So Long, Mila!
Miami has lost an original. Two weeks ago Mila Cervone D'Urso flew off to London for a new job, a new home, a new life. After nine glorious years here, it was time to move on. But it's hard to imagine stodgy old London -- cool by temperament, skeptical by nature -- being as hospitable an environment as Miami, at least for a person like Mila.
Miami, on the other hand, was made for her. Like an exotic flower in a fecund hothouse, Mila blossomed and flourished when she hit town, and she came to attract many admirers dazzled by her vivacity. Miami is full of people like that -- people who are drawn to colorful personalities, seduced by charmers, mesmerized by those with a little class and a lot of imagination. Maybe it's because the area doesn't produce many such characters on its own. Maybe it's because people who choose to live here are more willing than most to suspend disbelief. Maybe it's simply the hot tropical air.
In any case, Mila and Miami were a perfect match. An Italian of obvious breeding and education, her move here meant she didn't suffer the inconvenience of a personal history -- at least not one that was easily verifiable -- so her past could be a malleable thing, easily shaped to fit the demands of the moment. She thought big and lived large, and did so with style, even when it was beyond her means. Especially when it was beyond her means. And she instinctively understood that Miami was one of those places where the cultivation of influential friends was an essential ingredient in the kind of life she wanted to live.
"There is something that I think is so wonderful: freedom," she would say in her delightfully quirky English. "If I like this, I'm going to get this. It's no matter if I have to put it in my pants. So be it." If she wanted to entertain friends at a fancy restaurant but didn't wish to suffer the indignity of actually paying the bill, she simply wouldn't pay. If she felt like ignoring traffic citations, she would ignore them. If she grew irritated with threats from credit card companies and collection agencies, she'd just obtain a new credit card under a different name. If she believed it was to her advantage to use someone else's Social Security number for this or that purpose, she would do so without blanching. "It's only a pleasure to do things that you aren't allowed to do. You know what I mean?" she would comment with a sly smile.
Granted, even in Miami there were a few sorry souls who failed to appreciate the grandeur of Mila's audacity. "It's a sickness," grumbled a former friend. "She thinks she can live in a world without rules." Another who had business dealings with Mila went so far as to call her a slick con artist. But most people who encountered her were smitten, and so it was no wonder that in her time here she became one of the city's busiest goodwill ambassadors, traveling from Scandinavia to South America promoting Miami as a sophisticated international city with myriad opportunities to prosper, both professionally and personally. She herself was living proof.
Mila demonstrated just what a person could do with a few aliases, a modest selection of addresses, some creativity, and the blessings of a well-known political figure. Namely, just about anything she wanted.
She arrived in town with an profile guaranteed to play well in Miami: a tantalizingly mysterious past. By her own account, she was born in Rome into a family of extraordinary wealth. (Indeed, her surname, D'Urso, is shared by one of the snootiest families in Italy.) Beyond that, she would provide only the sketchiest of biographical details. Undergraduate degree in something related to linguistics. Married at a young age, moved to Oslo, Norway, gave birth to a son, and earned a master's degree in international relations. Moved back to Italy -- Milan this time -- and gave birth to a daughter. Twice divorced. At some point along the way a Ph.D. from UCLA. Oh, and her most recent lover was a billionaire.
No one seems to remember exactly how she came to work for the City of Miami. Matthew Schwartz, her former boss at the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), thought she started in 1987 or 1988. Mila said she landed the job in 1986 while she was in town on business for a Brussels public relations firm. She was relaxing in a swimming pool when someone who knew the mayor suggested that she work for the city. Pool and person remain unidentified, but details are unimportant. "I said okay and that was it," she offered.
Somehow she ended up at the DDA as the European trade and marketing representative, a low-paying, relatively insignificant position. Relatively insignificant, that is, until Mila met Miami City Commissioner Victor De Yurre, who served as chairman of the DDA board of directors. The two hit it off spectacularly well, and Mila's star began ascending. Over time they did a lot of traveling together, especially to Italy (De Yurre is an unabashed Italophile) but also to such locales as Tunisia and South Africa -- all in an effort to promote Miami as an up-and-comer on the world stage. "He and I were very close," the 52-year-old Mila said during one of several wide-ranging conversations prior to leaving for London. "He was the only one, really, that I would share my ideas and my international background with. He is the only man in the City of Miami who has a vision of the future. It's a pity that he's married, isn't it?"
