You Call This a Fairway?
For the past two years, County Manager Armando Vidal has accepted dozens of rounds of free golf from the company hired to operate the county-owned Golf Club of Miami.
During this same period of time, the county manager recommended changes to the company's contract that financially benefited the firm, the Muirfield Group. The most significant amendment, which was made against the advice of his staff and the county attorney's office, allowed the company to deposit the money earned at the golf course into its own private bank account instead of a county-controlled account, as the contract stipulated.
As a result the county has been unable to collect money owed to it under the contract. According to Dade County parks and recreation director Bill Cutie, the Muirfield Group currently owes the county $435,000. And at least $100,000 of that money has been past due for more than a year.
Chronicling recent history of the Golf Club of Miami reveals more than the golfing habits of a county manager and the fiscal delinquency of a local firm. It also offers insight into the insular and what some might call incestuous culture of business at county hall. And it may prove that in the county's highest political circles, it's not so much who you know but whom you golf with.
"The county manager was a golf fanatic," recalls Harry Ferguson, the former tournament director for the course, located at 6801 Miami Gardens Dr. "He would come out and play for free whenever he wanted. It was just the company's way of doing business. Everyone was on a first-name basis with him."
Glenn Street, a former assistant golf pro at the course in 1995 and 1996, also recalls Vidal being a frequent guest. "It was definitely a habit-forming situation on his part," says Street, who now works as a real estate agent in Tennessee. "The first time I saw the county manager I didn't know who he was. He just came in and grabbed a bucket of range balls and helped himself to a cart." Street was subsequently told Vidal's identity by the course's marketing director Carlos Morales, who then instructed Street to let Vidal play for free. "I just did what I was told," Street adds. "After that, sometimes Carlos would call in advance to say the county manager was coming out, and other times he would just show up."
Vidal usually golfed with lobbyist Jorge Lopez. "Most of the time it was the two of them together," says Street. "Sometimes they would bring guests, and their guests would be comped as well. They were usually pretty cordial and not very demanding. But they would basically help themselves to anything they wanted." That included food and beverages, Street says.
These outings may violate Dade's ethics and conflict-of-interest ordinances, which generally prohibit county employees from accepting gifts from firms that do business with the county. It also prohibits any county official from using his position "to secure special privileges or exemptions for himself or others."
Vidal, whose annual salary is $165,000, would not comment on the allegations. Requests for an interview with him, which were made both in writing and verbally through the county's press office last week, were rejected.
County officials say they are busy working with the Muirfield Group to recover the money owed. But the county has taken none of the steps it might normally take, such as threatening to terminate Muirfield's contract or to sue for nonpayment. Instead the county has taken a gentler approach. "We're trying to negotiate with the Muirfield Group payment of the money it owes the county," Cutie explains.
The notion that there should be any negotiation regarding money owed to the county has critics of the Muirfield Group incensed. "What's to negotiate?" asks Johnny LaPonzina, president of Professional Course Management, a company that competed with Muirfield three years ago for the Golf Club of Miami contract. "They were obligated to pay that money. It was part of the agreement. How are they allowed to get away with not paying?"
The Muirfield Group is currently owned by Sergio Vidal (no relation to county manager Armando Vidal). Sergio, age 68, is a member of the Latin Chamber of Commerce and the Latin Builders' Association. He owns Gran Realty and Superior Mortgage Co. Inc., as well as Gran Travel and the Little Havana restaurant El Bodegon Castilla.
In the summer of 1994, when Muirfield was awarded the contract for the Golf Course of Miami, Vidal (who doesn't even play golf) owned only 36 percent of the company. The other 64 percent was controlled by Charlie DeLucca, who has been involved in the golf business for 25 years, and former Miami Dolphin great Nat Moore, who for the past 8 years has operated a company specializing in hosting celebrity and charity golf tournaments.
Moore and DeLucca say they were forced out of the company last year by Sergio Vidal. Both Moore and DeLucca are now suing him to try to regain control of the business. In their lawsuit, filed in September, DeLucca and Moore claim their names and reputations in the community were used by Sergio Vidal to win the contract in 1994, and that once the agreement was awarded Vidal conspired to strip the pair of their stock.
