A Plot Thicker Than Asphalt

No one knows better than Mario Pons what a glorious document is the U. S. Constitution. Last month the public works employee for the City of Miami showed his appreciation by invoking his constitutionally guaranteed Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination 266 times during a two-hour deposition.

Attorneys for Dade County had questioned him as part of their lawsuit against construction company Church & Tower for allegedly mismanaging the county's paving contract. The only question Pons was willing to answer: What is your name? After that you couldn't pry an answer out of him with a crow bar.

County officials suspect that Pons, using his city position, was creating a lot of work for one of Church & Tower's subcontractors, a firm called MBL Paving, and that in return MBL Paving was using a company Pons allegedly owns, Construction Services of Miami, Inc., to work as a subsubcontractor under the water and sewer department's paving contract.

"That would be a conflict of interest," declared Jim Kay, director of the city's public works department and Pons's boss, who as of last week hadn't heard of the allegations against his employee. "I knew he had been subpoenaed," Kay said, "but I wasn't sure what happened. I don't ask any questions when it comes to subpoenas."

When he learned Pons had repeatedly taken the Fifth, Kay grimaced: "That doesn't sound good." The State Attorney's Office recently requested information about Pons, he elaborated. As a city employee, Pons is required to disclose any outside work. Prosecutors wanted to know if he had reported any activity in the last couple of years, Kay said. All the city had on file was a notice that Pons was involved in selling real estate. "But that was years ago," Kay added. "There was nothing recent."

At least nothing Pons has reported to the city. Records at the Secretary of State's office in Tallahassee reveal a minimum of ten different companies listing Mario Pons as an officer. During his deposition, Pons refused to confirm if he was the Mario Pons listed in those records. (Pons did not return phone calls; his attorney, Robert Rosenblatt, declined comment.)

Trudy Novicki, chief assistant state attorney for special prosecutions, acknowledges that Pons's possible role in the scandal is being examined. "It is just one of the many things we are looking at," she said last week.

Last year investigations by the Daily Business Review and the Miami Herald found that the county had been overcharged hundreds of thousands of dollars for materials that were never used and work that was never done. As a result, work under the $58 million water and sewer department paving contract was halted and two county supervisors, Miguel Sierra and Jairaj Rajhunandan, were fired. The state attorney is conducting a criminal investigation.

The county has also sought to block Church & Tower from winning any new paving contracts. The firm responded by suing the county. The county has since filed its own suit against Church & Tower in an effort to recover some of its misspent money. During the past six months, estimates of how much the county may have been overcharged have skyrocketed, with some officials in recent weeks predicting the amount could exceed $15 million.

Church & Tower officials deny any wrongdoing and argue they merely managed the contract; the actual paving work was done by the company's subcontractors. If there was fraud, it was most likely committed by those subcontractors working in collusion with county inspectors. The involvement of Mario Pons, however, marks a new twist in the scandal. No longer confined to county hall, it has now spread to Miami city government.

Dade County is responsible for maintaining the water and sewer lines that run through all its municipalities, including the City of Miami. After county crews repair or replace one of those lines, it's their obligation to repave the street. Sometimes problems develop. For instance, the surface may not have been repaved to the city's standards. Shoddy workmanship can cause cracks or potholes to appear prematurely. It's also common over time for patched surfaces to settle into the ground, creating a small crater.

When problems occur, the City of Miami has the right to ask Dade County to return and fix the problem. That's where Mario Pons comes in. As the utility coordinator for the city, he compiled lists of sites in need of repair and forwarded them to the county, which in turn passed them on to MBL Paving.

From all indications, Pons was a very conscientious city employee, a real taskmaster in fact. Over the past two years he made dozens upon dozens of requests for the county to come back and repave sites, county records show.

County officials and investigators with the State Attorney's Office are now reviewing those records, as well as the sites themselves, to determine what work was done and whether it was necessary.