De Yurre, who is married, is equally gracious: "I think that Mila is just one step in many steps that need to be taken as far as bringing the European community closer to Miami. What Mila represents is the mentality to make this happen. I'm not laying claim to it, but I met Mila in '88, and since '89 we've had direct flights from Miami to Rome with Alitalia. We've also seen a tremendous Italian influence in Miami with new restaurants and magazines. She has an unbelievable talent as far as getting into places and meeting people."
Not one to let such talent slip from his grasp, De Yurre managed to take Mila with him when his tenure as DDA chairman expired. He moved over to the city's International Trade Board (ITB) and installed her in a job there. "ITB was a natural place for Mila," De Yurre explained. "I dragged her with me." (True, city regulations did require that the position be publicly advertised, and yes, several aspiring candidates were interviewed, but Mila put them all to shame.)
Being dragged around by a city commissioner has its benefits, of course. Mila singled out her spacious office as an example. Located on the eleventh floor of the Dupont Plaza Center downtown, it featured a commanding view of the Miami River, Brickell Key, and the skyscrapers of Brickell Avenue (including the Barnett Bank building, where De Yurre houses his law practice). "You know how I got this office?" she asked. "I was working in a small office on the other side of the building and it was no good, so I called up Victor and he came over here and said, 'The big room, it must be for Mila!'"
Potent connections continued to serve her well at the trade board, where the principal mission was connecting local business people with foreign companies for the benefit of all concerned. Though the work concentrated on Miami's biggest trading partners in Latin America, Europe was not ignored. And that's where Mila fit in -- opening new markets on the continent, Italy in particular.
Business trips -- a number of them with De Yurre -- took her back and forth to Milan. She spent ten days in Oslo. In Venice she stayed at the Grand Hotel; in Paris at the St. Germaine. Her room and board was usually paid by the city she was visiting. Her flights were often compliments of Alitalia Airlines. Mila's supervisor, Manny Gonzalez, marveled at her resourcefulness: "She had an unequaled ability to get us free stuff."
Getting someone else to pay for her expenses, in fact, seemed to be a motivating force in Mila's life. In 1990, for example, she accompanied University of Miami music students and professors on an exchange program to Trento, Italy. She did an excellent job handling the logistics, according to Nestor Rodriguez, who at the time was the director of special projects for UM's School of Music. While in Rome during the trip, Mila confessed to Rodriguez that she had run out of money. The two of them needed to make a quick trip to Florence, and they also wanted to visit Nice, France, to explore the possibility of another exchange program. With the understanding that she would reimburse the school, Rodriguez loaned her the travel money, about $760.
When he returned to Miami, however, Rodriguez discovered that Mila had no intention of repaying the money. Apparently she also conveyed that intention to her employer, the Downtown Development Authority, because Rodriguez's repeated letters to DDA seeking reimbursement came to nothing. "It was a very productive enterprise with the exception of that detail," Rodriguez says today. "To be honest with you, it was kind of a sensitive issue. In trying to give an appearance of good taste, we didn't really broach the subject much further. I sometimes saw her socially at concerts at UM, and we acted like it never happened." As far as Mila was concerned, it never should have been an issue. "I was helping the school out," she said recently. "They should have paid for my trip."
In 1992 Mila asked the DDA to reimburse her for the cost of renting a car for a month, according to documents on file with the agency. Commissioner De Yurre verbally authorized the reimbursement and the DDA cut her a check for $722. The person who actually had paid for the car, though, was not Mila but John Gale, a prominent Italian-American and a former circuit court judge. Gale and Mila had met socially several times. When she told him how desperately she needed the car and that she was unable to get credit in America, he agreed to pay for the rental and let her repay him. She never did. She also claimed to Gale that the city never reimbursed her.
"It's a sad story with me," Gale now says. "You try to help somebody out and they stick you like that. I last tried to get the money about eight months ago. I'm glad you found the cashed check [from the DDA to Mila], but I still don't think I'll ever see my money." (Mila asserted that she didn't need to pay back Gale because "he got so many other favors from me.")
