Victor Monzon-Aguirre this past July pleaded guilty to forgery, fraud, and providing a false notary for his part in a scam in which a company he helped run submitted forged documents to Miami-Dade County in order to receive $500,000. By the time Monzon-Aguirre was being investigated he had left the company and was head of the City of Miami's neighborhood services.
The day before his arrest, Monzon-Aguirre held a press conference and copped to his crime, which he described as technical in nature. "I totally admit to these charges," he was quoted in the Miami Herald. "But when you compare it to everything else that's happening in the rest of the county, it's nothing." His speech was a clear attempt to win sympathy and perhaps save any future career in the public sector. "No one was harmed," he said. "I did not profit, nor did my employer, not one penny."
He went on to say how shocked he was that the county's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) sought criminal charges against him.
Monzon-Aguirre was a connected guy working at a connected place. He previously held a powerful government job as the director of the General Services Administration for the county until joining Lanzo Lining/Lanzo Construction Company in 1996. He left that job to run a city department. At the time of his arrest, the school district was about to hire him for an executive position. His wife Esther is a lobbyist who works with former county manager Sergio Pereira, who happens to be Lanzo's lobbyist. Lanzo needs a lobbyist because of the numerous government contracts it seeks.
As soon as he gave his mea culpa speech, Monzon-Aguirre became a poster child for what's wrong with the mentality of a certain clique of high-level bureaucrats in Miami: If it doesn't involve midnight payoffs of embezzled money, it ain't a crime. I liked the subtext to his message, too: Why focus on him when worse things have been done?
In full disclosure, I worked at the OIG from 2000-2001. I had nothing to do with this case. But I know the office, and didn't think that anyone there would screw a poor businessman for simply signing his name in the wrong place. So I put in a public records request to view the file at the State Attorney's Office when the case closed.
Here's what happened: Lanzo won a five-million-dollar contract from the county to install and repair sewer pipes in 1999. In 2001, the county's Department of Business Development (DBD), which routinely reviews the payrolls of contracted companies to make sure they are complying with the county's living-wage ordinance, discovered that Lanzo had underpaid three laborers $1731.03. The DBD ordered it to reimburse the workers. When the company failed to respond, the DBD sent Lanzo a violation notice on February 12, 2001. When it didn't get a response by April 27, the DBD ordered that $1700 be withheld from a scheduled payment to Lanzo. The company would get the money when it proved it paid the workers. When the company didn't respond by October 10, eight months after the first violation notice, DBD ordered a full stop-payment on the $500,000 still due Lanzo.
Now they had the chief operating officer's attention. Monzon-Aguirre couldn't get to the fax machine fast enough. The same day the county turned off the financial spigot, Monzon-Aguirre rushed to the DBD copies of checks cut to the workers along with affidavits signed by them saying they'd been paid. Monzon-Aguirre claimed the checks had been languishing on someone's desk for months; the stop-payment prompted him to find them. Lanzo got its money.
Turns out it was all fake. Those checks never made it to the workers, and the signatures on those affidavits, notarized by Monzon-Aguirre himself, were forgeries. The DBD suspected this when it followed up a month later asking for copies of the canceled checks. (Here's an encouraging bit of government follow-through. Lanzo officials probably thought their little problem would disappear in the abyss of county bureaucracy. But the department, headed by Marsha Jackman, was too diligent for them.) Now Monzon-Aguirre sputtered a new excuse, saying that those checks were no good. A new set of checks was issued in November to the workers.
This was just too suspicious for the DBD overseers, who contacted the OIG. Agents subpoenaed Lanzo's bank records. They interviewed the workers and showed them the affidavits they supposedly signed in October, along with the October checks that were supposedly delivered to them out in the field. And the three workers, who had all left Lanzo by then, said they had never seen those checks or signed the affidavits. They did receive the second round of checks in November.
Monzon-Aguirre confessed that he notarized the signatures without seeing who signed them. That's why he says it was a technical crime.
But in reality, this is what he did: He took part in a lie about paying three laborers a measly $1700, which the company clearly had no intention of ever paying until it absolutely had to do so. And he or someone else at the company forged a document in order to get access to a lot of county money.
This is a recurring problem with Lanzo, which pointedly declined to comment for this story. It's been cited ten times since 1999 for underpaying workers, according to the DBD. And it has other problems going back to at least 1986, when the company was implicated in paying a City of Miami inspector reviewing its work $1400 in cash, supposedly to take pictures at a different job site. In 1997, the Herald reported that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Lanzo $217,000 for safety violations resulting in an injured diver. In 1999 it was one of nine companies on a county job where officials found that work billed to the county had never been done or had been done so poorly it needed to be repaired. All contracts with those companies were suspended until the shoddy work was fixed. Lanzo agreed to pay about $240,000 and repair work as necessary.
So Monzon-Aguirre's little bureaucratic mistake is actually part of a larger pattern of deception. Not only were the criminal charges against him correct, but the county should consider barring Lanzo from future contracts.
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And what does a guy wired to the power structure do when he gets in a jam? He gets his connected friends to come to his aid. At the request of his lawyer Michael Band, a former high-level state prosecutor, dozens of bureaucrats, bank officers, and lawyers wrote letters of support. Miami-Dade mayoral candidate Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, lobbyist-attorney Miguel De Grandy, Parrot Jungle general manager Barbara Ibarra, government consultant and former Miami City Commissioner Rosario Kennedy, and Coral Gables Commissioner Ralph Cabrera, Jr., all wrote the State Attorney's Office to vouch for his character. The one that got me was Murray Greenberg, who penned his missive on county stationery in his capacity as first assistant county attorney. "While I can in no way condone any violation of any statute or ordinance ... from my understanding of the situation Victor received no personal gain ..." I asked Greenberg if he thought it was proper to represent himself as a county employee to advocate on behalf of a man caught defrauding the county. Greenberg said that it was correct of him to use his county title because he only knew Monzon-Aguirre professionally, from the days when he worked at the county. Oh, and another thing -- the county attorney's office negotiated the settlement with Lanzo to remedy its past shoddy work.
In the end, Monzon-Aguirre received probation. The City of Miami fired him.
At the other end of this world of multimillion-dollar contracts and self-important businessmen and bureaucrats is Roman Lavrinovic. For a year, it was his job to wade into sewer tunnels and fix or assemble pipes for Lanzo. Between the sewage gases and the chemicals used to harden the pipes, he says he breathed air so foul it made him sick to his stomach. The Lithuanian immigrant, twenty years old at the time, didn't complain about the stench, or the $7.50 hourly wage employer Lanzo paid him. He just worked. Lavrinovic left Lithuania because the economy was bad. He was happy to have a job. He's pumping gas now, and studying business in college. When he got his surprise check from Lanzo last November for $300 it seemed like a rare gift in a hardscrabble world.
Of course, this was no gift. He had earned it.