Recall Tomas Regalado
Four months ago, Miami-Dade voters tossed out Mayor Carlos Alvarez by an overwhelming 88 percent majority. His crimes: handing out minuscule raises, driving a fancy car, and slightly raising taxes. Now he's been replaced by virtual carbon copy Carlos Gimenez.
Thing is, we should have recalled another mayor. Sure, Miami's top man, Tomás Regalado, speaks eloquently en español. And he hasn't yet upped tax rates. But politically speaking, the guy has wreaked havoc like a drunken, locked-out NFL player on South Beach.
In less than two years in office — a third of the time Alvarez served — Regalado has been far worse. He has burned through four city managers — one every six months on average — and enraged black Miami by letting police leadership dodge responsibility after cops killed seven civilians. He has also watched the feds launch a full-blown investigation into whether the city cooked the books. Even worse, Miami's bond rating has plummeted, so taxpayers are sure to take more lumps.
Regalado has even violated his own hiring freeze and handed out six-figure severance payments.
"We're the laughingstock of the nation right now," says Anthony Hatten, head of the city's general employees' union. "With every new story coming out of city hall, I get more and more embarrassed."
Any voter with half a brain should realize by now: We recalled the wrong guy.
Here are ten reasons Norman Braman should have aimed his fury a little farther south, right at Dinner Key.
1. Regalado's Communication Chief Is No Angel
Walfrido Moreno, a frail, grandfatherly, 80-year-old activist, was about to introduce two Cuban rafters who had recently survived an exodus from Havana to a group of gathered journalists when Angel Zayon, a 30-year-old reporter from Telemundo 51, approached the podium.
"You are a coward, not much of a man, and a traitor," Zayon screeched into a microphone. The old man had criticized Zayon's reporting, which was none too complimentary.
In response, Moreno slapped the much younger Zayon across the face. Despite the half-century difference in age, Zayon pressed charges. The old guy did 60 days of community service.
That incident was only the most sensationally crazy moment in Zayon's odd career as a provocateur, failed political candidate, and, as of last month, $70,000-per-year chief of communications for the City of Miami.
Zayon's hiring is all the more troubling because Regalado's city manager not only violated a freeze to bring him on but also waived education requirements to employ a guy with only a high school diploma.
Not absurd enough? Add this: Regalado didn't even fire the acting director of the department, Mario Riquelme, when he hired Zayon away from TV Martí. Instead, the mayor split the tiny department in two, naming Riquelme "director of audiovisual and broadcast operations."
Riquelme makes $95,251. That means more than $160,000 of taxpayer cash goes to two men to oversee eight employees — four TV staffers, one photographer, two media experts, and a secretary — according to city records.
Zayon's resumé didn't get him the job. Sure, he had hosted Cuba al Día on TV Martí and worked at Telemundo and WACC-AM (830), but he lost to Marco Rubio in a bid for the Florida House in 2000 and failed in a run for the Miami-Dade County School Board three years ago.
So maybe Zayon's most important qualification was this: At the mayor's inauguration, Regalado introduced him to the crowd as "Angelito Zayon, my fourth son."
2. He Ignored the Hiring Freeze
To stave off bankruptcy, the city declared a hiring freeze in May 2009, several months before Regalado took office. Emergency operators, two years later, are 27 folks short of their minimum number, thanks to unfilled positions.
Almost every department has had to work short-staffed — except for Regalado and his deputies.
He and his former city manager, Tony Crapp Jr., personally waived the freeze for 23 hires in their offices during the past 16 months, a New Times review found. Crapp also authorized dozens of hires in other departments. Though their actions cost the city hundreds of thousands in salary and benefits, no one can explain what some of the new employees do.
In a recent interview, Regalado presented New Times with a list of what he said were the only hires since the freeze began. It included mostly temps — lifeguards and pool attendants, for instance — and a batch of 30 firefighters.
"There's nothing political," he says. "There are no ghost employees or political hires here."
Alas, when New Times went to the official city records, we found a very different list — one that includes 783 names, not 200.
Subtract temporary hires and there are still nearly 250 new full-time employees who have joined the payroll since May 2009. Some hiring, indeed, seems very questionable.