The former manager of the swank Caffe Baci in Coral Gables extended his own form of credit to Mila: He allowed her to run up a very large tab, then spent nearly a year calling Mila at the DDA in an attempt to have her pay. "I lost 1000 bucks from my pocket because I was managing the restaurant and the owner trusted me," says the former manager, who is now maitre d' at a different restaurant. "I don't want to get involved any more. In fact, I'm trying to forget about it." (Like many people who have had business dealings with Mila, the former Baci manager refuses to allow his name to be published. Mila's response: "If there is a record of a bill not paid, then you can show it to me."
Given her meager salary, Mila's extreme frugality might be understandable. Like other employees of the International Trade Board, she was an independent contractor, which meant she signed yearly contracts with the city instead of working as a full-time employee with benefits. Her most recent annual contract, signed in 1994, awarded her just $36,000. "For what I have done for the City of Miami," Mila complained, "I should be a billionaire."
Fortunately, she possessed an uncommon aptitude for stretching a budget. She apparently learned long ago that one of the quickest ways to run out of money is to pay all bills in full. So she adopted a strategy that enabled her to pursue the first-class lifestyle to which she was accustomed despite the pittance she earned: Many bills she didn't pay at all. Her former employer, the DDA, still receives inquiries from dry cleaners, hotels, and other businesses attempting to collect on Mila's debts. "You want information on Mila Cervone D'Urso?" asked the DDA receptionist. "She must owe money to you guys, too."
Sometimes dodging overdue notices required extraordinary ingenuity, and Mila was always up to the challenge. For instance, she never paid the fine for the ticket she received in July 1993 for driving with an expired registration, according to records on file at the Metro-Dade Justice Building. The nonpayment led to suspension of her driver's license, which had been issued in the name of Mila Cervone. When she was pulled over this past July 1 while driving a rental car, she somehow managed to escape being arrested for driving with a suspended license. Whatever story she told the police officer (she was an Italian citizen? She had only an international driver's license?), he apparently bought it. Instead of hauling her off to jail, he gave her a simple ticket for improper lane usage. (She left Miami without paying that fine, either.) It helped, of course, that Mila provided the officer with a different address and a different rendition of her name: Mila C. Durso.
(She did her best to avoid more traffic tickets by traveling everywhere, every day, with a silver-and-blue plaque displayed in her car that read "City of Miami official city business." According to the city clerk's office, the plaques are a signal to police officers not to write tickets if the car is parked illegally. Mila placed her plaque in her rear window, where a patrol car could easily see it from the road. Written restrictions on the use of these official city plaques do not exist, but the city's administrative policy manual states that they are distributed by department heads. Mila's superior at the International Trade Board, Manny Gonzalez, would seem to have been the person authorized to give her the plaque. "I never gave her one," Gonzalez says flatly. "I don't know who gave her one or how she got one.")
Mila's practice of mixing up her name and addresses proved useful when dealing with other financial matters -- credit cards, for example. City of Miami records show that she was issued an American Express card in the name of Mila Cervone D'Urso. Credit records, however, reveal a second American Express card in the name of Mila Cervone Durso (no apostrophe) at a slightly different home address. That credit card was canceled last month after Mila failed to pay more than $5000 in charges.
Should American Express officials wish to investigate further, they could be frustrated by the Social Security number Mila used when she applied for the card that was canceled. It belonged to someone else. Two national database searches show that the number is registered to a woman named Dorothy B. Graham, who once lived in Pittsburgh.
That's not the only Social Security number Mila apparently borrowed. Documents on file with the City of Miami, the Downtown Development Authority, and the International Trade Board list a Social Security number for Mila that actually belongs to a Miami woman who once considered herself Mila's friend. "I am so upset," says the woman, who has broken off her friendship with Mila but still begged for anonymity. "I cannot believe that she is using my number. I just want to call the police and turn her in." She's also angry with the city for not scrutinizing more carefully the people it hires. "This is very bad because it is a public thing," she argues. "I think the problem is with the City of Miami for allowing this stuff."
