A Feast of Thieves

It was an uncharacteristically gloomy afternoon last week when I visited county Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler at her office on the second floor of the government center. The sky was an unyielding mass of gray, releasing a steady downpour. If that sodden day wasn't enough to dampen her spirits, the State Attorney's report I was about to show her was bound to do the job. The 12,000-word investigative report linked her to a criminal defendant accused of fraud at Miami International Airport.

Carey-Shuler, of course, is one of the most popular and influential politicians in the county, and perhaps the most powerful black official. Even after stepping down as chair of the county commission this past November, as term limits required, several of her commission colleagues said privately they would have voted for her again if the rules allowed it. Last year she was re-elected to her District 3 commission seat by an overwhelming margin.

Now she's poised for another distinction: Carey-Shuler is the next political figure targeted for investigation by authorities as a result of an ongoing criminal case at the airport. Sources close to the case say they are looking into one defendant's allegations she was deeply involved in airport corruption -- allegations she denies.

In July 2004, a team from the offices of the State Attorney, the county's Inspector General, and the Miami-Dade Police Department's public-corruption unit announced the arrest of nineteen people for participating in a wide-ranging conspiracy to steal millions of gallons of high-grade jet fuel from MIA, as well as siphon money from the airport in a variety of billing schemes. The estimated amount of public money stolen: five million dollars.

Among those arrested were Richard Caride, manager of the airport's "fuel farm," where jet fuel is pumped from Port Everglades and stored for airline use; and Antonio Junior, a local black businessman who for years has had close ties to Carey-Shuler. Journalists and political insiders were bug-eyed as they waited to see if she would catch any splatter from Junior's arrest. Now it appears the first wheel has hit the puddle.

Caride, who is Hispanic, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with authorities. If he lies to investigators, he faces severe consequences: His plea deal will be nullified, major racketeering charges will be reinstated, and prosecutors will use his admissions against him. The document I showed Carey-Shuler is a summary of what Caride told investigators. In it he explains in compelling detail how he accepted payoffs from Junior to steer contracts his way. He also alleges that Junior repeatedly boasted he could get contracts renewed and county employees promoted through his influence with Carey-Shuler. Never stated but clearly implied is that Junior was paying Carey-Shuler from the proceeds of his schemes. The State Attorney's Office released the document last week as part of the discovery process in the fuel-farm case, and it is now a public record.

As of now there is little to incriminate Carey-Shuler other than Caride's word, and that is easily impugned. A former Hialeah cop, Caride served three years of a seven-year sentence for murder after two people were killed in an armed robbery in which he participated. As Junior's lawyer Jay Levine puts it: "Caride is a sociopathic liar, thief, and murderer." Caride's word, he adds, is worthless.

For her part, Carey-Shuler admits meeting Caride at Antonio Junior's request for a series of lunches, but denies she was asked to do anything illegal or that she even knew they were involved in allegedly criminal activity. "Antonio was a friend, and he asked me to have a meeting with someone," she says. "It was innocent. He said they were applying for an award and asked if I would write a letter saying they had been good to minority businesses. I listened and I wrote that letter. I'm always interested in promoting black entrepreneurship."

She has an aide find the letter, and shows it to me. It's addressed to "The Performance Track Information Center c/o Industrial Economics Incorporated," in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and titled "Letter of Recommendation -- Miami International Airport Fuel Facility National Environmental Achievement Track." It is dated October 19, 2001.

After Junior's arrest, investigators from the State Attorney's Office called her. "They asked me for some records and my calendar, and they said I wasn't involved in this investigation," she recounts. That was then. Now authorities say they are following up on the information Caride has given them, meaning Carey-Shuler is in fact involved in the investigation.

At the least Caride's detailed account reveals a hidden nexus of business and politics, where county commissioners' names are used, with or without their knowledge, as currency to gain access to lucrative contracts, and where Miami International Airport's sprawling bureaucracy is easily manipulated. At worst his narrative describes a criminal enterprise in which thieves saw the airport as one vast ATM machine to be plundered with impunity, in which crooks cynically exploited county programs designed to assist minority business owners, and in which lawbreakers were facilitated by yet another Miami politician.

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Tristram Korten
Contact: Tristram Korten

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