For example, in early January, Crapp let the city waive the freeze to bring on Madelin Pacheco at a $55,000 annual salary. A former customer service rep at El Dorado Furniture, she was named special projects assistant in the Office of Grants Management. What's that? Crapp's description of her job in a January 11 memo is even more baffling than the title: "She will assist in coordinating and implementing various special projects, work on improving department operations... and overall cost effectiveness."
Um, OK. To top it off, before she worked a single day at city hall, Pacheco was given a 38 percent raise to $76,000, according to a Crapp memo dated January 24.
Regalado declined to comment about her job and salary. Crapp has left city hall to work for a lobbying firm.
Then there's Richard LaBella, who was brought on this past April 11 for $80,000 a year as a "quality assurance manager" in the information technology department — even though he has only a high school diploma. Again, Crapp waived the hiring freeze for him.
"How can Regalado hire a guy off the street for $80,000 with no college degree when he's asking me to lay off employees who have been with the city for decades?" asks Hatten, the union chief.
Great question. Regalado declined to comment on the issue.
Also during the freeze, Regalado personally hired two office assistants at $40,000 a pop while Crapp signed off on an $80,000-per-year assistant, an $85,000-per-year intergovernmental affairs liaison, and a $35,000 media relations guru.
In an email sent to commissioners two weeks ago, after blogger Al Crespo exposed some shady hires, the mayor explained that "elected officials can hire full-time, part-time, or contract employees as long as they're within their budget."
Hiring freeze, our ass.
3. He Said Bye to the City's Conscience
For more than a decade, Victor Igwe was city hall's conscience. From the moment the Nigerian-born, London-raised accountant accepted the job of city auditor 12 years ago, he threw fireballs at anyone abusing taxpayer money. His work got Bayfront Park Trust officials arrested, city commissioners investigated, and, more recently, sparked an SEC probe of city finances.
So when four administrators walked into his office on the Miami River one month ago and told him to pack up and leave, Igwe had no doubt why they were there. "Anyone who doesn't think I was let go because I embarrassed city hall one too many times should have their head examined," the 59-year-old says.
When Igwe arrived, he found a moribund department more interested in political favor than fact-checking. He canned overpaid do-nothings and hired auditors with CPAs. They issued 17 audits in the first year — including a shocker that found the Bayfront Park Trust's executive director paying himself cash, buying boatloads of tickets, and pouring funds into lobbyists' accounts. The audit led to a federal investigation.
Igwe later assisted with the probe into misused funds by Commissioner Arthur Teele that ended with the commish fatally shooting himself in the Miami Herald lobby. He also whacked Miami's corrupt housing agency time and again. New county Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a former Miami city manager, credited Igwe with creating the city's "first... professional audit department."
But he might have signed his own pink slip with three scathing audits showing money was routinely shuffled illegally to cover budget gaps.
The first came November 17, 2009, shortly after Regalado took office. Igwe discovered city budget keepers had illegally shifted millions from construction projects and maintenance funds to mask budget holes. A few months later, on February 3, 2010, the auditor described rampant credit card abuse. Dozens of employees had improperly charged thousands in parking and tolls, and a department head had double-billed taxpayers.
Then, on August 16, Igwe reported the city had improperly used $9.47 million in gas taxes to balance the budget.
Finally, this past February 17, the auditor embarrassed Regalado by finding that his latest budget, to hide a $6 million shortfall, had illegally mixed into the general fund more than $20.5 million in highly restricted money meant for sewer upgrades.
Officially, it was the commission's call to not renew Igwe's contract after a review by Commissioner Frank Carollo. Regalado, in fact, says he was surprised. "I knew Frank was re-examining his work," Regalado says. "I guess he felt it was time to move on."
Igwe, though, lays some blame on the mayor. "I just hope that God saves the taxpayers without me in that office," he says.
4. He Has Infuriated Black Miami
Between July 2010 and this past February, Miami Police officers shot and killed seven men — all black and all in Overtown, Allapattah, and Liberty City. It's the worst wave of police violence since the turn of the century, and many critics blame the city's top executive, if for nothing else than allowing the tainted police chief, Miguel Exposito, to stay.
Less noticed in recent weeks has been Regalado's new political problem: three top African-American city leaders have all resigned or been fired in quick succession. A New Times review found that of the 35 directors and assistant directors atop the city hierarchy, only seven are black. None of those who remain is in a key political position.