Not so, says Mila booster Victor De Yurre. To a large extent, the city relies on good faith in dealing with independent contractors like Mila, and besides, this sort of thing is not so uncommon. "I know of cases where, because of computers or something, some guy had his [Social Security] numbers switched," De Yurre offers. "When it came time to retire, the switch came out in the open because the guy was getting a lot less than what was expected. So I don't think you can blame the city for something like that."
Mila thought she could explain how her former friend's Social Security number ended up on those official city documents. "A clerk or somebody at the DDA, a black woman, came over and asked me for my number," she recalled. "It was on a piece of paper, but so was another Social Security number. The black woman must have copied down the wrong number."
As for Dorothy B. Graham, Mila claimed not to know her and had no idea how Graham's Social Security number could have gotten mixed up with her American Express card. Furthermore, Mila insisted that she had her own authentic Social Security number, though she refused to divulge it. "I'm not going to tell it to you," she said. "It is personal and is not your business."
Like any person working in the United States -- foreigner and citizen alike -- Mila needed a Social Security number in order to pay federal income tax and to make other required federal contributions, notes John Schnelman, an Internal Revenue Service spokesman who is based in Fort Lauderdale. Privacy laws prevent Schnelman from discussing Mila's specific tax situation, but he does acknowledge that the IRS requires foreign nationals to prove they are using their own Social Security number and not someone else's.
"I am always honest," Mila stressed. "I never lie to anyone." And she has always paid her taxes, she added, both here and in Italy.
Mila's creative use of Social Security numbers was rivaled by her approach to housing, specifically with regard to innovative methods for keeping rental costs low.
Court documents show that in July of last year, she simply stopped paying rent on the Coconut Grove house in which she and her grown son were living. Her landlord, William R. Cole, was not amused. He went to court and obtained a "three-day letter" that required Mila to fork over the $5400 she owed for July, August, and September, plus late fees of $180. Rather than pay, however, Mila chose to move out, though not before threatening to have city officials complicate Cole's life. "I told him, 'I'm going to speak with the City of Miami and I'm going to put you in trouble,'" Mila recounted with some glee.
Joan Andre of Coconut Grove Realty handled Mila's next house search, and she ended up finding a place in South Miami that, initially at least, appeared to be perfect. The house on SW 75th Terrace was a rambling Key West-style cottage with four bedrooms, a patio, a pool in the back, and new carpeting throughout. It was owned by a professional woman who had bought it with the intention of eventually using it as her retirement home.
Mila loved the place. She eagerly presented a rental application that listed Miami City Commissioner Victor De Yurre as a reference and stated her annual salary from the International Trade Board as being $72,000, supplemented by $37,000 in "consulting" fees -- clearly more than adequate to cover the monthly rent of $1800 -- and far more than her true income. A credit check did not reveal any problems. (At the time of the credit check, neither Andre nor the house's owner realized that Mila had provided a bogus Social Security number.) "She comes off with very good credentials," notes Andre. "She throws in the City of Miami trade commission and you really think she's someone of worth, of trust." Her son would be the only other tenant, she said, and there would be no dogs except for those rare instances when her daughter visited from Italy, pets in tow.
The landlady, Sarah Hagen, was duly impressed -- even more so by the heart-wrenching story Mila told: She was recently divorced and needed a place to restart her life. In addition, most of her money was tied up in a nasty lawsuit concerning the sale of a vehicle. "I was emotionally captured by her difficulties," recalls Hagen. "This place provided the space and conditions to allow her to start over. She even said it was reminiscent of the vineyards where she came from. She had a tremendous amount of poetic style, if you will. So I told her I would be very glad to rent it to her." More than that, Hagen agreed to forgo a security deposit and did not require prepayment of the last month's rent. Mila and her son moved in this past January.
By the time she was finally evicted, Mila had managed to skip both the June and July rental payments. When Hagen inspected the home after Mila was gone, she found widespread damage, including holes in the carpeting from burning cigarettes, liquor stains covering the walls, and urine from two Great Danes that had soaked into the hardwood floors. She estimated $18,000 in damage and lost rent. Hagen also discovered that Mila had left behind a bounty of documents: unpaid phone bills, correspondence, cancellation notices from FPL and credit card companies, and evidence that her tenant used a variety of names: Mila Cervone, Mila D'Urso, Mila Durso, and Mila Miccolis among others.
