A Cool $20 Million

Mark Mitnick, a portly, even-tempered 43-year-old bachelor, had worked as a grocery clerk, card dealer, bartender, factory worker, airman first class, and assistant manager at Pizza Hut. In October 2001 he spotted an ad in the newspaper for a job as a Wackenhut security guard. He had the necessary experience. The pay looked nice.

A month later he spent Thanksgiving, his first day of work, patrolling Metromover platforms between the Bayside and College North stations. It was just him and some homeless guys.

Soon things got complicated. During his first year as a guard, four different supervisors asked him to sign for time he didn't work, according to a sworn deposition he gave this past June. After receiving a promotion in 2002, he claims he tried to submit an honest record of hours. "I came to find out quickly that it's unacceptable," he said.

Occasionally during the next two years, Mitnick admits, he asked guards to sign for hours not worked at posts they hadn't manned. "I was trying not to lose any contract hours," Mitnick said, referring to Wackenhut Corporation's massive security accord with Miami-Dade County.

In late 2004, after climbing to the rank of acting major, Mitnick claims he decided to stop lying about hours once and for all. "I think maybe enough is enough," he opined in his deposition.

Mitnick contends that a few months later, in January 2005, his boss ordered him to move some boxes full of company records out of a train station storage room. The request came around the time the county's Office of the Inspector General began auditing another Wackenhut job site, the Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC), where thousands of juvenile arrestees are processed.

Mitnick's boss allegedly wanted him to move the containers into a company vehicle. Someone would destroy them the following morning. "He told me ... we need to protect the company and our contract," Mitnick said in the deposition.

But he refused. "I told him I wasn't going to be a part of destroying anything that may be used in court...," Mitnick said in his deposition. "As far as I was concerned, that was criminal."

A month later Mitnick was fired for allegedly losing thousands of dollars' worth of Metrorail passes. He denied any wrongdoing; indeed he never even had access to the passes. "He didn't do nothing wrong," one of his superiors, Maj. William Acosta, recalled in a deposition. An investigative report written by Wackenhut's human resources director cleared Mitnick of wrongdoing. What's more, his personnel file reflected six years of squeaky-clean service.

In the past year, Mitnick and three other former Wackenhut guards — Omar Rosario, Michelle Trimble, and Ben Gilbert — have sued Wackenhut, claiming they were fired for piping up about systematic understaffing and overbilling.

Trimble claims that, beginning in 1998, Wackenhut stole more than $20 million — $4.5 million per year — from taxpayers by submitting trumped-up records.

The former employees assert that the security company and its county overseers have endangered citizens by inadequately staffing the transit system and the JAC. Indeed a two-month New Times investigation — which included review of nineteen sworn depositions by current and former Wackenhut employees, nine taped statements from guards and supervisors, and internal Wackenhut audits and memos — turned up the following:

• Wilberto Colon, a guard and supervisor hired in 2001, claims 1500 Metrorail posts were abandoned annually between 2001 and 2004. He says Wackenhut's administrative supervisors encouraged the practice.

• Villanueva Velasquez, a guard who has worked for the company intermittently since September 1999, claims administrators called him at home several times and told him to head to a nearby train station and sign for unworked hours.

• Rudolfo Vazquez, project manager of the JAC from 1998 to 2005, contends that at each week's end, he wrote favored employees' names in open time slots on sign-in sheets. His supervisor and Wackenhut executives knew about the practice, he asserts.

• Pelagues Cine, who supervises Wackenhut employees at the JAC, claims that since he began working at the facility in 1997, every one of his supervisors has doctored time records. Staff shortages there "absolutely" make for dangerous situations, he says.

For its part, Wackenhut has denied all allegations of wrongdoing at the JAC and Metrorail. Citing a 78 percent decline in crime on the transit system — and efficient operation of the juvenile facility — since taking over, the company says there's no problem. The complaints, Wackenhut says, come from a few disgruntled employees. On January 19, 2006, the company's regional vice president, Rene Pedrayes, told Miami-Dade commissioners: "We have the proper staff, the proper supervision, the proper rovers in place, and there is nothing we should be ashamed about in the seventeen years we've provided the service to the riding public."

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Calvin Godfrey