"Considering how high tensions still are with the police department, Regalado had better be looking to fill those vacancies with some black candidates," says Larry Handfield, a lawyer who recently quit a panel looking into the police shootings, which the city hasn't taken seriously enough, he believes.
Regalado needs black support. He beat challenger Joe Sanchez in 2009 partly because of steady African-American voting. Since taking office, his longtime chief of staff, Tony Crapp Jr., has provided political cover from the police department's woes — but on June 20, Crapp departed.
Then there's Larry Spring, who resigned as chief financial officer in early June, about two weeks before Igwe was let go.
So who's left at city hall to represent black Miami? City clerk Priscilla Thompson? Community development head George Mensah? Parks director Ernest Burkeen?
"I've known Tomás for 30 years and there's not a racist bone in his body," activist and black-Miami historian Marvin Dunn says. "But perceptions do matter, and he has a major image problem on his hands today in a part of the city that's really hurting."
5. The Feds Are Investigating His Administration
Fifteen years ago, Merrett Stierheim was hired as city manager to save Miami from bankruptcy. When he opened the books, Stierheim couldn't believe what he found. "Within 36 hours, I knew the budget was phony," he says. Federal investigators eventually sent former City Manager Cesar Odio to jail, Tallahassee took over city finances, and Stierheim put together a plan to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again.
So when Stierheim read recently that the feds were again closing in on Miami's budget keepers, he didn't just feel frustration — he felt betrayed. "Tomás Regalado was part of the commission that could have solved this problem," he says. "Instead, they ignored it yet again."
Now the feds are about to whack the city for the same crimes Stierheim found. Investigators from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) first moved in to seize documents and subpoenaed officials in December 2009. Miami's budget chiefs allegedly had been trying to hide just how deep they were dipping into their strategic reserves — which stood at $141 million just eight years ago — to balance the books as the city lost millions.
Bureaucrats are accused of illegally boosting general funds with $26.4 million in restricted capital improvement cash.
Meanwhile, the city sold $250 million in public bonds to finance boondoggles such as the billion-dollar Port of Miami tunnel and the Marlins stadium garages — perhaps misleading bond investors.
"How this could happen again is anyone's guess," says David Chase, a former SEC investigator who helped probe the city's finances back then. "Welcome to South Florida."
Regalado says he thinks the city will soon reach a settlement with the feds. But with every passing day, legal fees mount. The city already has spent three-quarters of a million bucks defending itself during Regalado's tenure. "It's very sad," Stierheim says.
6. Signs and Red-Light Cameras Are a Failure
To fill a massive, $105 million budget hole last year, Regalado had two brilliant schemes: red-light cameras and new billboards. "Both ideas have been total failures as revenue streams for the city," says Peter Ehrlich, a former city consultant and cofounder of Scenic Miami, an anti-billboard group. "It was all smoke and mirrors from day one."
So perhaps Regalado pushed the project because a longtime buddy and campaign consultant made thousands off the red-light camera deal, and his campaign was heavily subsidized by billboard companies.
In late 2009, Regalado's then-city manager, Carlos Migoya, proposed installing dozens of red-light cameras. On September 17, he awarded a contract worth $152,000 a month to a company called American Traffic Solutions — a firm that was paying Armando Gutierrez, Regalado's campaign consultant and friend, as its chief lobbyist.
Though Migoya promised $8 million in revenues from tickets, the cameras have brought in at most only $700,000 so far, Regalado admits. But the mayor says he isn't disappointed: "We've seen a real reduction in traffic accidents at those lights, so I don't mind if zero revenue comes in."
Then there are the billboards. Regalado's campaign reports show he received at least $8,000 from ad firms, including Fuel Outdoor, Clear Channel, and World Wide Rush.
In his first 20 months, Regalado and his administration have allowed a half-dozen new digital billboards that flash tens of thousands of ads a day. They've also rewritten the sign code, allowing dozens of new gigantic "murals" — draped, building-size ads. And behind the scenes, Regalado supported magnate Mark Siffin's failed bid to erect 40-story digital towers near the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
But the signs violate county, state, and federal laws against advertising. And they don't even bring in that much cash. At most, the city receives about $3 million a year from signs, Ehrlich says.