But the suit also suggests an extremely close and possibly improper relationship between Armando Vidal and Sergio Vidal. The lawsuit contends that at one point last year Sergio Vidal, in trying to ensure Moore's and DeLucca's silence about his treatment of them, offered to make the pair partners in a new venture, whose goal was to take over the two other county golf courses. Sergio Vidal implied he would be able to take over the other courses, the suit contends, because of his friendship with Armando Vidal.
"I have no influence in Dade County," smiles Sergio Vidal, in denying he ever made such an offer to DeLucca and Moore. "Everything is lies. They are professional liars."
Sergio Vidal's contacts at county hall, however, run straight to the top. "I've known Alex Penelas and his family for 25 years," Vidal says. "We all attended the same church, St. Robert Bellarmine." He even acknowledges that he once paid for a vacation taken by Penelas's parents. "That was a long time ago," he says, refusing to answer further questions on the subject.
Sergio says he's known the county manager for the past three years. The person who introduced Armando and Sergio Vidal to each other -- Jorge Lopez, Penelas's former chief of staff and Armando Vidal's regular golfing buddy. "Jorge is a lobbyist for me and he is an attorney for me," says Sergio Vidal. "He is also one of my best friends."
(Although Sergio Vidal identifies Jorge Lopez as his lobbyist, records at the county clerk's office show that he has not registered to work on behalf of Muirfield, which would appear to be a violation of county regulations. Lopez says the reason he is not registered is simple: He is not Muirfield's lobbyist. He says he has had some discussions about being Vidal's attorney for estate planning purposes but has yet to be hired.)
When Jorge Lopez got married last fall, Sergio Vidal helped pay for part of the honeymoon; he gave the newlyweds train passes for sightseeing across Europe. "That was supposed to be confidential," Sergio Vidal says when asked about the gift. (Last Friday Lopez contacted New Times and said he had just written Sergio Vidal a check for $914 to reimburse him for the two passes.).
Jorge Lopez is one of Armando Vidal's closest friends. Lopez's wife works in the manager's office.
And despite all of these overlapping relationships, Sergio Vidal maintains that he has no influence with county officials. "We have access to those people, to Jorge, to Alex, to Armando," he says. "But we don't use it. We are all just good friends."
The Golf Club of Miami opened grandly on December 29, 1960. The first foursome off the tee: Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Sam Snead, and Jack Nicklaus. It was the first round of professional golf for the young Nicklaus, and nerves apparently got the better of him -- he drove his maiden tee shot into the lake just left of the fairway.
Palmer, who at the time was considered the best golfer in the world, was the club's original pro. Lee Trevino notched one of his earliest tour victories at the course in 1970, which for years was the site of the Professional Golf Association's National Open and has since hosted a score of PGA and Senior PGA events.
But the Golf Club of Miami may be best known as the home course of Jackie Gleason. The legendary comedian built a 5000-square-foot mansion alongside the eighteenth fairway; the course, originally a private club, soon became a mecca for movie and television stars vacationing in Miami during the winter. "It was a fabulous facility," says LaPonzina. "It was a high-profile place where celebrities and sports stars used to hang out. It was just a great place to be."
But despite its stellar history, the Golf Club of Miami struggled to survive. In the early 1980s, the club was bought by T.D. Fender, who opened it to the public. Soon the hallowed fairways where Palmer and Nicklaus gently strolled, surgically lifting their ball from tee to green, were being mercilessly trampled by hacking hordes of weekend duffers. Fender's real interest was in the land underneath the course and its potential for a new housing development. But the area's existing homeowners continually fought his plans.
When a fire gutted the clubhouse, Fender refused to rebuild it. By the mid-1980s, he had shut the course down completely and allowed it to become overgrown with weeds. He hoped that such a tactic would force the homeowners to reconsider their opposition. Instead, neighbors convinced Dade County to step in and purchase the property from Fender.
In 1988 the county paid $16 million for the golf courses, with half of the money coming from local homeowners who formed a special taxing district to raise the necessary revenue. The county hired the PGA in 1989 to take over management of the operation. The PGA promised to build a new hotel and conference center near the site and to deliver a major national golf tournament to the facility. In return the county gave the PGA a 90-year lease, in which it was promised a $450,000-a-year management fee -- regardless of whether the club made a profit or not. The county also generously spent eight million dollars renovating the course and returning it to its tournament-level condition.
