The Dissection of Miriam Alonso
The condominium was ideal. Located on the twelfth floor, overlooking the ocean, it was in the heart of Miami Beach at 5701 Collins Ave. Two bedrooms and two baths, a cozy 825 square feet of space in a building that came with its own restaurant, fitness center, and beauty parlor. It even had a seaside swimming pool.
Not surprisingly, when it came up for sale last summer, it didn't take long for someone to make an offer. The condo was owned by two sisters, Rita Sullivan of Waterford, Connecticut, and Mary Ann Scigliano of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Their aunt had left them the condominium, but neither sister was interested in moving to South Florida. "It was costing us a lot of money every month in condominium fees and taxes, so we wanted to sell it as quickly as possible," Sullivan explained during a recent telephone interview.
In August 2000 Sullivan flew down to Miami to help settle some of her aunt's affairs and meet with a realtor, who had excellent news for Sullivan. Although the condominium had been listed for a very short time, the perfect buyer already had turned up. "I remember she told me this lady is going to offer cash, so there won't be any mortgage," recalled Sullivan. "And she won't have any trouble being approved by the condominium association because she's a commissioner or something."
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Miriam Alonso and her husband, Leonel, bought the condominium for $120,000. "It was a fast deal," Sullivan said, noting that the sale was completed by the end of August last year. Sullivan even remembered that Miriam Alonso was looking at another condominium in the building. "My real estate agent was saying [Alonso] was also interested in a condo on the seventeenth floor," she recounted.
Within days of Alonso's purchase, county records show another condominium in the building was sold. Unit 1705 was purchased by Martha Flores, the well-known Spanish-language talk-show host for Radio Mambí. Like Alonso, Flores paid cash for her unit, according to Juan Delgado, who sold the condominium to Flores. The price: $123,000.
Not long after buying the condominium, it appears Flores took out a mortgage on the property. Although no mortgage is on file with the county clerk, records at the county assessor's office reveal that the taxes on Flores's condominium were paid in March 2001 by a California-based mortgage company, IndyMac Bank Home Loan Service.
Why would Flores pay cash for the property in August and then mortgage it almost immediately? And what role, if any, did the Alonsos play in helping her obtain the condominium? Flores and Alonso did not return calls seeking comment. A visit to the building this past Sunday failed to provide answers. Neither Alonso nor Flores was using their respective beach hideaways that day. A doorman explained that they come to the building perhaps once a week.
As various publications noted last week, Alonso is the target of a wide-ranging criminal investigation. New Times reported that one phase of the investigation concentrates on her 1998 re-election campaign and allegations that thousands of dollars in donations were either misspent or stolen. Some of those campaign contributions may have been spent buying new toilets for Alonso's rental properties. At least one former Alonso employee has been cooperating with police, telling them that Alonso used him as a handyman to repair and help manage the properties even though he was on the county's payroll as a commission aide.
El Nuevo Herald reported that investigators were looking into allegations that Alonso -- through a political action committee (PAC) created by one of her surrogates in 1999 -- solicited donations to fight a possible recall effort against her. That recall drive was eventually abandoned, and police are now trying to determine what happened to the money collected by the PAC.
And the Miami Herald reported last week that the FBI was examining Alonso's conduct as a landlord and whether she overcharged her low-income tenants, whose rent payments are subsidized by the federal government. The Herald said it had reviewed the federal housing records and found just one tenant who had been overcharged. Alonso's attorney, José Quiñon, told the Herald Alonso promised to correct the mistake, which amounted to $25 per month.
One thing is certain: Nearly every aspect of Miriam Alonso's life is being scrutinized by law-enforcement investigators. As part of that review, New Times has learned, Alonso's purchase last year of the condominium at 5701 Collins is being examined. One problem bound to surface is that Alonso failed to report the condominium as an asset on her financial-disclosure forms. According to the form, filed in Tallahassee two months ago, Alonso reported owning fourteen properties valued at $2.5 million. But the Miami Beach condo was nowhere on the list.
Investigators also seem interested in exploring the links -- financial and personal -- between Alonso and Flores.
