The Secret Flush Fund
Miriam Alonso, the Miami-Dade County Commissioner whose politics are as shrill as her voice, is under criminal investigation for allegedly misusing campaign contributions collected during her successful 1998 run for re-election. The investigation is being conducted by the public-corruption unit of the Miami-Dade Police Department. Sources close to the inquiry say investigators are trying to determine what happened to thousands of dollars donated to Alonso's campaign.
Two of the key witnesses against Alonso are José Marrero and his wife Ursula. José Marrero worked as an aide to Alonso between December 1997 and November 1999.
According to Alonso's 1998 campaign finance reports, the commissioner paid Ursula Marrero nearly $8000 over the course of several months, almost all of it for what was described as "campaign work." The two largest payments to Marrero occurred after the September 1, 1998, election.
The reports state that Ursula Marrero was given $2961.65 on September 4, 1998, and $3500 on September 9, 1998. Sources familiar with the investigation claim that when investigators asked Ursula Marrero about the payments, she expressed shock and said that Alonso never paid her. "She says she didn't work for the campaign," relates one source. "She says she has no idea why the report claims she was given all that money." Ursula Marrero, who turned 63 this week, could not be reached for comment.
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Alonso's campaign also reported paying more than $850 to José Marrero, who is 63 years old and is currently an aide to Miami City Commissioner Tomas Regalado. Sources say Marrero explained to investigators that while he did volunteer on the Alonso campaign in 1998, the records relating to his payments are inaccurate. According to the sources, he told investigators he remembered receiving one check for $496.02 to reimburse him for cash he had given to other campaign workers, but he did not recall any other payments.
All of Alonso's 1998 campaign finance reports were signed by her and by her husband, Leonel, who was the campaign's treasurer. It is a first-degree misdemeanor to falsify a campaign report.
In addition authorities are examining allegations that Marrero -- while on the county's payroll -- never actually worked for Alonso as a commission aide. His true role was that of a handyman maintaining rental properties she and her husband owned. Before Alonso hired him as a commission aide, Marrero worked for the county's water and sewer department as a semi-skilled laborer. His résumé also shows that from 1985 until 1996 he owned his own automobile repair shop.
When investigators first met with Marrero several months ago, he was shown videotape of him working on Alonso rental properties during hours he was supposed to be in Alonso's commission office. Sources familiar with Marrero's statements to investigators say he claimed he was simply fulfilling the responsibilities Alonso assigned him.
Marrero was also shown photographs of the "For Rent" signs posted at the rental properties. The phone number marked on the signs was in fact Marrero's county-issued pager, according to sources. Marrero told investigators he helped the Alonsos rent their various properties by showing them to prospective tenants.
Contacted at Regalado's office, José Marrero refused to discuss the investigation, saying he was warned by law-enforcement officials not to speak with the media. (This is not Marrero's first encounter with police. In 1985 he was arrested for allegedly driving while intoxicated and for possession of a controlled substance.)
As the Alonsos' handyman, Marrero sometimes purchased from Century Everglades Lumber & Building Supply (6991 SW Eighth St.) materials needed to maintain and refurbish their rental properties. Investigators suspect some of those items -- toilets in particular -- were paid for with money from Miriam Alonso's political campaign fund. "He picked up the toilets and signed the invoices," says a source knowledgeable about the investigation.
Alonso's 1998 campaign reports reveal two large payments to Century Everglades Lumber totaling $7064. Both were made September 29, 1998, nearly four weeks after the election. The reports claimed the expenditures were for "supplies."
Century Everglades Lumber is owned by Century Partners Group, a publicly traded company founded by Sergio Pino, a major campaign contributor to Alonso's 1998 campaign. Two weeks ago Pino acknowledged that Alonso has maintained an account at Everglades but said he was unaware of any investigation. "We have nothing to hide," he asserted. "You can look at anything you want."
New Times asked to inspect the invoices for Alonso's 1998 purchases. A week after offering the documents, the comptroller for Century Everglades Lumber, Luis Mendoza, said he was unable to locate them, adding that he was not sure if they had been lost, misfiled, or deliberately removed.
Miriam Alonso's 1998 campaign was a fundraising tour de force. She set records that year, collecting $535,000, more money than any commission candidate ever raised in South Florida. Alonso did it with the help of Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and a legion of county lobbyists who lined up to hand her checks on behalf of clients who regularly do business with the county. In the past county commissioners would typically raise and spend less than half that amount.
The 1998 campaign marked another milestone for Alonso. Her lopsided victory established her as a force on the county commission after years of being considered little more than a political joke. Under the commission's new committee system, she was recently appointed by Penelas as chairwoman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, where she oversees and influences all county spending. Flush with confidence, she has made no secret of her desire to run for county mayor in 2004.
Periodically over the years, Alonso's political ambitions have been derailed by demons of her own making. In 1988 she ran for county commission but was ordered off the ballot after a judge determined she had lied about where she resided. In 1993 she appeared headed for a victory in the Miami mayor's race, only to lose after widespread publicity regarding ethnically charged comments she made on Spanish-language radio. When Anglo and black voters heard her describe the position of Miami mayor as an "Hispanic seat," they rallied to the polls to defeat her, even if it meant electing the affable but ineffective Steve Clark.