But the partnership with the PGA was a dismal failure -- the county lost nearly $750,000 a year. The promised hotel and conference center never materialized, and no major tournament appeared to be in the club's future. Even the renovations to the golf course caused trouble, as the eighteenth hole was redesigned in such a way that Jackie Gleason's old house was no longer located along the fairway, but rather at the end of the driving range. As a result Gleason House, as it's known, was pelted with more than 250 golf balls a month -- a sacrilege that prompted the home's current owners to sue the county.
By early 1994, with the county threatening to sue for breach of contract, the PGA agreed to abandon its 90-year agreement. (As further inducement for the association to walk away, the county reached a settlement with the PGA whereby the county agreed to pay it $100,000 a year for the next 25 years.) Once the PGA was gone, Dade began the process of selecting a new company to operate the golf course.
In point of fact, the Golf Club of Miami is actually three separate eighteen-hole golf courses on a 700-acre complex. The premier, PGA tournament-level course is known as the West Course. The slightly less challenging East Course is where Gleason lived. And the South Course is a short, relatively easy course consisting of only par threes and par fours.
In seeking a replacement for the PGA, the county solicited proposals from a number of golf-related firms. Four emerged as the main contenders. The first was a group led by golf legend Raymond Floyd. At the time of the proposal, Floyd owned and operated three courses in Florida; his partner Chuck Hart had managed a half-dozen courses during the previous thirteen years.
Professional Course Management (PCM), Johnny LaPonzina's outfit, also applied. PCM is South Florida's largest golf operator, responsible for managing the Bonaventure Resort and Country Club, the Miami Shores Country Club, Pembroke Lakes Country Club, and the Presidential Golf Club.
The third candidate, American Golf Corporation, is an international firm that manages 180 courses in the United States and England and has a net worth of more than $54 million.
And finally, there was the Muirfield Group. According to Charlie DeLucca, he first learned that the PGA was pulling out of the Golf Club of Miami from Paul O'Dell, who had been the general manager of the course for the PGA. O'Dell told DeLucca that his father-in-law, Sergio Vidal, was interested in taking over the club and was looking for partners. "He said his dad would put up all the money," DeLucca recalls. "He said he wanted to include me because of my experience with golf and my reputation in the community."
Since 1971 DeLucca had been the golf director for Miami's Melreese Golf Course and was responsible for operating the pro shop, restaurant, lounge, and driving range. For the past 28 years, he has also been the president and executive director of the Dade Amateur Golf Association, which emphasizes programs for children. His resume lists several pages of charity events he has helped organize. "In the world of golf, nobody has done more for the South Florida community than Charlie DeLucca," acknowledges Johnny LaPonzina.
After O'Dell approached him, DeLucca suggested that they bring Nat Moore into the deal. Moore is on the board of directors of the Doral-Ryder Open and is also executive director of the Nat Moore Florida Classic Golf Tournament and co-chairman of the golf division of the Sunshine State Games.
The county manager at the time, Joaquin Avino, set up a selection committee to review the proposals submitted by the various firms. Primarily the committee considered the golf-related qualifications of the groups, their financial stability, and their willingness to split the course's profits with the county.
All of the members of the committee ranked the Muirfield Group first in August 1994. American Golf finished second, the Hart-Floyd group third, and PCM last. The committee took special note of the ethnic diversity of the Muirfield Group. The committee also felt the team had impressive financial backing from Sergio Vidal, who submitted documents establishing his net worth at $7.5 million. He also boasted a long history of community involvement. The golf-related experience was provided by DeLucca and Moore.
As part of their proposal, Muirfield agreed to split the first $300,000 in profits each year 60-40, with 60 percent going to the county. All profits above $300,000 would be split 50-50.
One issue the committee did not discuss was the political clout that Muirfield brought to the table. "The guy who helped us through the whole process was Jorge Lopez," says DeLucca. "Lopez walked us through all of the procedures. He helped us fill out our proposal, and he set up a meeting for Nat and me to meet with Joaquin Avino." Moore also recalls Lopez being intimately involved in preparing Muirfield's proposal.
