Back in April 2003, Miami-Dade County Commissioner José "Pepe" Diaz attended an anti-cancer charity shoot at the Trail Glades Gun Range. It was a balmy, sunny day just east of the Miccosukee casino on the Tamiami Trail, and several dozen recreational shooters hurried through 200 target competitions. Most were members of the Club de Cazadores Cubanos -- a hunters group with a long and storied history.
Diaz approached Glen Bugbee, a big-bellied Fort Lauderdale resident whose company, Sporting Clays International, operated a target-shooting business at Trail Glades. The commissioner said he wanted to open a huge space for law enforcement to practice shooting at targets six football fields away.
"He wanted to know if I was going to use all the land [on the site]," Bugbee recalls. "I told him yeah, I needed it." Just a few days later, building inspectors descended and cited Bugbee for violations like exposed electrical wiring and using car batteries to power skeet-shooting machines. The harassment continued for months until Bugbee shut down in late 2004. "When I started, it was great," Bugbee remembers. "Everybody was behind me. But when Diaz decided he wanted the 600-yard range, it got really miserable."
Diaz, who is under federal investigation in an unrelated matter, did not return New Times's phone calls seeking comment or respond to an e-mailed list of questions. But his interference at Trail Glades, which has been the subject of two never-before-disclosed ethics complaints, give a good indication of how the five-year commissioner does business. He came up with a plan to close off part of the gun range (the county's only publicly owned target-practice facility) to sportsmen, spend millions in taxpayer dollars on the project, and destroy precious wetlands. In doing so, he bullied a private businessman (Bugbee) and likely overstepped his authority.
Located on civilization's western fringe, the 650-acre range serves about 3300 men and women each month. In 1997 the county contracted Bob Oliver, a retired Colorado businessman, to develop a course in sporting clays -- shooting clay pigeons catapulted by machines -- on sixteen acres on Trail Glades' west side. Three years later, Oliver sold his business to Bugbee, who added two more courses, 45 covered shooting stations, and 97 sporting clay launchers. During the four years he ran the course, Bugbee attracted tournaments such as the Florida State Shoot and the Caribbean Cup.
Shortly after the 2003 charity shootout, Diaz, an avid marksman since his days in the U.S. Marines, met with parks officials and shared his idea for developing the 600-yard range, which could be used by local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to train their marksmen. The Park and Recreation Department hired consultants to incorporate the commissioner's idea into plans to renovate the long-neglected, poorly funded shooting facility. Then, on November 2, 2004, voters approved eight million dollars to fix Trail Glades as part of a bigger bond issue.
But the consultants determined it would cost the county another $14 million to implement Diaz's plan. The public wouldn't be allowed -- presumably because the new range would require high-powered sniper rifles. Moreover, the Miami-Dade Planning and Zoning Department in early 2005 ruled the 600-yard range didn't conform to the county's master plan, and that it would have a negative impact (lead contamination from spent bullets) on nearby wetlands. The Miami-Dade Environmental Resources Department, the South Florida Water Management District, and the Army Corp of Engineers have also raised the issue of lead contamination.
Yet last year the county spent $1.9 million to buy almost 20 acres that will be used as a buffer zone. Diaz continues to champion the range.
The commissioner's proposal has outraged some Trail Glades users. "Here is a guy who sits on the Everglades Restoration Committee, and he is pushing a shooting range that is going to have a negative impact on the Everglades," says Miami physician Manuel Abella. "[Diaz] has acted with impunity while exponentially raising the cost of the range's redevelopment."
Back in 2005, an anonymous citizen complained about the commissioner's meddling. In a follow-up probe, investigator Karl Ross (a former Miami Herald reporter) learned that the parks department hired Miami engineer Clark Vargas in 2004. Vargas soon worked up a design that placed the long-bore range on Trail Glades' westernmost fringe, close to Krome Avenue.
Administrators didn't like that plan. An errant bullet might hit a passing motorist. So they had to come up with something new.
And this is where things get hazy.
According to assistant County Park and Recreation Department director Howard Gregg, Diaz contacted his boss, parks director Vivian Donnell Rodriguez, about the project. The commissioner, Gregg claims, suggested Richard Whiting, president of the West Virginia NRA, to design the new course. Rodriguez then ordered Gregg to hire Whiting. "Some people recommended, through commissioner Diaz, that we get Dick Whiting down here," Gregg told Ross during an April 19, 2005 interview.
If Diaz directly contacted Rodriguez, it would violate the county charter, which prohibits commissioners from instructing county bureaucrats on which private contractors to hire.
But Rodriguez denied chatting with the commissioner. She said she learned about Whiting through a recreational shooter, possibly Miami businessman and Diaz friend Raul Mas. "It may have been Mr. Mas," the director claimed. "I think Mr. Mas spoke to the commissioner. I can't recall."
Interestingly, though, Rodriguez conceded she knew Diaz was "keenly interested" in seeing the range developed.
Whiting claimed he was first contacted by Mas, brother of late Cuban American National Foundation leader Jorge Mas Canosa. He subsequently contacted Diaz, who agreed to pay the gun advocate's travel expenses to Miami. Diaz wanted a "world-class facility."
In the end, Whiting was paid $1500 to draw up a proposal that moved the 600-yard range to Trail Glades' east side and farther away from Krome, but much closer to ecologically sensitive land. "[Gregg] noted that Whiting's ... renderings were somewhat crude," Ross wrote in his report. "[Gregg] said they were re-drawn by park staff to look presentable."
In his report, Ross noted Diaz's involvement raised "questions of a possible charter violation." But since Gregg and Donnell Rodriguez insisted they did not feel pressured by Diaz to hire Whiting, Ross didn't recommend a penalty. (The commissioner, however, might face criminal charges for improperly accepting a trip to Cancun aboard builder Sergio Pino's private plane.)
Bugbee recently hired Miami attorney John Shubin and is considering suing the county for breach of contract. "I have given up my gun," Bugbee adds, "since I have no place to shoot."
Meanwhile the battle over Diaz's plan has held up redevelopment of Trail Glades for close to three years. And the county commission would still have to approve any improvements to the park. "He wants the 600-yard range for himself and his cronies," Abella complains. "And he doesn't care about the impact it will have on the wetlands and that it will cost taxpayers millions of dollars."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.