January 2, 2003: Under a bright blue sky, John Timoney stood in front of city hall and formally accepted the job as Miami's police chief.
He was taking over a deeply troubled department — that very week, 11 officers would stand trial for fabricating evidence and planting guns. But the tough-talking Irishman with policing roots in the Bronx didn't seem fazed. If anyone could clean up the department, it was Timoney. He had sorted out significant problems as a top cop in both Philadelphia and New York.
One story had it that during the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, he rode his patrol bicycle into a crowd of protesters — and the unruly mob smashed it over his head. "It was a knock-down, drag-out fight," the Miami chief said, laughing. "Unfortunately I picked the biggest guy. I should have picked the smaller guy."
The story was classic Timoney: It showed his strength, bravado, and dry wit. It was also a lie — but more on that later.
Mayor Manny Diaz, City Manager Carlos Gimenez, and others lapped up Timoney's stories; he had star power. Author Tom Wolfe was his friend. So was New York's Cardinal John J. O'Connor. Timoney had lectured at Amherst College on Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. He had even been called "America's Best Cop" by Esquire in 2000.
So that day at city hall, he addressed his new department's problems head-on: "Every now and again police departments bring shame and embarrassment on their city. Their negative actions reflect negatively on the city. They bring unwanted national and international attention.... This policing business is very important, and it is important that it be done right for the city and for its citizens, but also for the free, open democratic society we cherish. In the process, we must strive to regain and maintain public trust and confidence so that the average citizen can point to the Miami Police and proclaim proudly: 'These are our police officers; this is our police department.'"
Everyone in the audience applauded wildly.
Exactly one week later Timoney would high-tail it to Washington, D.C. He'd spend three days at — where else? — the Watergate Hotel while attending a policing conference. Cost to Miami taxpayers: $1043.
That trip was a harbinger.
There are many reasons why John Timoney should be fired. He has trampled civil rights, from the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas protests to the soon-to-be-placed video cameras throughout downtown. He accepted a free Lexus SUV from a local auto dealer and then lied about it. And, according to the police union, he allowed subordinates to manipulate crime statistics to make it appear he's doing a good job.
There's also this: City cops hate him. On September 4, 520 of 650 police union members cast no-confidence votes against the chief.
All of that has been publicized. But until now, no one has talked about perhaps his greatest sin. He's the city's best-paid employee — with a compensation package worth more than $214,000 per year — but he's not around much. During four years and nine months in office, Timoney has been out of town for at least 138 days — not counting vacation. During his 30 jaunts to places like Belfast and Los Angeles, he has stayed in the Wilshire Grand and the Mandarin Oriental. Cost to taxpayers: more than $28,000.
In 2005, the year County Commissioner Art Teele shot himself in the Miami Herald's lobby and Wilma ravaged Miami, Timoney was on the road for one of every five workdays. In 2006, while killings in the city skyrocketed by 41 percent, he took off for 30 days.
The information is documented in 200 pages of reimbursement forms, hotel bills, and other receipts provided by the city in response to public records requests. And there might be much more. Trips to Iraq to study security, to tour Guantánamo, and to Oklahoma for a speech to a small-town police force aren't included in the city file. And Timoney is not required to report all absences to his superiors.
The chief didn't respond to repeated requests via telephone and e-mail seeking comment for this story. His boss, City Manager Pete Hernandez, defends the prodigious travel. "The chief is very well received nationally, and he's a very good representative of the city," says Hernandez. "He's done a good job elevating the level of respect given to the city of Miami."
Former Miami Police Chief Ken Harms has a different take: "Outrageous. Who the hell was it that was fiddling while Rome burned? How does it benefit policing in the city of Miami? This is about enhancing Timoney's big-shot reputation."
In 2003, two months after Timoney's trip to Watergate, he was on the road again. This time it was Orlando, for a Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies meeting. He spent $828.