Investigators on the trail of Miami-Dade County Commissioner Miriam Alonso have uncovered a dizzying array of front groups and secret bank accounts apparently used by Alonso to generate and then hide a private slush fund. Prosecutors and police discovered the existence of these bank accounts while researching Alonso's connection to a political action committee called Concerned Citizens of District 12.
The chairman and treasurer of Concerned Citizens of District 12, Alicio Piña, admitted he formed the committee at Alonso's request in 1999, after a group of residents in Northwest Miami-Dade announced a recall drive against Alonso. The PAC was created, Piña stated, to raise money to fight the recall effort.
In a letter to county officials earlier this year, however, Piña claimed "no money was ever raised" and "no bank account was ever opened." That assertion appears to be at odds with the recollections of several lobbyists who claim to have been pressured to write checks on Alonso's behalf in 1999.
It now seems that Alonso used several shell committees to collect money ostensibly to battle the recall drive, and that bank accounts were opened in the names of these other groups at Union Planters Bank. New Times has learned the names of two of those committees used by Alonso to gather money from lobbyists: Friends of District 12 and Neighbors of District 12.
Amazingly Alonso's failure to disclose the existence of these committees is not illegal. Nor is it a crime that she never disclosed who contributed to them or how the money was spent. In 1999 the Florida Elections Commission, citing a federal court ruling issued that same year, repealed many of its regulations governing PACs. But those regulations were never rewritten, and as a result there is a giant loophole in the state's campaign-finance laws that Alonso intentionally exploited.
Had she wanted to be forthright with the public, Alonso could have voluntarily filed financial-disclosure forms detailing how much money those committees received and where it went. But she chose to hide the information.
There is little authorities can do regarding Alonso's deceitful nature, but they can apply existing laws in other ways. Investigators are expected to concentrate on how the money was spent. If they can prove that funds were used for nonpolitical activities, they'll be able to develop a case for theft or possibly fraud against Alonso and anyone else who had access to the accounts.
The investigation of Miriam Alonso is becoming a family affair. New Times has learned that police are reviewing the campaign-finance reports of Alonso's daughter, whose name also is Miriam Alonso. In an effort to build a dynasty, Big Miriam urged Little Miriam to run for the Miami City Commission in 1997 against Humberto Hernandez.
Little Miriam lost that race but not before Big Miriam raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars for her daughter. The treasurer of Little Miriam's campaign was Elba Morales, Big Miriam's chief of staff at county hall. As New Times previously reported, Big Miriam currently is under criminal investigation for allegedly misusing and possibly stealing money from her own 1998 county commission campaign. Several expenditures on Big Miriam's campaign reports appear suspicious, including payments to individuals who say they never received the money.
Little Miriam's 1997 campaign reports include similarly suspicious expenditures. For instance Little Miriam claims to have spent $3807 at Century Everglades Lumber & Building Supply (6991 SW Eighth St.). Before noticing that expense on Little Miriam's campaign reports, investigators were already looking into allegations that Big Miriam diverted money from her 1998 campaign to Century Everglades Lumber to pay for toilets and other materials to repair and maintain rental properties owned by her and her husband, Leonel.
Another example: Little Miriam reported she paid José Marrero $1500 for campaign work. Big Miriam also claimed to have paid Marrero money during her 1998 campaign, but now Marrero says that was a lie. As Marrero explains it, his main function for Big Miriam was to act as a handyman for the apartments and homes she and her husband rented, and that he performed this maintenance work while on the county's payroll as a commission aide in Alonso's office.
Also both Big Miriam and Little Miriam used the same printer, MC Printing. And like her mother, Little Miriam made most of her payments to the printer either on or after election day, something campaign experts say is highly unusual since printers almost always require candidates to pay upon delivery. Big Miriam reported paying $75,000 to MC Printing. Little Miriam reported $20,000 in payments.
Big Miriam's 1998 campaign-expense reports are like a box of chocolates: You look at one expenditure, bite into it, and have no idea what you're going to find. Take Juan Garcia. He was paid $8000 by Alonso on August 20, 1998, for what was described only as "PR," presumably public-relations work.
Garcia is a well-known consultant who has been active in local political campaigns for years. But he also works as a special assistant with the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, the very same organization that controls the flow of federal money to Alonso to subsidize her tenants' rent payments.
A review of Little Miriam's 1997 campaign-expense reports reveals that on November 30, 1997 (four weeks after she lost her election in the City of Miami), she paid an entity called F.C. Corp. $3500 for public-relations work. The Florida Division of Corporations shows that an F.C. International Directories, Inc., was registered to Juan and Ana Garcia. That company was officially dissolved in 1995. Juan Garcia acknowledges he received both checks -- the one for $8000 from Big Miriam and the $3500 one from Little Miriam. "I'm a media consultant by profession," he says.
The timing of the payments is interesting, because during 1997, 1998, and 1999 Big Miriam and her husband were involved in a feud with the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, which is overseen by the county commission. The agency had suspended the Alonsos' federal rent subsidies following reports that one of their properties had not been properly maintained. Under pressure from Leonel Alonso, housing-agency director Rene Rodriguez overturned that decision and reinstated the subsidies.
Miriam Alonso was later upbraided by the county ethics commission and federal housing officials because it appeared she used her position as a commissioner to help get her way with the housing agency. Only now do we know that she paid a top agency administrator $8000 from her campaign account and another $3500 from her daughter's campaign.
In addition New Times has learned that Garcia's wife currently is a part-time employee on Alonso's commission payroll and that Garcia's daughter was on Alonso's payroll as a commission aide from March 1997 until January 1998. Investigators are trying to determine whether those positions constitute "no-show" jobs.
Juan Garcia defends the $11,500 paid to him by the two Miriam Alonsos and says he did nothing wrong. "I never participated in anything [at the housing agency] that had to do with Miriam or any of her properties," he claims. He says every year he has filed an "outside-income form" with the county disclosing the fact that he expects to be working outside county government.
The county elections department, which maintains those forms, says it has no such forms on file for the past two years. Records for previous years, including 1997 and 1998, are in storage and could not be immediately retrieved.
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Nevertheless Garcia admits that nowhere on the forms did he disclose he was going to be working for a county commissioner who also did business with the housing agency. Nor did he mention that fact to his boss, Rene Rodriguez, when he requested permission to perform outside work.
Garcia's role in political campaigns has raised concerns in the past. In 1992 he admitted he helped launder $10,000 from the 1991 election campaign of former Miami City Commissioner Victor De Yurre, converting the money into cash and then funneling most of it back to De Yurre. According to Garcia's account, which appeared in the Miami Herald on July 22, 1992, De Yurre wanted to convert some of his campaign funds to cash to help pay back taxes he owed to the Internal Revenue Service. De Yurre's campaign wrote a check for $10,000 to a company owned by Garcia's son. The check was listed on disclosure forms as a payment for "consultants." Garcia's son deposited the check, kept some of the money for himself, and gave almost $8000 in cash to his father, who passed it along to De Yurre.
De Yurre denied the allegation, and a subsequent investigation by the FBI failed to produce criminal charges.