Miami Beach: Corruption Central
On a muggy autumn afternoon, 400 of Miami Beach's most prominent names packed into a luxury Loews Hotel ballroom. As waiters hoisted trays of food, WSVN's Belkys Nerey took the stage and introduced a big-screen video. With a cinematic splash and to copious applause, billionaire Norman Braman, Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower, and former commissioners Saul Gross and Victor Diaz lavished praise on the man of the hour: City Manager Jorge Gonzalez.
The date was October 21, 2010. It was the tenth anniversary of Gonzalez's reign. The back-slapping party marked the delirious high point of the slight, gray-haired manager's $273,000-per-year tenure. The low point came last week, when he stepped down in disgrace. The past 18 months have seen the Beach, Dade's glitziest locale, become its most corrupt.
Among Gonzalez's dubious achievements:
• His pick to head the troubled Building Department was canned after admitting to double-billing taxpayers for more than $154,000.
• His cops have been charged with harassing gays, shooting innocent bystanders, drunken joyriding that nearly killed a beachgoer, and drinking on the job.
• Prosecutors probed whether he extorted thousands of dollars in free tickets from the New World Symphony.
• His procurement director resigned over ties to a felonious developer and accusations of ethics breaches in a convention center renovation project.
• The FBI busted five of his code compliance officers and a firefighter for accepting bribes from clubs, and another firefighter for helping to arrange cocaine shipments.
One question remains: What the hell happened?
Interviews with insiders and commissioners paint a picture of a sordid free fall as scandals bedeviled nearly every department. Gonzalez, who was paid more than the vice president of the United States and will draw a six-figure pension after he leaves office July 8, fostered the problems by creating a culture of fear in a hierarchy with few checks and balances.
"I was not given information, I was lied to, and I was misled regularly," Commissioner Ed Tobin says. "The system has some flaws, but this was all on Jorge."
For two decades, the City of Miami and county hall have dominated South Florida corruption. Two Miami city managers and a commissioner have spent time in the pen, while another commissioner resigned over ethics charges and a mayor was forced out by voter fraud. County hall has seen a commissioner sentenced to jail, a mayor recalled, and another commissioner flee to Australia to avoid drug and sex charges.
Miami Beach seemed like the sanest locale in the 305. By the late '90s, memories had already faded of the Caligula-like term of former mayor Alex Daoud, who earned 18 months in federal prison after his arrest in 1991 on 41 bribery counts.
When Gonzalez was hired in 2000 to replace Sergio Rodriguez, he seemed to be a wunderkind — a Hialeah native plucked from a county management job in the Washington, D.C. area. At the tender age of 34, he stepped into a job that allowed him vast power to hire, fire, and direct budgets. Fellow managers in the City of Miami and Dade County, where the mayor is supreme, wield less influence.
Gonzalez used that perch to lure high-rise hotels such as the W on Collins Avenue, revitalize the east end of Lincoln Road, and nurture Art Basel and the South Beach Wine & Food Festival until they became world-class events.
There were some early missteps. In 2008, three Building Department employees were arrested for taking bribes from developer Michael Stern, who was trying to knock down a historic coral rock house on Washington Avenue. Gonzalez's handpicked department head, Thomas Velazquez, later resigned over the scandal. But Gonzalez avoided serious blowback.
"You have to give Gonzalez credit. For a number of years, he juggled a lot of competing interests," Tobin says.
Yet around the same time that Gonzalez enjoyed his massive Loews party, problems began cropping up.
In March 2010, Miami New Times published an investigation into the Beach police. The article revealed that 54 percent of the force made at least six figures — with one sergeant raking in an incredible $230,000 one year. Worse, many of the top earners had terrible records of theft, fraud, racial discrimination, and gay harassment.
In August of that year, without consulting the commission, Gonzalez hired Cynthia Curry — an aide to then-County Manager George Burgess — to run the Building Department. But then the Miami Herald ran a front-page exposé that reported Curry had once admitted to double-billing the county for more than $154,000.