Mila, ever resourceful, managed to spin it to her advantage. "The septic tank did not work and the cabinets they fall from the ceiling," she asserted. "I moved because the house was a wreck. When the septic tank is blowing up totally and you don't have water and all the doors of the cabinets are falling on your head, I say that this is a scam."
Says realtor Joan Andre: "This is one of the slickest con people I have seen working Miami in a long time."
Even with deep discounts in rent, credit card payments, and canine costs (the seller of the Great Danes, Pennsylvania attorney M.J. Cohen, says he's still owed $700), Mila needed extra income to support her lifestyle. So she turned to the local business community. When she was successful in hooking up a Miami business person with a foreign client -- exactly what the city paid her to do -- she came to expect a little something in return. "See, she gave me this card here," says one Miami woman whose business benefited from Mila's international networking. She displayed a City of Miami business card with Mila's name on it and a percentage sign scribbled in the lower right-hand corner. "It means that she wants a percentage of the profits."
Mila was not shy about admitting that she asked for up to ten percent of the profits from referrals to this particular businesswoman, but argued that those referrals were not part of her work with the International Trade Board.
Some people might cringe at hearing about such arrangements, especially in light of the ethics codes that govern most public officials and their work. But for Commissioner De Yurre, Mila's expected surcharge was a matter for interpretation, not condemnation. She operated as an independent contractor, he points out, and she very well could have been working for different entities simultaneously. Yes, it would be wrong to "charge" for city business, he acknowledges, but it remains unclear for whom she was working when she asked for a percentage of profits. "I could go either way on that kind of thing," he declares. "I try to be as squeaky clean as I can to try to avoid any semblance of triviality [sic]. Don't think of Mila as you would think of yourself. You are talking about an individual who has grown up in a different environment. Maybe in her own mindset she's not doing something wrong."
In the mindset of another Italian, however, Mila recently did something very wrong. Achille Piovella is the president of Milanfair Overseas Exhibitions, an Italian company that sponsors trade shows. Earlier this year Piovella teamed up with Mila and and the city for something dubbed "Gold Italia," the first major European jewelry exhibition to be held in Miami.
Piovella and his associates were responsible for rounding up exhibitors, and they did a pretty good job. More than $12 million worth of jewelry went on display last May at downtown's Hyatt Regency Hotel. The City of Miami -- specifically Mila -- was responsible for attracting crowds to the event. That part of the equation didn't work so well.
In a scathing letter to Miami Mayor Stephen Clark, City Manager Cesar Odio, the International Trade Board, and Italy's consul general in Miami, Piovella ripped the city. "Our frequent letters to your project chief, Mila Cervone d'Urso [sic], in which we repeatedly asked to be informed about what was going on, urged the adoption of a variety of measures, expressed our concern over the lack of activity, and finally threatened legal action for compensation, consistently met with a wholly unsatisfactory response. We received only faxed nonreplies that made vaguely reassuring noises about results while disputing points that were clearly irrelevant to the real situation and our reasons for concern."
Piovella went on to complain that many Miami jewelers were not even aware of the exhibition, and he demanded compensation for the city's failures. Victor De Yurre acknowledges the event was a disaster, but protests that it was more the city's fault than Mila's. "Gold Italia is a tremendous concept," he says. "They were not happy to a significant degree with us because they expected more from us. We have a limited budget. They are used to getting more."
Despite a fiasco like Gold Italia, Mila was largely successful in protecting her public reputation. Part of that may have been due to her self-professed willingness to intimidate people. As she boasted: "I can kill my enemies with just one word. That is my business. Just one word." Jean Dolan, a respected realtor and a board member of Miami's Italian Film Festival, knows Mila well. And while neither she nor Mila would reveal the lethal word, Dolan was extremely circumspect in talking about Mila. In fact, she wouldn't discuss Mila at all, even though they have worked together several times. "Mila is leaving town," Dolan shouted through the slammed-shut door of her real estate office. "She can take her dirty business with her."