At the time, Lopez was on the staff of then-county commissioner Alex Penelas, whose district contained the Golf Club of Miami. "Jorge was at most of the meetings with us," says DeLucca. "He really wanted us to win this contract. He made no secret of the fact that he eventually wanted to be a partner in the deal." According to DeLucca, Lopez said once Muirfield took over the Golf Club of Miami, they could then begin going after the county's other golf courses. "He said he wanted to be a partner in everything with us," says DeLucca.
In the summer of 1994, however, Lopez was handicapped by a few significant restrictions. As a county employee, he was barred from doing business with Dade County. And when he left county government (as he did on October 21, 1994), the prohibition would last another two years.
Lopez vehemently denies DeLucca's and Moore's allegations. He says he had no involvement in the preparation of Muirfield's proposal, never envisioned being a partner in the deal, and has had absolutely no contact with any county officials on Muirfield's behalf. He argues that by dragging his name into this conflict, DeLucca and Moore are hoping that Sergio Vidal will lose the contract to run the course. If Lopez had violated county rules and procedures by being directly involved, that could be grounds for opponents to seek nullification of the agreement. "The last refuge of these scoundrels is this [New Times] story," he says. "If this demonstrates anything, it is my poor judgement in befriending these two individuals. At one point I did consider them my friends. I feel sorry for them."
Lopez's influence with county officials soared in December 1994, when Armando Vidal was selected by the county commission to replace Avino as county manager. Both Armando Vidal and Lopez admit that they have an extremely close friendship but maintain it has no bearing on how Vidal conducts county affairs. For instance, Lopez says, on those occasions when he does golf with the manager, he says they don't discuss pending deals or contracts. "At no time that I've been with him have I talked business," he claims. "When Armando wants to relax, he wants to relax."
The Muirfield Group officially took over the Golf Club of Miami on September 1, 1994. Paul O'Dell remained as the club's general manager. In fact, most of the staff hired during the PGA's tenure remained.
Both DeLucca and Moore say that in the beginning they were very excited by the group's prospects for success. DeLucca wanted to turn the smaller South Course into a facility geared toward children, particularly inner-city kids. "Nat and I both thought there were a lot of things we could do for the community with these courses," says DeLucca. "As it is today, there aren't that many places in Dade County for kids to practice or learn to play the game."
"The reason I became involved in this project," explains Moore, "is that I thought it was going to be a good deal for everybody. We thought it was an opportunity for us to build something that the community would be proud of."
Moore and DeLucca say they became suspicious of Vidal and O'Dell in early 1995 when their requests for financial information were ignored. "I like Paul O'Dell," says DeLucca. "I think he's a nice guy. But we couldn't get any financial reports from him on how the course was running. And when we did get them, they would be late or they didn't make sense."
Moore says he was repeatedly told by O'Dell that the course would be profitable. By the summer of 1995, O'Dell began hedging his statements, saying it appeared the course was only going to break even. Then, Moore says, by the fall they were told the course was actually going to lose nearly $185,000 in its first year under Muirfield management.
O'Dell claimed that there had been a number of unexpected problems, the most serious being the damage caused by Tropical Storm Gordon in November 1994. (O'Dell did not return phone calls seeking his comments for this story.)
O'Dell's management practices were soon being scrutinized by DeLucca. For example, under the agreement with the county, all of the money taken in by the golf course was supposed to be deposited in a county-controlled bank account. O'Dell would apprise the county of what bills were due, and the county would then authorize payment from the account. The county could therefore keep track of how the money was being spent. But O'Dell, according to DeLucca, hated this system and complained it was inefficient and time-consuming. So the Golf Club of Miami opened its own bank account.
Another source of contention among the partners was a claim for damages stemming from Tropical Storm Gordon that O'Dell filed with the county. O'Dell demanded the county reimburse the Golf Club of Miami more than $600,000 for repairs of storm damage and the loss of business while the course was flooded. DeLucca says he thought the claim was outrageous. "When it rains the place floods; we knew that going into the deal," says DeLucca. "You can't ask the county to reimburse you for that."
Moore was also upset by the damage claim. "In order to win this contract, Charlie and I attached our names to this project," he says. "We put up our names and reputations for being good citizens, fair and honest people. And to try to charge the county for rain damage was crazy. I didn't agree with it."