That hasn't stopped Regalado from supporting the city's efforts to opt out of the county's billboard rules (an effort that has so far stalled in committee).
"There's no coincidence that sign companies have flooded campaign contributions to the mayor," Ehrlich says. "Ultimately, plastering Miami in advertising will hurt revenues more than it will help, but the ad companies will be rolling in cash."
7. The Cops Have Run Amok
Get this: The mayor of Miami has not spoken a single word to his police chief in more than six months. Regalado's lawyers won't let him talk to Miguel Exposito, New Times has learned, because the chief has complained to the FBI about the mayor and accused his administration of bribery and mob ties.
But that's OK. Why would a mayor need to "talk" to his police chief? He has only led his department to its lowest point since the end of the '90s with a rash of contentious police shootings, a botched corruption raid, an ugly public fight over gambling, and an embarrassing flap over a reality show.
Yes, Miami, this is your life. "This chief will go down in history as the worst chief we've ever had in Miami," Commissioner Richard Dunn says. "It baffles me why we have not yet been able to fire him."
Dunn doesn't connect the dots, so we will: Regalado recruited Exposito, hired him, and has done nothing to end his appalling reign.
Regalado connected with Expo in the late '90s, when the then-major ratted out his department for keeping secret files on politicos' girlfriends and favorite "drinking establishments." Exposito paid a price — he was demoted to captain and banished to the property room. (He filed a whistleblower suit in 2000 over that treatment and eventually won back his rank.)
Regalado thought he had a guy he could trust. Soon after taking office, he wrangled a resignation from Chief John Timoney and handed the reins to Expo, who echoed the mayor's campaign pledges to "raise morale" and root out corruption.
Neither of those plans worked out. Exposito's first act was to announce a "corruption bust" of eight city employees and nonprofit workers. Unfortunately, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle dropped nearly every charge, and the FBI blasted both the chief and mayor.
The rest of the sad story is all too familiar: In addition to the shooting spree, Exposito allowed a reality show, Miami's Finest: Special Operations Section, to film in his department. In a leaked promo, he called his officers "predators," and other cops advocated "hunting" in Miami's worst neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, the chief and mayor's relationship disintegrated. At the heart: an argument over maquinitas, gaming machines at bodegas around Little Havana. On January 7, Exposito announced he had filed an FBI complaint that Regalado had "interfered" with raids on machine owners. On Spanish radio, he accused the mayor of having mob ties.
In February, Regalado backed a plan to pay an ex-FBI agent $20,000 to probe the department. In return, the mayor received last month a brief, five-page report that bizarrely concluded the chief was running a perfectly adequate force.
Exposito has since told anyone who will listen that "high-ranking city officials" offered him $200,000 in January to walk away from the job, and hinted he has worked with investigators to hold the mayor accountable for bribery.
Either way, the chief is set to retire in December. "He's going to be gone soon," Regalado says. "But there's nothing I can do."
Sure. Absolutely nothing.
8. Four City Managers in 20 Months
Regalado is strangely jocular about one of the more troubling signs of mismanagement. How exactly does a mayor plow through four city managers in just 20 months on the job? (Manny Diaz had only three in nearly a decade.) When Regalado took over, Pete Hernandez had been running the show capably for three years. But Regalado wanted his guy in there, he says, so he hired a Bentley-driving former bank exec who was once married to disgraced City Manager Cesar Odio's chief of staff. Although Carlos Migoya, a Lex Luthor look-alike, avoided any Odio-esque scandals — and yeah, he worked for free for one year — Regalado knew he was a short-timer. Migoya used the job as a stepping stone to a $590,000-per-year gig as Jackson Memorial's director, without fixing any long-term budget problems.
His successor, Tony Crapp Jr. — Regalado's longtime chief of staff — had no significant business or financial experience.
Maybe that's why he bailed in the middle of Miami's worst budget crisis since the mid-'90s while giving possibly illegal severance packages worth almost $118,000 to two departing bureaucrats. (Ex-CFO Larry Spring received $61,827 and departing IT chief Peter Korinis received $56,079. Regalado also signed off on a $92,500 cash payout for Crapp, who rejected it amid public outcry.)
But don't worry. There's always a chance new manager Johnny Martinez — a longtime state bureaucrat whom Migoya brought onboard — is the answer.
