Officer Carlos De Varona of the Miami Beach Police Department already had followed the speeding Ford Explorer a mile across the MacArthur Causeway when he radioed headquarters. "He's westbound," he told the dispatcher as he slalomed his marked cruiser through the dense lunchtime traffic on September 22. "I don't know if he's running from me, but he's taking off." De Varona had first noticed the shiny green Explorer when it cut off a car as it turned onto the MacArthur on-ramp from Alton Road.
Shortly before the Palm Island bridge, De Varona recalls, he turned on his flashing rooftop lights. Moments later he activated the siren. But the Explorer, he says, continued to zig and zag "erratically" through the two lanes of westbound traffic, always remaining about four or five cars ahead of him. "He's still not stopping," De Varona barked to the dispatcher more than two minutes after his initial radio contact.
Finally, on the approach to the drawbridge connecting Watson Island to downtown Miami, the Explorer pulled over. De Varona approached the car and, he recalls, asked the driver for his registration and license. According to the officer, the driver replied, "Don't you know who I am?"
At that point, De Varona says, it dawned on him: The Explorer was the Eddie Bauer designer model the city leases at $448 per month. The driver was Roger Carlton, the Miami Beach city manager. "Sure I do," the 31-year-old officer remembers saying. "But that doesn't allow you to drive the way you're driving."
"I know. I'm late for a meeting, officer," Carlton replied.
"You know, I can't drive like that," the officer continued.
"I know," admitted the city manager.
According to De Varona, he told Carlton, "Just go. Bye. See you later," and allowed the city manager to go on his way without a citation.
De Varona says an officer has the discretion whether to write a traffic ticket and that it made no difference to him that the driver happened to be the city manager, the administrative supervisor of the police department. "I don't write a lot of tickets anyway," explains De Varona, a ten-year veteran of the police force, who estimates he hands out only about two traffic tickets every month.
When New Times last week requested a copy of the police-dispatcher tape that included the traffic stop, available under the laws governing Florida's public records, police department officials said the tape wouldn't be ready for several days, citing a backlog of such requests. But later that same day, Roger Carlton himself telphoned the newspaper, saying he had obtained a copy of the recording, even though he hadn't been mentioned by name in the records request. (After telling his side of the story to New Times earlier in the day, De Varona had contacted his supervisor and the department's public information officer, who had gotten word to Police Chief Huber, who had personally informed the city manager about the tape request.) "When can we sit down and listen to it together?" Carlton wanted to know.
The city manager freely confesses that he was speeding across the causeway; he estimates he was going about 55 miles per hour, 25 miles per hour over the temporary speed limit imposed while the causeway undergoes extensive repairs. "I was going from city hall to a meeting at the Grand Bay Hotel with a Miami Beach city commissioner and developers and I was very late," Carlton explains. "I always go fast." (State records show Carlton has received three speeding tickets in Florida in the past eleven years.) Carlton also admits he "may have passed a car or two" but denies De Varona's claim that he was driving "erratically." Furthermore, he says, he pulled over as soon as he saw the patrol car's lights. "The second that I saw him behind me, I pulled over," says Carlton, who was hired as city manager in March. "I don't believe his siren was ever on. My vehicle has very dark tinted windows and I had no knowledge that he was anywhere near me until we were on Watson Island."
According to Carlton, it was De Varona who spoke the first words after approaching the Explorer. "He looked at me and he said, `You're the city manager.' Then he made some snide remark -- I don't remember what it was, one sentence refering to my driving -- turned around, and walked away. As he walked away, I stuck my head out of the window and said, `Officer, please come back.' And he kept going and got back in his car. The attitude that he evidenced was disrespectful of the city manger, okay? And I endeavored to get him back to discuss the incident but he didn't give me that opportunity. And as you know I'm very busy, I went about my business."
Carlton characterizes De Varona's version of the conversation as the fabrication of a disgruntled city employee. (Earlier this year De Varona and several other officers sued the city, claiming an unfair examination disqualified them from promotion.) "There's some tension between the officer and his employer," insists Carlton, who himself is known for a tough management style and gruff demeanor. In addition, the incident occurred in the midst of tense ongoing pension negotiations between the city administration and the Fraternal Order of Police.
Carlton also accuses De Varona of leaking the story to New Times. "What created the firestorm in his mind that he felt compelled to go beyond what it was?" the city manager asks. "Why do you think he ensured by whatever circuitous path that you got the right tape? Whether Officer De Varona chose to make an issue out of it or whether somebody else chose to make a situation out of this, I'm sure there's a perception that any embarrassment for the manager will weaken by position and strengthen [the police union's]. Why would I put myself in a potentially embarrassing situation by trying to bully a police officer?"
De Varona says he stays out of political frays and denies planting the story in the media. (In fact, he only spoke with New Times after several attempts to contact him.) "I don't lie," De Varona says of the roadside conversation. "The city manager does have his version, I have mine. Everyone has their own opinion; I know what I heard. I wouldn't dare make a snide remark to what really is our supervisor, without fear of repercussions. And I do have a lawsuit pending. Why would I stop him and jeopardize everything?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.