Mila also helped maintain her reputation by avoiding negative publicity. Over the years, the Miami Herald wrote about her on only eight occasions, and the stories ranged from innocuous to positive. When the Miami Beach-based Italian magazine Non Solo Pasta requested Mila's cooperation in preparing a profile, she not only agreed to be written about, she contributed to the actual writing. "Anything personal she wrote herself," admits Paola Lombardi, the magazine's administrative director. "She is a woman who cares very much about her image. She was a very powerful person and she knew it. People say, 'Oh, you know Mila? Now you can share in this power.' But I think a lot of people called her when they were in trouble and when they did, they found out they owed her a favor."
She began her participation in this article enthusiastically: "It would be a pleasure talking to you about the city and the way that I have been mistreated in my time here." Before long, however, her suspicions were aroused: "If you ever need any information, come to me. Don't go snooping around. Just come to me." Later she shifted to threats: "If you write any of this, I'll sue you." And finally she resorted to inducements: "Listen," she said, "if you need a 'feasibility study,' I'll do it for you for free. You can see how you fit into a worldwide place. If you ask Mila to do a feasibility study for you, I shall do it for you. You can explore the world."
But even influential friends and good press weren't enough to shield Mila from the newly sharpened budget ax of City Manager Cesar Odio. In his proposed budget for 1995-1996, Odio eliminated all funding for the International Trade Board. At the last minute, however, City Commissioner J.L. Plummer, who replaced Victor De Yurre as trade board chairman, asked Odio for a chance to save the board. "I cannot imagine Miami without an International Trade Board," says the veteran commissioner.
Plummer got to work. He slashed the board's budget from more than $800,000 per year to $150,000, and he trimmed the staff from eight people to four. Mila didn't survive the cut. Most of the trade board's business has been with Latin America anyway, and after nine years of Mila's work, Italy still was not one of the city's top fifteen trading partners. For Plummer it was a simple business decision.
Mila said she quit before layoffs were announced. She could see the end coming and decided that a woman of her talents shouldn't have to suffer at the hands of an ungrateful bureaucracy. She could work anywhere she wanted. And certainly she'll be much better compensated in her new position as executive director for international development of the London-based International Trade and Exhibitions Group, or ITE. She'll travel the world coordinating trade shows, and her lifestyle will be accommodated handsomely by a purported salary of $180,000 per year, a two-level flat free of charge, and a chauffeur on demand.
With her two children now living in a Coconut Grove house she expects to purchase in a few months, it's no surprise that she hopes to open a branch office of her London company here.
If she does any looking back at Miami, it is with scorn and derision for the city's provincialism -- Cubans who are interested only in helping each other, and hicks like J.L. Plummer. "It's nothing personal with Plummer," she said. "It's logic. He's a racist, a bigot, and a Ku Klux Klan man. He has no concept of international relations and he is nothing but a South Florida cowboy."
Plummer could only shake his head. "To be honest with you, I don't know why she is saying these things about me," he shrugs. "I have met the woman only once. I have never even worked with her. Everywhere I show up, she seems to be leaving."
Indeed Mila left, taking with her the answers to a range of intriguing questions -- from the mysterious Social Security numbers to the acquisition of the official city business plaque to the fact that UCLA has no record of her or her doctoral degree under any of her various names or Social Security numbers.
And though she's now several thousand miles away, her pal Victor De Yurre says he's figured out a way for her to work on "personal projects" for the city A from her office in London. (He won't elaborate and Mila would say only that she won't be paid.) "When you end your story," De Yurre volunteers, "I think it should end in an upbeat fashion because I think that Mila has contributed in a positive way to this community. From my perspective, she has been a tremendous asset."
And as a final bow before leaving the Miami stage, she somehow ensured that the city will honor her contract until it expires September 30. Which means she will earn 4500 taxpayer dollars without bothering to actually work for them. "Don't print that before I leave," she whispered, "or they won't pay me."
A photograph accompanying the August 31 cover story "So Long, Mila!" did not include the name of the photographer. The photo showed Mila Cervone D'Urso with Miami City Commissioner Victor De Yurre and his wife in Italy. It was shot by Miami photographer John Burton and was provided to New Times by D'Urso, who did not identify Burton as its creator.
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