The county did its own survey of other golf courses in the area to see if any had filed claims for storm damage. According to a report prepared by Bob Scharbert, assistant director for parks and recreation, none of the golf courses affected by the storm received compensation. More important, he noted, none of them had asked for reimbursement. "This is the cost of doing business," Scharbert wrote.
In a memo dated November 8, 1995, DeLucca and Moore wrote to Vidal and the other members of Muirfield's board of directors to protest. "Whatever is legitimately owed to the Muirfield Group by the county, [we] will fight for," they stated. "However, we don't want to be part of a fraud or 'B.S.' as it relates to this money. It would only serve to hurt our careers and names in the community and any further business relationships in Dade County."
The Muirfield Group continues to claim that the county owes it more than $600,000 for damage from the storm, and cites that claim as one of the reasons they refuse to pay the county the money owed.
As DeLucca and Moore grew more critical of the way the course was being operated, they say their relationship with partner Sergio Vidal became increasingly strained. By early 1996 Sergio Vidal initiated a plan to force DeLucca and Moore out of the company and take over their stock. Vidal had personally loaned the Muirfield Group in excess of $700,000 to cover start-up costs and other expenditures. Under an agreement signed by Moore and DeLucca, Sergio Vidal was to be repaid from course revenue. As collateral for the loan, DeLucca and Moore put up their shares of stock in the company. But no payments were ever made to Vidal, and he foreclosed on DeLucca's and Moore's stock. Now, instead of controlling only 36 percent of the Muirfield Group, Vidal owns 100 percent.
Moore and DeLucca say they had no idea Vidal's loan payments were not being met. After all, they note, Vidal's son-in-law Paul O'Dell was the general manager of the course and handled the club's finances. In the lawsuit filed last September, DeLucca and Moore claim that O'Dell and Vidal conspired to take over the Muirfield Group.
The lawsuit alleges that O'Dell deliberately withheld payments to Vidal so that his father-in-law could turn around and foreclose on DeLucca and Moore. The two men now believe this was the reason they were unable to get any reliable financial information out of O'Dell -- they would have discovered that Vidal's loan wasn't being repaid. This is the same reason that O'Dell refused to use a county-controlled bank account, the suit argues. It further alleges that by keeping the records private and DeLucca and Moore ignorant, O'Dell and Vidal were able to cheat them out of their shares of the company.
DeLucca and Moore say that Vidal never once complained that his loan wasn't being repaid. "You would think that in all of the meetings we had with him he would have mentioned it if he was concerned," says Moore.
Moore and DeLucca contend they first learned that Vidal was trying to force them out on March 12, 1996, when they arrived at the golf course for a board of directors meeting. Before the meeting started, they were handed letters, which had been sent via certified mail from Vidal's attorney, giving them just ten days to make a $700,000 payment to Vidal.
The letters had been mailed to the golf course and, according to Moore, the receipt was signed by Paul O'Dell on February 24. Moore says if one wanted proof of O'Dell's and Vidal's bad faith, this was it. "Why would they mail that letter to the golf course instead of my office or my home?" Moore asks incredulously. "But besides that, I must have played golf every single day at that course, so why didn't Paul O'Dell give me that letter?" The reason, he says, is that O'Dell and Vidal did not want to give DeLucca or Moore an adequate opportunity to raise the money to keep Vidal from foreclosing on them.
Miguel DeGrandy, an attorney for Vidal and O'Dell, says that if the lawsuit ever goes to trial they will be able to show that DeLucca and Moore were warned the loan payments were not being met. "They were given ample notice," says DeGrandy, who adds that DeLucca and Moore are seeking media attention for the case to try to force a settlement. "They know they don't have a leg to stand on."
Vidal also says he gave Moore and DeLucca plenty of chances to pay the money. He claims that he did nothing wrong, and he denies conspiring with his son-in-law to oust DeLucca and Moore. It is no different than if the two men had gotten a loan from a bank, he argues. "If you don't make the payments, then the bank forecloses on you," he says. "In this case I was the bank."
Both DeLucca and Moore say they didn't realize the documents they had signed gave Vidal the power to foreclose on their stock. "We were signing so many documents to get this course open and the deal done," says Moore. "I had no idea I was giving Sergio that much power."