Since joining the county commission in 1996 she has tried to temper her behavior, although her arrogance is still legendary. She demands to be addressed as Dr. Alonso, even though the legitimacy of her doctoral degree is highly suspect.
In 1999 she was rebuked by both the county ethics commission and federal housing officials for mixing business and politics. As a landlord Alonso regularly received money to subsidize her tenants' rental payments through the federal Section 8 program, administered by the Miami-Dade Housing Authority. As a county commissioner she directly oversaw the housing authority. The obvious conflict of interest came to light when the housing agency cut off the subsidies paid to Alonso at one apartment building that had been repeatedly cited for maintenance problems. Leonel Alonso objected and the head of the housing agency promptly restored the money.
A close examination of Alonso's 1998 campaign-finance reports reveals other entries investigators may find suspicious. Following the September 1 election, she paid MC Printing approximately $55,000 -- writing the company checks for $20,466 on September 10, $11,200 also on September 10, and $23,500 on September 12.
Those payments were in addition to $22,500 Alonso paid the company during the campaign itself, bringing the total amount reportedly spent on printing to more than $77,000. Given the large number of brochures and direct-mail pieces the campaign distributed during the 1998 election, experts say it is possible the campaign spent $77,000 on printing. But several experienced local campaign consultants note that printers customarily demand payment at the time the material is delivered, and they almost never allow political candidates to delay payment until an election has concluded. Rafael Chapman, owner of MC Printing, which is located in Alonso's Northwest Miami-Dade commission district, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Another curiosity is a series of payments totaling almost $4000 to an individual listed as Rudy Villa. (On some entries the name is spelled Rudy Vila.) The address recorded on the campaign reports for both names is the same: 1015 NW 29th Ave. That address, however, does not exist, according to Miami-Dade County property records. A records search using both Vila and Villa and first names Rudy and Rodolfo reveals no such person owning property or registered to vote in Miami-Dade County.
Alonso does employ a commission aide named Rodolfo Villanueva, who is 67 years old and is commonly referred to as Rudy. He has been with her office since 1997. In 1990 Villanueva pleaded no contest to grand theft and received five years' probation. He was arrested again in 1991 for lewd and lascivious conduct for allegedly masturbating in a Miami Beach porno theater. Villanueva did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Out of the nearly $4000 reportedly paid to "Rudy Villa," $1805 came after the election and included a $1200 payment on September 29, 1998, for what the campaign report described only as "reimbursement."
News that Miriam Alonso is being investigated comes not long after another county commissioner was removed from office for keeping two "no-show" employees on his payroll. Pedro Reboredo pleaded no contest in May to misdemeanor charges of exploiting his office. In a plea agreement with the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, Reboredo resigned from the commission and was sentenced to six months' probation. He agreed to reimburse the Miami-Dade Police Department $25,000 for the cost of its investigation. The deal with prosecutors permits Reboredo to run for public office again in 2003.
Reboredo's plea bargain is affecting the way police are handling the Alonso investigation. According to law-enforcement sources, members of the public-corruption unit of the Miami-Dade Police Department were angered by the Reboredo deal, believing the commissioner should have been charged with a felony. But the case against Reboredo was relatively weak, and investigators were never able to show that any of the "no-show" employees' salaries ended up in Reboredo's pocket.
While other incidents have reportedly led some police officers to believe the State Attorney's Office often fails to prosecute public-corruption cases aggressively, the Reboredo episode came to epitomize their frustrations. As a result the level of trust between police investigators and prosecutors has been weakened. The Alonso investigation appears to be a case in point. Although Miami-Dade detectives have been interviewing witnesses and gathering evidence for at least six months, the State Attorney's Office was never notified of the investigation's existence. "The people working on this don't want anything sent to the State Attorney's Office," says one source.
In fact the State Attorney's Office only learned about the investigation two weeks ago, after a phone call from New Times. Initially prosecutors denied there was an investigation of Alonso regarding José and Ursula Marrero and the commissioner's 1998 campaign accounts. Late last week, however, Assistant State Attorney Joe Centorino, after meeting with police, confirmed the investigation of Alonso and her 1998 campaign. The State Attorney's Office, he says, is now involved in that probe.
Centorino, who heads the State Attorney's public-corruption unit, declined to address the issue of tension between his office and the county police department. Nor would he comment on reports that the Reboredo case has influenced the Alonso investigation. "Those are separate investigations involving different evidence, and each investigation should be judged independently of any other," he says. "This requires that this office and the police agencies involved work as a team."
New Times has also learned that the Marreros have been questioned by federal agents, who appear to be interested in information relating to the Alonsos' rental properties. Federal prosecutors in May indicted Demetrio Perez, Jr., who at the time was a member of the Miami-Dade County School Board, on 21 counts of mail fraud and making false statements regarding rental properties he owned. Like the Alonsos, he also received federal Section 8 money.
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