Inside the minuscule Indian Creek Village Hall, some 30 tense bodies were crammed, and more spilled onto the outdoor walkway. Elderly residents dressed in the fashion of twenty years ago. Lawyers in staid suits. Scruffy reporters and even a television news crew, much to the horror of a community that loathes scandal and scrutiny.
At the center of the crush sat the newest member of Indian Creek's Village Council, Leonard Miller. He wasn't sure what all the hubbub was about, but that didn't stop him from proffering an opinion. "I've lived here two and a half years, and spent another two and half building my home, but until now I really didn't know there was a problem with the police department," the wealthy developer told his colleagues at their March 22 meeting. "Maybe I'm naive. Maybe I should have been more diligent about civic affairs. Then again, that may be a credit to the [police] chief and the village manager."
The chief and the manager smiled ever so slightly upon hearing these kind words. Miller, who had joined the council just fifteen minutes earlier to replace a member who had abruptly resigned, was already exhibiting a knack for politics on Indian Creek, the 31-home island kingdom west of Surfside.
True, the police chief was under criminal investigation. True, an outside review of his department, released in February after six months of exhaustive research, had portrayed him as a corrupt incompetent whose twelve-man force was "out of control." True, the scathing report had urged his immediate firing. True, the village manager was a buffoonish character whose administrative demeanor resembled that of a spooked ostrich.
But to residents like Miller, the police chief, Rudy Piedra, and the village manager, Don Lebrun, had both nobly done their duty A namely, to protect the good name of the Village Affluent. To fault them for abusing employees, squandering public moneys, and jeopardizing the safety of the island in the process was, in the end, just so much quibbling. Besides, the true culprits soon emerged.
"It's these dysfunctional employees who started all this name-calling," Lebrun barked. "If we had gotten rid of the bad ones months ago, we wouldn't be talking about this today."
To some people, especially outsiders, this proclamation might have seemed a bit hypocritical. After all, Lebrun, who holds final authority over the firing of police officers, had essentially ignited the scandal by ordering an outside review of the department after half the officers complained about Chief Piedra. In addition, just minutes earlier Lebrun had opened the meeting by urging the council to fire the embattled chief.
Even Miller appeared to be confused by the sudden about-face. "If disgruntled employees is the problem, then why are you recommending that the chief be let go?" he asked Lebrun.
The career bureaucrat quickly hit upon a second scapegoat: the lawyers. It was those nasty, lawsuit-paranoid labor lawyers who recommended that Lebrun dismiss the chief. It wasn't something he felt was necessary. In fact, he and the chief had always gotten along famously, even as a parade of investigators from the State Attorney's Office and the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had marched into town to probe Piedra's department. "I've seen the chief sit at that computer there and type and type and type," Lebrun offered. "Did you know he has to open all the mail to the police department himself? He has no clerical help. Just him."
The 30-year-old chief, who stood across the room in full uniform, was flanked by two attorneys, one to vouch for his good name, the other to lend assurances that Piedra was not going to be arrested (despite the fact that the Dade State Attorney's Office had not yet finished reviewing its investigation into Piedra's alleged insurance fraud and tax evasion).
The chief himself spoke quietly. He merely hoped that council members had read his "personal rebuttal" to the outside review, supervised by North Miami Beach Police Chief Bill Berger. Piedra's rebuttal branded Berger's 38-page report variously as "biased-plagued," "prejudice-plagued," "false-ridden," "a degenerate attempt at defamation," and alleged that "disgruntled employees have instigated retaliative demoralization of our police department and brought scandal to the Village."
And why would Berger, one of South Florida's most respected police chiefs, take part in such a travesty? "Perhaps envy," speculated Piedra, who has never worked anywhere outside Indian Creek. "I'll supply you with an interesting bit of law enforcement trivia. Were you aware that prior to my appointment as chief of police in 1989, Chief William B. Berger enjoyed the notoriety of being the youngest chief in South Florida?"
Nor did Piedra stand alone. The room was packed with supporters. "I just want to let you know that the problem is not the chief," shouted Sgt. Alfredo Cerda, Piedra's sidekick. Cerda, described in Berger's report as "negligent and inefficient in the performance of his duties," spent much of the meeting blocking reporters from entering Village Hall, which only made sense since he was officially on-duty at the time.
Even residents came to Piedra's defense. "I think Chief Piedra could do a helluva job if he could get some men who support him," said millionaire resident Arthur Appleton. "He should fire anyone who won't get behind him! I don't care if they threaten to sue the village. I'll help pay for the suit! I'm not afraid of lawsuits. I've won plenty of them. I say, 'Give me liberty or give me death!'"
Others joined in to bemoan the violation of their enclave by investigators, reporters, and lawyers. "This used to be a very delightful place where everyone exchanged Christmas gifts and everything was sunshine and light," lamented socialite Suzie Linden. While she and others pined for a return to the village's halcyon days, the council faced the unsightly task of extracting themselves from the scandal at hand.
Though they had gathered under the premise of discussing Berger's urgent report, popular sentiment clearly discouraged such a move. And so they were left to filibuster. "We have a recommendation to remove the police chief, but no reason why," Councilman Ken Fisher said. "As ridiculous as that sounds." Perhaps, Fisher suggested, the problem rested with the village manager, not the chief.
Lebrun, who in 1987 resigned amid controversy from his post as city manager of Coral Gables, instantly sought to deflect the criticism. He asked for sympathy, citing the multitude of duties he faced each day. His hands were tied, couldn't they see? When this appeal wore thin, he went back on the attack. "I had a damn good reason to fire the disgruntled officer who started all this," he boomed. "This guy who came in here digging around and broke into our records!"
By this time hollering, Lebrun waved off the council members who urged him to calm down. "You're damn right I'm excited! Maybe it's about time I got excited!" The room burst into cacophony, chaos by village standards, and Mayor Ken Bagwell was forced to deliver three swift thwacks of his wooden gavel to restore order.
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Bagwell then cast a mournful look at his temporary village attorney, Xavier Suarez. The popular Miami mayor, who looked utterly lost in his newfound role as paid legal lapdog of the rich, could only shrug.
Anxious to end the spectacle, the council hastily tabled the manager's recommendation to fire Chief Piedra. Maybe they would clear up some of these unresolved issues at the next meeting. There was even talk of setting up a subcommittee.
Lebrun, who had hinted at a resignation during the meeting, waited for the press to depart before announcing his intention to leave the village's employ on April 30. And even then he refused to concede that the sudden resignation had anything to do with his apparent mismanagement of the police department. As he did when pressured to leave Coral Gables, Lebrun claimed it was simply time to move on.
Within a day, Lebrun had abandoned the village for another extended leave, reportedly to care for his gravely ill mother. The council retreated to their safe mansions. Piedra returned to work, even as state prosecutors mulled whether to arrest him. In other words, all had returned to normal in Indian Creek Village.