"Do you think I would have knowingly signed something like that?" adds DeLucca. "I might be naive, but I'm not an idiot." DeLucca and Moore say they thought they were true partners with Vidal -- not the recipient of some short-term loan. The whole idea of the partnership, they argue, was that Vidal would put up the money, while they contributed their golf-related expertise.
In their lawsuit DeLucca and Moore claim they were used by Vidal and O'Dell to win the contract, and that Vidal planned all along to take over the company. "There is no way in hell they would have been granted this golf course if the only partner in the deal was Sergio Vidal," says Moore. "It was only through our involvement that they were able to win."
Muirfield's competitors seem to agree. Two of the firms that had also vied for the Golf Club of Miami contract -- PCM and the Hart-Floyd group -- have complained to the county that with DeLucca and Moore out of the deal, the contract should be reopened to new competitive bidding.
"When my firm lost the bid in 1994, we applauded the county's choice because Charlie DeLucca and Nat Moore are quality people," says LaPonzina. "But all of that has changed. I think DeLucca and Moore have been used and misled. Sergio Vidal does not have the expertise to operate golf courses efficiently. If Paul O'Dell was so qualified to run the golf course, then why didn't his father-in-law place his name on the bid proposal, instead of using Charlie's and Nat's names to get the contract?"
Starting in July 1996, LaPonzina and Hart each wrote letters to the county manager and various commissioners asking a series of pointed questions about the sudden absence of DeLucca and Moore. "I feel this drastically violates the conditions and terms of the RFQ [request for qualifications], as the bid was awarded to the Muirfield Group primarily on the qualifications, expertise and experience of Messrs. DeLucca and Moore," Hart wrote on July 1, 1996. "I wish to know why the county has not terminated the Muirfield contract and put the Golf Club of Miami out for re-bid (or have the county operate the golf course), as the original terms and principals involved according to the RFQ have not been conformed with."
Hart and LaPonzina also challenged the county's supervision of the golf course and asked why the county manager had allowed the Muirfield Group, in violation of the contract, to use its own bank account instead of depositing course revenues into a county-controlled account. When the Muirfield Group first refused to use a county bank account, Chuck Pezoldt, who was then Dade's parks and recreation directo, contacted the county attorney's office to ask if he should allow the Muirfield Group to deviate from the original agreement.
The answer was an emphatic no. "The spending and revenue accounts were specifically required both in the request for qualifications documents and the contract negotiated and executed with the [Muirfield Group]," Assistant County Attorney Hugo Benitez wrote in a memo on October 24, 1994. "To allow for a change in that requirement at this point would vitiate the competitive selection process, would provide [the Muirfield Group] with an unfair advantage over other participants in that process, and would deprive the county of an important safeguard in connection with the financial success of the facility and the county's repayment obligations to the PGA Tour."
Despite that prophetic warning, the county took no action to force Muirfield to honor the terms of the contract. Instead, County Manager Armando Vidal recommended to the commission a year later that it simply drop the requirement that a county bank account be used by the golf course. In justifying this opinion, Armando Vidal stated in his memo to commissioners that the change was needed to "allow for more efficient operation of the Golf Club of Miami complex." Relying on the manager's advice, the commission approved the change. And as a result of that amendment, the county has been unable to collect at least $100,000 that has been owed to it for more than a year.
Still another change to the contract that the county manager recommended was allowing Muirfield to close the South Course. The rationale for the closing was that it was losing money. But DeLucca says that when the contract was awarded the Muirfield Group understood that the South Course was likely to lose money. The company accepted that risk. Keeping the course open was important to residents in the area who feared that an inactive course would lead to vandalism and other problems.
Hart and LaPonzina have also raised concerns about the number of complimentary rounds given away by the golf course. For instance, LaPonzina noted, when the Muirfield Group was negotiating the contract with the county, it retained the law firm Adorno & Zeder and incurred approximately $40,000 in legal fees. But rather than pay the fee out of its own pocket, the group allowed the law firm to use the golf course for its annual tournament for the past two years.
Harry Ferguson, the former tournament director for Muirfield, confirmed that Adorno & Zeder was not charged for the events. "I was told that it was an exchange of services," Ferguson says.
