It takes more than 27 felony counts to knock Humberto Hernandez out of politics. The former Miami city commissioner, who was removed from office by Governor Chiles last week after his federal indictment for bank fraud and money laundering, immediately went on Spanish-language radio to defend himself and to begin campaigning for re-election to his commission seat. Even before the indictment, he'd named a campaign treasurer (his father), opened a campaign bank account, and begun collecting money for the November election.
He'll be glad to know that one of his most generous contributors remains in his corner.
"Um, yeah," said sixteen-year-old Kerry Murphy when asked if she still supported Hernandez despite the government's criminal charges. Kerry lives in Fort Lauderdale with her father, mother, and sister Kate. Although Florida campaign finance laws make it a first-degree misdemeanor for a minor to donate more than $100 to a political campaign, Kerry raided her piggy bank for a whopping $500 donation. "Um, no," she said when asked if she knew that she might have violated the law.
Murphy is the daughter of William Murphy, a Broward realtor and developer. Campaign records on file at the Miami city clerk's office show that at least thirteen separate contributions of $500 apiece came from either Murphy, his business partner Lawrence Levine, or companies they control individually or jointly. Additional $500 contributions came from Murphy's wife Una and daughters Kerry and Kate. Described on the campaign records as "students," both daughters were under the age of eighteen when their contributions were logged at Hernandez headquarters, an apparent infraction of state law.
The practice of spreading contributions among family members and various businesses is known as bundling, and it's not uncommon in Miami politics. In the September 1995 commission election, for instance, sports mogul Wayne Huizenga and a few of his friends donated $8500 to winning candidate Joe Carollo. Florida's campaign finance laws dictate that an individual or a business can donate a maximum of just $500 to any one candidate each election, so it was probably fortunate for Huizenga that several of his close associates also donated, including his father Harry Huizenga, and someone at Florida Airships, Inc., the company that operates the blimp that flies over Pro Player Stadium, which Huizenga owns.
"It's a problem we see quite a bit of," acknowledges Sally Spener, executive director of Common Cause of Florida, the nonpartisan government watchdog group. "We think $500 should mean $500 and that people should not try to think of clever ways to take advantage of loopholes in the law."
It's difficult to prove a violation of campaign finance laws, concedes prosecutor Joe Centorino, head of the Dade State Attorney's public corruption unit. "The key words are knowingly and willfully," he explains. "A lot of people make mistakes that are maybe inadvertent." Even if it could be proven that Kerry and Kate Murphy intended to violate campaign laws, another fact must be established -- namely, that the money was actually theirs. "The problem with a family," Centorino continues, "is that it's always difficult to prove whose money is whose. There often is a commingling of funds among a husband, a wife, and kids."
Penalties for violating Florida's campaign finance laws include a fine of up to $1000 and a jail term of up to one year. Spener of Common Cause does not believe a minor has ever been prosecuted for illegal campaign contributions. The Florida Division of Elections, which can also investigate and punish those who violate campaign finance laws, will not scrutinize a candidate unless a formal complaint is filed with its office in Tallahassee.
William Murphy did not return phone calls from New Times for this article. Neither did his partner Lawrence Levine nor Hernandez's father. The $8500 linked to Murphy and Levine amounts to nearly half of Hernandez's campaign war chest as of June 30.
Hernandez the candidate acknowledges that he has met William Murphy but says he doesn't know Murphy's family and was unaware that two of the contributions came from minors. He says he expects he'll have to refund $400 apiece to the daughters.
Perhaps more intriguing than the bundling is the timing of Murphy's and Levine's campaign gifts. According to Hernandez's campaign report, all the contributions associated with the businessmen were received this past June, just one month after Hernandez lobbied city officials to reverse policy and award the businessmen $180,000.
Levine and Murphy are partners, along with the Urban League of Greater Miami, in the floundering public housing project known as Northwestern Estates. New Times first wrote about the development last year in a June 13 cover story ("From Knight Manor to Nightmare") that detailed how former Miami City Commissioner Miller Dawkins had spearheaded approval of the project despite a troubling lack of planning by its inexperienced principals. (Neither Murphy nor Levine had worked with public money before. Dawkins and Urban League president T. Willard Fair are close friends.) Dawkins nonetheless persuaded his fellow commissioners to give the group $4.7 million, with virtually no strings attached.
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The project stumbled. Although Levine and Murphy successfully bulldozed a run-down housing project that had stood on the property, they failed to find housing for the 70 people they displaced. (An expensive subcontractor had to be hired to relocate the former tenants.) They also failed to obtain the $13 million in private financing needed to complete the project. As a penalty, city officials withheld the "developer's fees," or profits, that Murphy, Levine, and the Urban League were scheduled to receive until they obtained the outside financing.
Dawkins, of course, pled guilty last October to federal charges of theft and bribery in Operation Greenpalm. Hernandez, after his election, took over for Dawkins in assuming the lead on Northwestern Estates. In May he talked his fellow commissioners into releasing to Levine and Murphy the money that had been frozen.
"Dawkins introduced me to Murphy during my campaign against Victor De Yurre, in 1995," Hernandez recalls. "We struck an accord. He raised some money for me when I ran against [Tomas] Regalado [last September]. Ever since, he just became a very strong supporter. In this campaign, when I opened up, the first thing he said was 'I'll raise you $10,000.'" Hernandez insists that the release of the developer's fees and the timing of the contributions from Murphy's family are unrelated. "It was a coincidence," he says. "He has supported me in the past."
In the two months since the developers received their money, little progress has been made on Northwestern Estates. Murphy and Levine have not yet shown proof of significant outside financing. The eleven-acre lot on NW 79th Street near Northwestern High School grows thick with weeds.