Shape Up and Ship Out

O captain, my captain. Your ship is a life-threatening safety hazard to the Port of Miami and has been since last spring. So despite your political connections and your plans to reap profits, get your boat out of our water.

So might read the lament of the Miami Coast Guard station in its months-long battle with a well-connected local lawyer. The captain in question is attorney Manny Alonso-Poch, also part-owner of Sloppy Joe's restaurant in Coconut Grove and a developer of other commercial properties.

The vessel is the Ocean Freeze, an aging, crewless 275-foot refrigerated cargo ship tied up next to Bicentennial Park in downtown Miami. The Coast Guard warns that in bad weather, the 1500-ton eyesore could break loose from its moorings and crash into the bridge leading to the Port of Miami or into another vessel, wreaking havoc. The ship has been tied up there since January 1997 and the U.S. Coast Guard says it has presented a hazard since the beginning of hurricane season last year.

According to Capt. Dave Miller, the commanding officer of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office, Alonso-Poch is the de facto owner of the vessel and has ignored repeated orders to move it, has deliberately misled the Coast Guard about plans to relocate it, and has violated laws that govern the proper vigilance of a ship not in operation. A Coast Guard hearing officer recently fined Alonso-Poch $25,000, a penalty he is appealing.

While Alonso-Poch has not been replying to the Coast Guard, he has been doing business. This past June 10 he bought the Ocean Freeze at auction for $105,000, in the names of the clients who had hired him: eight crewmen who were owed wages by the ship's previous owner, a Vietnamese company. The U.S. Marshals Service in Miami seized the vessel in January 1997 because the owners had been sued for those back wages. (Another creditor had also sued.) The marshals then auctioned it by order of the U.S. District Court. Alonso-Poch purchased it without having to put up one penny at the auction or afterward.

As attorney for the plaintiffs, the 48-year-old Alonso-Poch was empowered to name the "substitute custodian" for the ship, someone who would act as caretaker until the legal wrangling was settled. Alonso-Poch tapped his own company, Gulfstream Marine Enterprises, which is located at the same address as his Coral Gables law office. Gulfstream then assessed a fee of $825 per day to maintain the vessel. By the time it was sold at auction in June 1997, Gulfstream was owed more than the $105,000 sale price, so Alonso-Poch took control of the vessel, according to the Marshals Service.

John Hackman, of the Marshals' assets forfeiture office, emits a wry chuckle when informed that Alonso-Poch and Gulfstream are one and the same, something he had not previously realized. "Oh, that's sweet. That's real sweet," he muses, as if he'd just witnessed a clever card trick.

But Alonso-Poch wasn't finished doing business. In recent weeks he got State Rep. Bruno Barreiro (R-Miami Beach) to sponsor a bill before the legislature that would pay him at least $125,000 for the ship. Once he has the money, according to the bill, Alonso-Poch will "donate" the ship to Dade County, which will then sink it, probably near Turkey Point, to create an artificial reef. The move to wring that much money out of the state for a manmade reef is unprecedented, says Brian Flynn, coastal management officer for Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM). The bill presented by Barreiro reads, "The owners of the ship are donating the ship to the Dade County Reef Program provided that the accumulated expenses of $125,000 are paid."

Says Jack Luft, Miami's former city planning director, who once crossed paths with the Ocean Freeze: "So the state has to buy it from him so he can donate it? I like that."

But even by Alonso-Poch's own accounting, nothing near $125,000 has been expended. The main costs a custodian would encounter in this case are docking fees and security, and Alonso-Poch himself says those expenses have so far not exceeded $35,000.

That is because he stopped paying docking fees May 15 of last year. Today he owes the Bayfront Park Management Trust at least $17,000 in back payments for the berth next to Bicentennial Park. "We would bill him every month and he wouldn't respond and he wouldn't answer calls," gripes Tim Schmand, grants coordinator of the trust. "He dusted us."

And according to Captain Miller, the ship's security has been inadequate. During a storm on February 23, mooring lines came loose and one end of the vessel swung dangerously into open water. No one was aboard at the time and Coast Guard personnel had to secure the wayward ship. "This is the kind of hazard we're talking about," complains Miller. "All he has done is ignore the Coast Guard."  