Commissioners were apoplectic. In November, for the first time in Gonzalez's term, they pushed back, refusing to confirm Curry. "I felt slighted," Commissioner Michael Gongora told the Herald.
Gonzalez explained away the mistake, claiming he hadn't known about the double-billing because Curry had never been charged with a crime. But it was a massive miscalculation. It wouldn't be the last.
Six months later, on May 30, 2011, during the mostly African-American festivities of Memorial Day weekend, officers fired more than 100 rounds at a visitor, killing him and wounding several innocent bystanders. National media descended, accusing the force of targeting blacks.
Just a month later, on July 3, two rogue cops went drinking on the job at the Clevelander Hotel. One of them, Derick Kuilan, took a young woman on a drunken joyride on his ATV, accidentally running over — and nearly killing — a woman on the beach. The horrifying incident exposed widespread management problems and led to the suspension of their supervisors for faking hours and failing to oversee underlings. Police Chief Carlos Noriega retired amid the chaos.
As the police force disintegrated, Gonzalez's troubles mounted. Soon, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office opened a criminal probe into allegations that Gonzalez and his top deputy, Hilda Fernandez, had withheld a $15 million grant to the New World Symphony until the organization agreed to provide loads of free tickets. In October, prosecutors declined to charge the pair. But the county changed its ethics guidelines over the flap.
The past three months have been perhaps the worst yet for the manager. Police woes continue under the new police chief, Ray Martinez. In March, two officers were suspended, one for allegedly drinking in a squad car and another after video emerged of a police cruiser rocketing past shocked tourists in the sand at Lummus Park. (It didn't help that the same cop, Eric Dominguez, had once nearly killed four motorcyclists in another speeding incident.)
On March 30, Gonzalez's procurement chief, Gus Lopez, abruptly resigned. Police raided his office and home over his ties to Walter Garcia, a developer who was sentenced to four years in federal prison in 1997 after pleading guilty to conspiring to distribute marijuana. Lopez, detectives say, tipped Garcia off to inside information on bids to redevelop the Beach's convention center and, according to emails filed in court, worked with the developer to fraudulently procure a luxury car for his wife.
The biggest blow of all, though, landed on April 11, when the FBI announced a mass corruption bust. The city's chief code compliance officer, Jose Alberto, along with four other officers and a firefighter, had allegedly collected more than $25,000 in payouts from a club owner snitching to the feds. Another firefighter helped arrange a cocaine shipment through the club, the FBI says.
It got worse for Gonzalez: The Herald disclosed that the men had a laundry list of earlier brushes with the law, including cocaine possession charges, DUIs, and attacking a police officer with a rock, yet all kept their jobs.
Last Tuesday, the scandals all came to a head when Gonzalez paid a visit to the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club at David's Café II, an informal gathering of city power brokers. He tried to placate a furious crowd of residents by telling them that surveys showed most Beach folks were doing just fine. "People are happy and the government is meeting its expectations," he pleaded.
But Frank Del Vecchio, a retired attorney who has lived on Ocean Drive for decades, was having none of it. "You are not the person who should lead reform," Del Vecchio said. Gonzalez's cool veneer cracked. He grasped at the microphone in Del Vecchio's hand, drawing gasps from the crowd. But before surrendering the mike, Del Vecchio delivered a parting shot: "You are the person who should resign, effective today!"
Two days later, Gonzalez's resignation was official. Commissioners accepted the deal without allowing public discussion. But outside city hall, residents buzzed over the move. Some called for changes to the strong-manager system to prevent a repeat of the abuses of the past 18 months. Some laid all the blame on Gonzalez.
Others, such as legendary Herald crime reporter and mystery writer Edna Buchanan, were more cynical. "For a long time now, money has talked at city hall, not the people who live in this city," Buchanan said. "As long as the millionaires and the European developers are the priority, it doesn't matter who's running this place. It's not paradise for the people who live here."
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