Here's Regalado's convoluted reasoning why Miami shouldn't be concerned: "Pete [Hernandez] was Manny's guy, and I liked him, but he knew I needed my guy in there. And Carlos Migoya, I knew when we brought him in could only stay for one year, because we couldn't pay $700,000 to keep him. So really, the only disappointment I've had has been Tony [Crapp]."
Voter's aren't the only ones not buying it. On June 24, bond rating agency Moody's downgraded $226 million in city obligations from "stable" to "negative." The reason: "turnover in key city managerial positions at this time of fiscal instability."
9. He Loves Terrorists
In the mid-'80s, Regalado — then a news director at WRHC-AM — held an on-air fundraising drive to help the legal defense of a local dockworker named Eduardo Arocena. Regalado proudly told the Miami Herald that his station's work helped pull in a piece of the $21,000 collected to pay for Arocena's lawyers.
What did Eduardo do, you ask? Well, he's only Miami's most notorious terrorist. He and his goons built 32 pipe bombs and detonated them outside businesses, government offices, and theaters from Little Havana to New Jersey in the mid-'70s in a twisted attempt to win support for anti-Castro efforts. In 1979, he ordered his cronies to shoot a Jersey activist to death in front of his 13-year-old son.
Nice guy, right?
Admittedly, that fund drive was 30 years ago. But in case you think Regalado has changed his tune, just last month he instructed Martinez, his new city manager, to waive the city's hiring freeze to bring on a rather curious "budget consultant."
Luis Zuniga doesn't have great financial credentials — but he's a hard-line Cuban activist and former member of Alpha 66, the paramilitary anti-Castro group accused of its own spate of bombings during the '70s wave of terror that swept through Miami.
Sounds like just the guy to solve the city's budget woes, right? Perhaps for more than $2,300 a month — the salary the mayor authorized — Zuniga can fashion a deficit-destroying pipe bomb.
10. Whistleblowers Cost Taxpayers
One consequence of being a terrible manager is that your organization tends to fall to pieces. (See: City of Miami, circa 2009 to present.) And, oh yeah, taxpayers end up footing the bill for all the lawsuits filed by wrongfully terminated underlings.
In just 20 months as mayor, Regalado has racked up two major suits by former top deputies; two more are likely to follow. Three say they were fired for whistleblowing, and another says he was canned in an act of political retaliation. All have cost the city big in legal fees — and could easily end up with big settlements paid out of your wallet.
Until April 2010, Ola Aluko, director of the Capital Improvements Program, did his job well without a lot of fuss. But on March 19, 2010, he says, he alerted Regalado that he'd discovered midlevel managers inflating a contract from $250,000 to $750,000.
What Aluko claims he didn't know is that the managers were well connected. So Regalado canned Aluko. "If the mayor wants to clean house... he's got the right to do that," Aluko told New Times. "What he can't do is fire a guy... who blows the whistle and embarrasses him."
Alex J. Martinez knows how he feels. The ex-deputy director of the General Services Administration was one of eight who were targets of a botched April 2010 "corruption probe."
Though authorities announced Martinez was "still at large," the bureaucrat was sitting at home with a stomachache, utterly baffled. He turned himself in the next day, but charges were quickly dropped. The real reason he was shamed on television, he says, is simple: He was the prime investigator behind one of Regalado's worst political scandals, the alleged abuse of his city-issued gas cards a decade ago. (Despite strong evidence that the then-commissioner's family was racking up big gas bills on city cards, he was never punished.)
Michael Boudreaux's case is more complex. The former city finance director's work with ex-CFO Larry Spring has become a central point in the SEC's investigation. After the director was fired in March 2010, Regalado claimed someone deleted or stole key files from Boudreaux's computer to stymie investigators.
In fact, Boudreaux argues, he was canned as a scapegoat. "They [tried to] punish, smear, and even concoct false allegations of criminal conduct against this dedicated city employee who dared to tell the truth," he writes in his suit.
Igwe, the fired auditor, meanwhile, tells New Times he has hired his own attorneys.
Regalado is barred from talking about ongoing lawsuits, and Aluko's and Boudreaux's cases are still open. (Martinez says he's preparing a lawsuit.)
But this much is certain: You're already paying to defend the mayor every day because of his own bad management. And unless you recall him now, you'll probably pay a lot more.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.