A Shock to the System

Miami-Dade County officials have pulled the plug on politically connected electrician Hector Pio Ortiz, whose company, Horsepower Electric, has won $24 million in county contracts over the past five years. As reported here January 13 ("Kicked Back and in the Green"), Horsepower was close to securing a nine-million-dollar, no-bid deal to install safety shut-off devices on more than 19,000 light poles throughout the county.

The lucrative contract had been the subject of discussion late last year at a meeting of the county commission's now-defunct Governmental Operations and Environment Committee. The committee, led by commissioners Natasha Seijas and José "Pepe" Diaz, decided Horsepower should get the exclusive deal, a recommendation that would then be forwarded to the full commission for approval.

Among those observing that November 9 meeting were detectives from the Miami-Dade Police Department's public-corruption unit. When they learned that Ortiz was about to extend his multimillion-dollar winning streak, they alerted their boss, police department director Robert Parker.

Two years ago federal prosecutors alleged that Ortiz was one of three county vendors who bribed Richard Mendez, Miami International Airport's former construction chief, in exchange for no-bid contracts during the Nineties. Mendez is currently serving a five-year prison term after pleading guilty to 34 counts of mail fraud, bribery, money laundering, tax evasion, and filing false tax returns. His wife Mirta went down too, pleading guilty to one charge of bribery conspiracy. Two other vendors who benefited from valuable county contracts, Marilyn J. Parker and Edwin L. Perkinson, respectively received three years' probation and one year in prison after pleading guilty to paying bribes to Mendez.

According to Mendez's criminal court file, Ortiz, through a company he co-owns with his oldest son (Pios & Sons Enterprises) funneled more than $100,000 in kickbacks to Mendez. Yet Ortiz escaped prosecution after the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to press charges. The statute of limitations on those alleged crimes has since expired.

Allegations of criminal conduct have done little to dampen Ortiz's ability to pocket county contracts, as witnessed by the street-light deal he was about to snag. Such good fortune might be explained by the fact Ortiz has gained quite a reputation as a reliable campaign fundraiser for several elected officials, including county commissioners Seijas and Diaz.

Enter the public-corruption detectives and police director Parker, who in early January briefed county manager George Burgess. On January 11, Parker submitted a memorandum to the county's department of business development requesting that Ortiz, his son Hector M., Horsepower Electric, and Pios & Sons Enterprises be banned from doing business with the county for the next five years. (The business development department is responsible for verifying that county contractors are legitimate.) Parker's memo initiated an administrative process known as a debarment hearing, in which a three-member panel will determine Ortiz's fate as a county contractor. Until then Ortiz and his affiliates cannot receive any new work orders or contracts from the county.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez headed the police department at the time Mendez, Ortiz, and others were being investigated. "Quite frankly," Alvarez says, "we were always under the impression that the aviation department, where all the alleged misdeeds occurred, was going to initiate the debarment hearing." That, however, did not happen.

"The action on the part of Mr. Ortiz and his companies is atrocious," Alvarez adds. "I can't believe anyone who has read the case file would have any other opinion. The county should not be doing business with these guys."

Whether county commissioners, especially those close to Ortiz, share Alvarez's view remains to be seen. José "Pepe" Diaz won't comment. Natasha Seijas, Ortiz, and his attorney David Garvin did not return repeated phone calls for comment.