LaPonzina wonders if it was appropriate for the county to subsidize legal fees owed by the Muirfield Group befor it signed the contract. If Adorno & Zeder had paid for its golf tournament, that money would have counted as course revenue and could have increased the county's share of profits this year.
And then there are the free rounds that Armando Vidal receives. "I feel proud that the manager is out there," says Sergio Vidal, confirming Armando's golfing proclivity. "He can check on the status of the courses. We are not twisting arms; it's in the lease that he can play."
Sergio Vidal is referring to an amendment in the lease adopted by the county commission on October 8, 1996, which states that the county has up to twenty complimentary rounds per month at its disposal. It also states that the rounds are to be allotted through the parks and recreation director.
In an interview the current director, Bill Cutie, explained that those complimentary rounds are used primarily for charity fundraising by various departments. If a department is trying to collect money for a particular cause, it might hold a raffle where one of the prizes could be four free rounds of golf. "They were not intended as a perk for county executives," he declared. Cutie said he had no idea Vidal was golfing for free at the course and has no record that Vidal sought to charge those outings against the county's allotment of rounds.
Regardless of whether the complimentary rounds were intended for Armando Vidal or not, the amendment to the lease was added only three months ago -- nearly eighteen months after the county manager started playing free. Confronted with that chronology, Sergio Vidal relented and acknowledged that the county manager and Jorge Lopez played free as "the guests of Carlos Morales, the sales manager." A round of golf at the course costs between $20 and $50, depending on the course and the season.
In addition to the issues surrounding Muirfield's finances, Hart and LaPonzina also began questioning the friendships of Armando Vidal, Sergio Vidal, and Jorge Lopez and how they affect the way the county supervises this contract. "If your personal relationship with individuals involved in this matter causes you difficulty," LaPonzina wrote to Armando Vidal on July 24, 1996, "we hereby request that you appoint a neutral person to make inquiry and respond to all of the questions presented."
Hart taunted the manager as well. In his July 1, 1996, letter to Armando Vidal, Hart closed his missive by writing: "I understand Jorge Lopez may be acting as counsel to the Muirfield Group and, if in fact this is true, you may wish to discuss these matters with him."
The scrutiny of Hart and LaPonzina may have had an interesting result. DeLucca and Moore say Sergio Vidal invited them to meet with him in late August at his restaurant in Little Havana. According to their lawsuit, filed about a week after this meeting, Sergio Vidal complained that County Manager Armando Vidal "is under pressure" to do something about the Muirfield contract. Sergio Vidal allegedly told DeLucca and Moore that if they stopped complaining about their ouster, he would see to it they were compensated. "If you cooperate and stick together," the lawsuit claims Sergio Vidal said, "after the election we will see to it that you get Key Biscayne and Palmetto Golf Course."
The election Sergio Vidal reportedly referred to was the race for Dade County mayor, which Alex Penelas won. If Penelas had lost he election, it was unlikely that Armando Vidal would have remained as county manager. "The implicit message to [DeLucca and Moore]," according to the lawsuit, "was that if they kept their mouths shut about how they were used and then ousted from the Muirfield Group, they would be rewarded by [Sergio Vidal's] delivery to them of management agreements with Dade County for the Key Biscayne Golf Course and the Palmetto Golf Course which [Sergio] Vidal implied he could deliver because of his influence with the county manager." The suit also states that DeLucca and Moore refused the offer. Says DeLucca: "I thought it was pretty brazen on Sergio Vidal's part to even make that offer."
Sergio Vidal denies making any such inducement. "They are liars," he says. Vidal stresses that the Golf Club of Miami has never been in better hands. It has recently been ranked among the best golf courses in Florida -- public or private -- and among the best public courses in the country. He also notes that for the first time since the county took over the course in 1988, the facility is going to show a profit, with the county's share estimated by him at approximately $235,000.
DeLucca and Moore's lawsuit is expected to go to trial later this year. The two men claim that all they want is that their shares in the company be reinstated. "I'm not looking for anything that wasn't given to me by the county commission," says Moore. "And if that is not possible, then I think the contract should go out for a new bid."
Moore finds it extremely discouraging to have to file a lawsuit to defend his interests. "But," he says, "this is the only way to do it. We have to get it out of the political realm and into the courts and hope that justice will prevail.
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