It was just last summer that Raymond Molina stood up in Little Havana's Versailles restaurant to announce his campaign for Miami mayor. "I know how to make things happen," Molina remarked. "I have the experience, the knowledge, and the commitment that Miami needs. The city needs a real mayor to enter the year 2000, someone that delivers and doesn't hide from problems." But Molina vanished from the city soon after his name surfaced four months ago as a bit player in last year's vote-fraud scandal. He left behind a trail of questions and debts.
Friends, supporters, and creditors have wondered about Molina's whereabouts. So have the State Attorney's Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), as well as the defense lawyer for Jeffrey Hoskins, who is charged with four felony counts for allegedly paying off absentee voters last November. Hoskins contends Molina lured him to do it. "We are very interested in interviewing Mr. Molina," said Joe Centorino, chief prosecutor in the State Attorney's Office public corruption unit.
New Times found Molina alive, well, and living in Central America. "If [prosecutors] want to talk to me, they will have to come to Panama," Molina said during a recent telephone interview. "I don't give a hoot about the State Attorney's Office. They are full of bullshit."
Molina, a political ally of former Mayor Xavier Suarez, is not accused of breaking the law. Nor has the state subpoenaed him. Hoskins first fingered Molina for overseeing an Overtown vote-buying operation in testimony to Centorino. In a deposition on January 15, Hoskins described events of the days before the November 13, 1997, city mayoral runoff. Molina allegedly offered Hoskins $500 to solicit votes for Suarez. Molina's plan, says Hoskins, was to pay people ten dollars after they had filled out absentee ballots.
In the telephone interview, Molina denied everything: "I am not going to comment about something I didn't do. That never happened. It's unreal."
Molina has spent much of his life around politics. He was born in Georgia in 1936 to a Cuban father and an American mother. After participating in the 1961 invasion at the Bay of Pigs, he was captured and imprisoned for two years.
A member of the Cuban exile group Brigada 2506, Molina ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature in 1968. During the Seventies he lobbied in Washington, D.C., for the Nicaraguan government. He recently took up the cause of the Cuban exile group Unidad Cubana.
Last year Molina ran for mayor of Miami until a judge ruled that he had not lived in the city long enough. Last October he began campaigning aggressively for Suarez with the hope that he would land a six-figure advisory position at city hall. His dream fell apart in March when Suarez was ousted by a panel of judges because of absentee-vote fraud.
It's not clear exactly when Molina left the United States. His wife of thirteen years, Rebecca Arias, also reached by phone in Panama, says she recently separated from her husband. Pepe Ondarza, who says he is one of Molina's close friends, says the former mayoral candidate is peddling a type of paint that can prevent ships from rusting. Molina declined to comment on how he earns a living: "I am in my private life. None of your business."
Besides the state attorney, several other people are searching for Molina. He is a "substantial witness" in Hoskins's trial, which was postponed this week to November 30, according to Hoskins's lawyer, Jonathan Drucker. "My client is clearly a political scapegoat, targeted because the state attorney believed he did not have the means to fight back," Drucker says. He believes that prosecutors are pressuring Hoskins in order to get more evidence against Molina.
Hoskins, who was released from jail without bond, says Molina promised him $500 but never delivered. "Molina never paid me the $500 he offered. He only gave me the money to pay ten dollars to the people who came back [from filling out ballots]. I don't remember well how many I paid," Hoskins says.
Molina acknowledged to the Miami Herald on February 22 that he paid Hoskins around $150 for putting up signs and buying food. Sources close to the FDLE investigation say that a tape-recorded telephone conversation between Hoskins and Molina might clear up some discrepancies in the two accounts.
Other Molina friends are in a quandary about his hasty departure. "I haven't heard from him in months. It's hard for me to think that he was involved in the vote fraud. I helped him at the beginning of his campaign, but after five weeks we couldn't agree on anything. He doesn't listen," remarks Juan Armando Montes, a retired U.S. Army colonel who says he has been Molina's friend for twenty years.
Arturo Garrote was campaign manager for Molina's mayoral attempt. He says he has known the former candidate for around 40 years but hasn't seen him for three or four months: "I don't know where he is or what he is doing now."
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Comments Andres Vargas Gomez, the president of Unidad Cubana: "It's been months since the last time we saw him."
Several creditors are also searching for the enigmatic Mr. Molina. He failed to pay the last month's rent, $700, for his campaign office at 3383 NW Seventh St., according to building manager Armando Rodriguez: "He told me he would come back to pay but he never did." Eladio Jose Armesto, publisher of the Hispanic weekly El Nuevo Patria, said Molina owes him $3000 for advertising and consulting: "He made promises that he would pay me next week, then the week after, then he would tell me that his brother in Puerto Rico was sending him some money. My attorney wrote him warning him that we might take it to court, but we are still waiting."
Molina would not discuss his debts, but the financial disclosure he filed with the state July 8, 1997, indicates some financial problems. Though he claimed to own property in Nicaragua and Panama, a debtor who owed him $1.75 million wouldn't pay up. That debt relates to a problematic real estate deal in the early Eighties to develop six parcels valued at around six million dollars at Sunset Drive and SW 117th Avenue.
Throughout the past twenty years, Florida records show, Molina has been affiliated with at least thirteen corporations. All are now inactive except one, Voters Constitutional Rights Defense Association, Inc. The group was formed shortly after the panel of judges reinstated Joe Carollo as mayor of Miami in March. Molina is listed as vice president. The treasurer, Placido Debesa, says the purpose of the corporation is to protect voters' rights. "We created this corporation to enforce the elections laws," he explains.