The Vultures Are Circling

The time has come once again to invoke Miami's winter flock of turkey vultures as convenient metaphor. Though the real-life carrion corps continue to favor the downtown courthouse as a perch, their figurative brethren have lately been eyeing nearby county hall.

The State Attorney's Office continues its investigation of Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruce Kaplan for allegedly having provided false information on an application for a home mortgage. Neither Kaplan nor the State Attorney's Office will comment on the investigation, but local political circles are abuzz with talk of possible criminal charges being brought against Kaplan -- and feverish speculation about who might replace him should he leave office before his term expires in 2000.

These discussions are taking place against the backdrop of the recent removal from office of Miami-Dade Commissioner James Burke. Within hours of Burke's grand jury indictment on bribery charges last month, Gov. Lawton Chiles suspended him from office; a mere five days later Chiles appointed Dorrin Rolle to fill Burke's seat.

But Burke also resigned his seat, triggering the county's right to appoint his replacement or call a special election. The county sued the governor over the succession process. In a settlement signed last week by attorneys for both the county and the governor, each entity recognized the other's rights and agreed to let Rolle serve until a March 10 special election. (In effect, Rolle is now an "interim" commissioner, something not provided for by either the state constitution or the county charter.)

The alacrity with which the governor appointed Rolle indicated that some consideration had gone into the choice before Burke's seat became vacant. Joe Pena, special assistant to the governor and director of Chiles's South Florida regional office, acknowledges that plenty of jockeying, wrangling, and whispering went on before Burke was indicted. "It did not come as a surprise as far as our needing to do the groundwork," says Pena.

According to sources familiar with the Kaplan investigation, prosecutors are considering a charge of mortgage fraud, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison. The State Attorney's Office will not estimate when the inquiry will end, but plenty of legwork is still going on.

Pena says that within the past month or so he has received numerous phone calls about the possible availability of Kaplan's commission seat. "It's been discussions from third parties who say, 'We've heard this may happen, and hey, wouldn't so-and-so be great?'" Pena recounts. "I just caution them to take it slow, because we're not at that point yet. We have to wait for a body to be delivered." Pena adds that at least three names have been proposed to him, but as none of these individuals have called personally, he won't release their names.

The names are out there, however, and they are being kicked around and mulled over by politicians and political operatives all around the county -- especially in Kaplan's commission district, which stretches from Miami Beach to Little Havana.

"It seems like this is Kaplan's Seat Central," chuckles campaign consultant Ric Katz, referring to the multiple calls he's received from people asking about and proposing possible replacements for Kaplan. The calls, Katz relates, follow a pattern: "They start out, 'Bruce should live and be well for a thousand years.' Then they say, 'But if it should happen not to be --'" he trails off. "They all preface it as if they're being tape-recorded."

Katz says the following individuals have been discussed: David Pearlson, former Miami Beach commissioner; current Beach Commissioner Simón Cruz; one-time Beach commission candidate Carlos Capote; attorney and former state legislature candidate Andres Rivero; Joe Garcia, currently serving on the state's Public Service Commission in Tallahassee; activist and twice-unsuccessful Beach commission candidate Matti Bower; and attorney Victor Diaz.

Several sources confirm having heard some or all of these names (and assorted others) put forth as possible successors to Kaplan in District 5. And given the contours of that district, the names are hardly surprising: The population is primarily either Hispanic or Jewish. Thus the list consists of David Pearlson (who speaks serviceable Spanish, and whose brother is a rabbi) and any remotely political individual from Miami Beach with a Latin surname. Quips political consultant Phil Hamersmith: "It doesn't take Nostradamus to figure this crap out."

Virtually all those whose names have been dropped deny being interested, though all acknowledge that yes, they know they've been mentioned by power brokers and wannabes. Whether these individuals are on any short list in Tallahassee or Miami, they are clearly the talk of the town. Their responses to the handicapping:

*Matti Bower: "I had heard something about Kaplan's seat, and someone did say, 'Matti, what about you?' I said, 'Forget it, Charlie.' I've been staying out of this stuff to recuperate from my loss." (Bower clarifies that the person who brought this up was not actually named Charlie.)

*Carlos Capote: "Somebody said something about it in a meeting I was at, but I wouldn't [accept an appointment or run in a special election] even if it came up."

*Simon Cruz: "I was surprised the other day when someone mentioned that my name was being bandied about. But this is sheer conjecture, and I think it would be real bad form to talk about a sitting commissioner like that." Cruz flatly denies that he would be interested in filling such a vacancy: "I'm just trying make sense out of [Miami Beach] City Hall."

*Victor Diaz: "I make it a point not to market in rumors. I'm not a candidate nor am I interested in being a candidate."

*Joe Garcia: "Some friends gave me a call and asked if I would be interested. My answer was that Bruce Kaplan is the commissioner, I think he's doing a good job, and that was it."

*David Pearlson: "I would like not to be a vulture, but I have heard little rumblings. If it were to happen, it would be unfortunate. I would give some thought to it at that time."

*Andres Rivero would not comment other than to confirm that he's heard his name mentioned in the context of the District 5 seat. Rivero, however, does point out that he doesn't live in the district. (Joe Pena, the governor's man in Miami, notes that a gubernatorial appointee need not be a resident of the district, though it has been the governor's practice to respect district boundaries in such appointments.)

According to Kaplan himself, all this rumormongering is meaningless because there will be no premature vacancy to fill. "I'm not going anywhere until the end of my term, which runs to the year 2000," Kaplan says firmly. He adds that he has heard none of the musings about possible candidates for appointment or election to his seat before the end of his term.

Still, despite the prematurity of all the gossip, Pena admits that some of these names might be seeping into Chiles's subconscious. "We're not going to be surprised," Pena allows. "Whether it's in my mind, the governor's mind, or his supporters' minds, there are some names. We don't want to be completely blank if something happens. But until something happens, it's unfair to both [Kaplan] and the process itself to speculate.


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