The Coast Guard understandably is not at all happy with Alonso-Poch. According to documents and the accounts of Coast Guard officials, the ship's owner not only ignored various deadlines for moving the Ocean Freeze to a safer berth, but on one occasion he lied to Coast Guard officials about alternative plans for the vessel. "He gave us the name of two firms on the river that had agreed to dock the vessel, but when we contacted them, they both said they had not been contacted by Mr. Alonso-Poch," says Lt. Cmdr. Steven Hanewich of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office. "There has been a pattern of misrepresentations and half-truths all through this."

As for the $25,000 fine Alonso-Poch faces, Hanewich says, "We have the ability to recommend that a penalty be waived in most cases. But here we have aggravating circumstances: the degree to which the Coast Guard was ignored." Alonso-Poch shouldn't expect mercy from the agency, which questions why Florida taxpayers should pay his Coast Guard fines.

Alonso-Poch has also angered city officials. On October 1 the City of Miami took over management of the Bicentennial berth from the Bayfront Park Management Trust; that was when the city sold part of its former Florida East Coast Railway land to the county for use in building a new arena for the Miami Heat. Jack Luft, the former planning director, says he tracked Alonso-Poch to Sloppy Joe's and extracted from him a promise to move the vessel by December, when the Heat wanted to break ground. "Yes, I guess he ignored that too," says Luft, who was ousted after the November elections.

When the Suarez administration swept into office, the Ocean Freeze sailed across the desk of Dena Bianchino, Miami's director of asset management. She says the city has not charged Alonso-Poch docking fees since October 1. The rate he paid originally was 46 cents per foot per day -- about $3700 per month -- which was already extremely low for the area, according to Coast Guard officials. "All we've wanted to do is get rid of it," sighs Bianchino. "We're mainly concerned with liability. I talked to him on January 6. He promised to have it out of there by February 1." Alonso-Poch ignored that date as well. Last week Bianchino said the city will go to court to force the ship out if it has to. "I need it out of there now," says Bianchino. "We'll do whatever it takes. I'm going to start billing him too."

If all Alonso-Poch has done so far is create a safety hazard and stiff the city, why should he be entitled to $125,000 in taxpayer money? Alonso-Poch says there is a very good reason. "I'm the only one who has taken any responsibility for this ship," he insists. "And the fact is it's going to make an absolutely spectacular artificial reef, a real tourist attraction." Many people agree with the latter assessment; they just question who should pay for it.

Alonso-Poch maintains that the whole matter has been a Coast Guard-generated squall. He says he never lied to anyone about alternative docking plans. "They kept on saying, 'Move the ship,' and I kept on saying, 'Where? Tell me where.'" Captain Miller insists it is not the Coast Guard's responsibility to find a berth for the vessel.

Furthermore, Alonso-Poch asserts, the ship is actually owned by the crewmen he represents, not by him, so he is not legally responsible for it.

But he does say that if the Barreiro bill passes, the money will be divided this way: The crew members will get only about $15,000 among them, about three-quarters of what they are owed. The rest will go to pay the overdue Bayfront Park Management Trust docking fee, and also dockage, clean-up costs, and security guard wages he has already paid. Another $10,000 will go to cover his attorney fees. That will leave at least $50,000 -- which will also go to Alonso-Poch. Why won't it go to the crew if they are the true owners? "Because I'm the one who busted my ass on this," he reasons.

Meanwhile he and Dade County already have a contract to sink the ship as an artificial reef, although it hasn't yet been signed. DERM, which is backing the Barreiro bill, agrees that the Ocean Freeze will make a lovely reef. The agency and local private game-fishing clubs have agreed to share the expense of cleaning up the vessel in preparation for sinking it. Alonso-Poch says he's ready to sign the contract even before the bill is considered by the legislature -- despite his claim that he could sell the ship for scrap for at least $130,000 and not risk losing his entire investment.  

So why would he want to navigate a risky course through Tallahassee politics? Why not just scrap it for cash? In answering, Alonso-Poch sounds exactly like Captain Miller, Jack Luft, the Bayfront Park Management Trust, and the city's Dena Bianchino -- all of whom insisted the ship be moved and who say Alonso-Poch ignored them. "Because I want to get that ship out of there," he declares. "I want to be finished with it."

But he hasn't yet signed the artificial-reef contract. He says he will. So the question now becomes, Will Manny Alonso-Poch ignore himself?

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