the Humane Society premises."

Another concern for board members, according to sources, was that Crews was using his business contacts within the Humane Society to support his campaign. For instance, the architects who are designing the group's new shelter donated $250 to Crews's election campaign. Crews says he did not solicit the contribution.

Crews insists there is no overlap between his campaign and the Humane Society. Specifically, he denies that the company he has used to print his campaign brochures is the same firm that does work for the Humane Society. Crews's campaign expense reports in Tallahassee tell a different story.

Between February 8 and March 8, Crews's campaign spent $1689 on brochures from Haff and Daugherty, the same company that prints the Humane Society's quarterly newsletter. Lorenzo Cosio, Jr., an account executive at Haff and Daugherty, confirms that his company works for both Crews and the Humane Society. The company received the contract to work for the Humane Society after Crews became executive director. "He was my Little League baseball coach," notes Cosio.

In fact, Cosio adds, the printing company gave Crews a discount on the campaign brochures as a way of helping his effort. Cosio did not say how large a discount Crews received. More important, according to his campaign finance reports, Crews did not list Haff and Daugherty as having contributed anything to his campaign, as required under state law.

The beginning of the end for Crews came in February, when the level of dissatisfaction among Humane Society board members prompted them to call an emergency meeting to discuss Crews. New Times has obtained copies of a memo written to Crews as a result of that meeting. The memo, dated February 9, 1998, states that the Humane Society "has been inadequately managed" under Crews, and derides nearly every aspect of his tenure: "Because of the above concerns stated, the Board does not feel it is in the best interest of the Humane Society's objectives to continue our relationship with you, if you wish to pursue your political interests."

In a subsequent meeting with the board, Crews promised that he would dedicate the time to turn the Humane Society around. According to various sources, however, as the months passed little changed, and the board grew weary of Crews's excuses. "Finally," says one knowledgeable source, "he was asked to resign." He did so on August 10. Since then Crews has concentrated on his campaign.

Crews says it is unfair to blame him for all the Humane Society's troubles. "There have been problems with the Humane Society for 50 years," he huffs. "None of them started with me, my friend.


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