As a radio talk-show host on Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710), Flores has a great deal of influence within Miami-Dade's Hispanic community, particularly among the elderly. For Alonso, having Flores as an ally has been critical to her past success and is considered vital to her long-range political goals. Alonso faces re-election next year and has already begun laying the groundwork to run for county mayor in 2004, when Alex Penelas will be forced to step aside owing to term limits.
Flores is well aware of her clout. In the past, more than any other radio commentator, she has been criticized for exploiting her position by accepting money from political candidates. In addition to her duties as a talk-show host, Flores has operated a lucrative side business in which she offered advice to political candidates. Flores claimed the money candidates paid to her consulting company, Marflo Advertising, did not affect the way she treated people on the air.
Among local politicians who have been Marflo Advertising clients are County Commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Natacha Seijas, and Jimmy Morales, as well as former Miami City Commissioner Humberto Hernandez. Under federal law it is illegal to pay a radio host to slant his or her coverage of a political candidate. Proving a direct quid pro quo, however, is considered extremely difficult.
Alonso's 1998 campaign finance reports show that on September 29 -- four weeks after the election -- the commissioner paid Marflo Advertising $3000 for what was described as "P.R." work. Investigators have been attempting to determine if Alonso provided Flores with any additional payments or other benefits.
The all-cash nature of last summer's condominium purchases by Alonso and Flores has piqued the curiosity of those investigating Alonso. And while the transactions may appear somewhat unusual, there have been no allegations that Alonso or Flores did anything improper. But the very fact that investigators are exploring those deals show just how wide a net they are casting in their search for evidence against the commissioner.
Questions surrounding missing PAC contributions, first reported last week by El Nuevo Herald, offer further insight into the tortured world of Miriam Alonso. In 1999 a group of citizens in Northwest Miami-Dade initiated a recall drive against Alonso because they believed she favored expanding a local landfill that many residents opposed. In response Alicio Piña formed a political action committee called Concerned Citizens of District 12. Piña now says he created the group at the request of Alonso so she could raise money to fight the recall effort.
Earlier this year the county elections department received a letter from Piña asking it to abolish the PAC. "This PAC was opened on the possibility of a recall for our Commissioner Miriam Alonso," Piña's letter states. "However no money was ever raised or bank account was ever opened. At this time, I would like to request you close this PAC, since there was never any activity due to the fact that the possible recall never took place."
Several things about Piña's letter are odd. First, it is dated September 7, 2000, but elections officials say they only received it three months ago. More important Piña's claim that "no money was ever raised" is now being contradicted by several sources.
El Nuevo Herald noted last week that attorney Stanley Price said he was pressured by Alonso's county commission office to donate money to the committee and that he contributed either $250 or $500. New Times also has spoken to a well-connected Miami-Dade lobbyist who says he raised between $3000 and $5000 from his clients for the PAC in 1999. According to several sources, members of Alonso's staff have told investigators they were called upon to take checks, dropped off at Alonso's commission office by various lobbyists, to a bank and deposit them into the PAC account.
Investigators now want to know what happened to that money.
One of the interesting sidelights to the Alonso investigation is the perceived role of Miami City Commissioner Tomas Regalado. José Marrero, the former Alonso employee who is cooperating with police, now works as an aide to Regalado.
Regalado's son Tommy also used to work for Alonso. He joined her staff in June 1998 and left in February 1999. New Times learned that Tommy Regalado was questioned by prosecutors last week and that he told authorities he was required to work on Alonso's 1998 re-election campaign while employed as a commission aide. The younger Regalado declined to comment, saying the State Attorney's Office advised him not to talk to the media.
The morning after the newscast, according to Regalado, Quiñon called him to apologize. "Quiñon said he was very sorry," Regalado says. "He said the Alonsos pushed him to make those statements." Regalado replied that if he were truly sorry, he would return to the station and retract his comments. Sure enough, that's what Quiñon did. The second interview aired Friday night. "It was nice of him to do that," Regalado adds.
Quiñon acknowledged Tuesday that he had made a mistake in attacking Regalado, basing it on erroneous information.
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