Raising Hell

Don't expect cake, party hats, or revelers dancing in the hallways of Dupont Plaza, but today marks the one-year anniversary of a watershed event in the Miami City Attorney's Office. On May 25, 1994, City Attorney A. Quinn Jones III distributed a memo announcing that none of his 21 assistant city attorneys would receive their traditional four-percent spring raises.

Jones couched his decision in the city's chronic budget problems: There just wasn't enough money to go around. He neglected to mention, however, that he'd recently distributed a fair quantity of money to a select few staffers. He noted nothing about the unusually large pay increases he'd awarded to two assistant city attorneys, one of whom is politically well connected. Nor did he mention that he'd hired a new attorney at the highest starting salary in the history of the office.

To this day, the fallout from the "no raise" memo is creating friction. As another May 25 rolls around without a raise in sight, assistant city attorneys who were passed over last year gather in little huddles to commiserate about their more fortunate peers. "Morale right now in the office is just horrible," says one staffer who asked not to be quoted by name.

In Miami no one takes a job as an assistant city attorney in order to get rich. Interested applicants know that if they work for the city, they can expect certain benefits in exchange for certain sacrifices. Most attractively, they can work regular nine-to-five hours instead of the frequently numbing grind endured by partner-track attorneys at major firms. "You get a better quality of life," says one city assistant. "But the trade-off is salary. A low salary."

On average Miami's municipal lawyers earn one-third less than their peers at the Dade County Attorney's Office. While top assistant county attorneys can earn $150,000 annually, not one assistant city attorney earns more than $98,000.

So when an attorney joins the city at a salary competitive with the private sector, a few suits are bound to get wrinkled. And that's exactly what happened after Quinn Jones hired Olga Ramirez-Seijas on the last day of February 1994, at a starting annual salary of $85,000. Although Ramirez-Seijas is an experienced attorney who earned her law degree more than fourteen years ago, no Miami assistant city attorney has ever made that kind of money right out of the gate. Of the ten assistants who earn more than $80,000 per year, Ramirez-Seijas is the only one who has been employed by the office less than five years.

"I understand her to be an excellent lawyer," says a colleague. "However, the contracts position [the specialty for which Ramirez-Seijas was hired] was an entry-level position for many years. All of a sudden we go out and hire a fourteen-year lawyer. Maybe it's justified. Maybe she saves the city money in the long run. But if a first-year lawyer wasn't good enough, why not hire a six-year lawyer? Or even an eight-year lawyer? Why go and hire a fourteen-year lawyer? It just doesn't make sense."

Quinn Jones declined numerous requests that he comment for this story. ("He generally doesn't like to talk to the press," says his aide.) Ramirez-Seijas did not return calls seeking comment.

While Ramirez-Seijas scored the biggest bucks, she's not the only new hire with a standout salary. Jones had hired Deanna Rasco in December 1993, at a starting annual salary of $62,000. (According to records on file at the city's Personnel Management Department, another assistant city attorney with three years of experience takes home $8000 less.) Not long afterward, Jones hired Maria Ortiz. Three years earlier Ortiz had clerked in the City Attorney's Office. So had David Stone, who went on to work for the cities of North Miami Beach and Hollywood before returning to Miami in 1992 as an assistant city attorney. Two and a half years later, he earns an annual salary of $48,000. Ortiz's starting salary was $57,000.

And then there were the raises. Four days before he issued his "no raise" memo, Quinn Jones awarded Linda Kelly Kearson a $15,000 raise, from $68,000 per year to $83,000. (Kearson has been with the law department for a decade.) Two weeks before that, he assigned Assistant City Attorney Julie Bru to the Office of Asset Management and gave her a whopping $20,000 bump in salary, from $50,000 annually to $70,000.

Dade County Attorney Robert Ginsburg says he is surprised to hear that the city's legal staff would mete out such increases. "Nobody in our office has ever got anything like that," he observes. "Nobody, not even my highest-paid people who have been here twenty years or more ever got a $20,000 raise."

At least as galling as the raises and the high-price hires, some assistant city attorneys grumble, is their strong suspicion that the beneficiaries were tapped not on the basis of merit or tenure but because of their political connections.

Julie Bru, they point out, has a figurative godfather in Commissioner Victor De Yurre: The two socialize together. De Yurre even acted as Bru's attorney last year when she purchased a Coral Gables bungalow.

Bru, who has worked in the City Attorney's Office for almost six years, is straightforward about the affiliation. She says she has known De Yurre since she was nine years old, when he lived two blocks from the Orange Bowl, near the house where her mother still resides. She considers him a family friend. "I grew up in New York City, but every summer they'd send me down on the Silver Meteor," Bru recounts. "We sort of grew our separate ways A I lived in Gainesville for a while -- but when I got back in town, I called him up."

De Yurre isn't the only power broker she knows, Bru notes. She is aggressively networking in hopes of someday becoming city attorney herself. She has made it her business to meet the heads of every city department. She mixes with city employees. She even bought her house with (and is living with) an assistant to City Manager Cesar Odio.

Bru is aware of the whispering among her fellow assistant city attorneys, she says, but she insists she got her raise without De Yurre's or anyone else's help. According to Bru, the job opening came about through Eduardo Rodriguez, who was looking for a city attorney to work full-time for the Office of Asset Management, which he directs. The job was turned down by Warren Bittner, another assistant city attorney. Bru was the second choice. She took the job because it should increase her presence in the city. And because when she asked for more money, she got it.

"It's not like I went up to someone and I demanded a raise," she says. "Eduardo Rodriguez chose me. And I wasn't even his first choice. I said that if I'm going to take this, I'm going to ask for a bit more money. It's not my fault that they gave it to me."

Regardless of whether Bru was godfathered into her good fortune, some current and former assistant city attorneys say, the unmistakable stain of politics pockmarked the Miami City Attorney's Office even before Jones took over the top job three and a half years ago.

When Miriam Alonso won a commission seat in 1989, the City Attorney's Office gained at least one player from her team. Humberto Hernandez says he was hired by then-City Attorney Jorge Fernandez ten days after Hernandez's uncle, an advisor to the Alonso campaign, put in a phone call on Hernandez's behalf.

"Obviously, Alonso got me my job," Hernandez says.
Alonso, he adds, also cost him his job. He is one of three assistant city attorneys who say they were fired because they were linked to Alonso's failed 1993 campaign for mayor against Steve Clark. Hernandez and Pablo Perez raised money for Alonso's run. Three months after the election and facing a tough annual review from the City Commission, Quinn Jones fired them both. A third attorney, Carmen Leon, was also dismissed; she later told the Miami Herald that she was fired because she was considered an ally of the other two.

Hernandez was replaced by Olga Ramirez-Seijas. Leon was replaced by Maria Ortiz. Perez was replaced by two attorneys; one of them, Leslie Meek, is the daughter-in-law of U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek (a Clark-for-mayor supporter). Quinn Jones was reappointed. The amount of money contributed to his pension was increased by ten percent.

In other words, he got a raise.


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