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.

The "Report of Investigation" is described as "a synopsis of debriefings with Caride." It was prepared by Robert A. Fielder, State Attorney investigator, this past January. This is Caride's version of events. All quotations that follow are drawn directly from the report.

It begins chronologically, with Caride describing how, in 1996, he joined Aircraft Service International Group (ASIG), the company that manages the fuel farm's operations. He began as an operator and rose quickly through the ranks, largely because other employees were lazy and unqualified. By 1999 ASIG had promoted him to the position of fuel facility manager.

After the promotion, Caride said he "found evidence of fuel theft, such as open valves from the fuel tanks and the large filter vessels that had been drained." He claimed he tried to foil the thefts by removing unnecessary valves. As a result, he said, an employee named Maurice Williams told Caride he was upsetting people. That sentiment was echoed by Roberto Finale, vice president of Waldron Enterprises, a company that did maintenance work at the fuel farm, who allegedly told Caride that fuel theft was a tradition and "a lot of people feed their families" from it. When Caride decided to follow tradition, he claimed that other subcontractors gave him cash bribes to look the other way as fuel was stolen by the truckload. From there he accepted money to approve new contracts, renew existing ones, and assist in fraudulent-billing schemes. Caride said he bought a pickup truck with one $20,000 cash payment. In all, he told investigators, he pocketed more than $230,000.

Caride said Williams told him he wanted to introduce someone who could help him. That's how Caride ended up having lunch with Antonio Junior at a Bennigans restaurant on NW 42nd Avenue near the airport. "Antonio Junior told Caride that ASIG needed his help and influence to get the fuel farm management contract a few years back." Junior wanted to offer his help again, according to Caride, allegedly explaining that "I have go-betweens with lobbyists and politicians." And when Caride said he was new to this stuff, Junior allegedly replied, "You're a babe in the woods, you need all the help you can get."

Caride said Junior told him that "in exchange for his help he wanted in at the tank farm." Caride thought about it and said he wasn't happy with the current security company. Junior allegedly responded, "We can do that for you, I have had some training in that area." Shortly after that, Caride said, he approached his ASIG supervisor, John McGhee, about hiring Junior's company, Diversified Management International, to handle security at the fuel farm. "McGhee resisted but Caride said he reminded him that they needed 10 percent minority participation. McGhee agreed."

At some point after DMI's no-bid contract was approved, Junior invited Caride to lunch "in order to meet somebody." They arranged to dine at Piccadilly Square restaurant in the Miami Design District, downstairs from Junior's office. After being seated in a corner booth, Caride asked Junior who they were going to meet. "Antonio Junior told him it was Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler." The commissioner showed up fresh from a commission meeting "and she was commenting on Commissioner Katy Sorenson. Barbara Carey-Shuler stated that Sorenson was Merrett Stierheim's girl all the way and that there was a clique." After introductions were made, she remarked that Junior had told her about Caride's intention to help minority businesses.

Junior reveled in showing off his connection to Carey-Shuler, according to Caride. In one episode he described, he and Junior were watching a county commission meeting on television in Junior's office when Junior told Caride: "Watch this." Then he called Carey-Shuler's office and told an assistant to deliver a note telling the commissioner to call him. Caride watched as an aide passed the note to Carey-Shuler on the commission dais. She promptly left the meeting and called Junior. "After the phone call, Caride asked Antonio Junior why he didn't work as a registered lobbyist. Antonio Junior stated, öToo much scrutiny, I make out alright and I could get more but I'm happy with what I got.'"

Rapidly, Caride said, he found himself swept into a world of politically connected businessmen; he even attended their private parties, like one he recounted at the Miami Beach home of Evens Thermilus, who owned the contracting company T.L.M.C. (Thermilus was also arrested in the fuel-farm case, has pleaded guilty, flipped, and is the lead witness in an unrelated political corruption case -- the upcoming trial of former Miami City Commissioner Art Teele.)

Also attending the backyard barbecue at Thermilus's home were Art Teele and Barbara Carey-Shuler, who Caride said gave him a hug when she saw him there. "Caride said that during the party he was pulled into a private meeting with Evens Thermilus and Antonio Junior. Antonio Junior stated, öWe can all make a lot of money at the airport.' Antonio Junior asked Caride if he could start Evens Thermilus with some jobs at the fuel farm."

Caride explained it would not be easy. Miami-Dade Aviation Department project manager Patricia Nichols, who signed off on all payments, might object. "Antonio Junior promised Caride a lot of cash if he could work things out. Caride told Antonio Junior that he was interested in getting the ASIG contract renewed so that he could keep his job. Caride told Junior that the cash was secondary to keeping his job with ASIG. Antonio Junior told him not to worry because he could have Barbara Carey-Shuler renew the contract. Antonio Junior insisted that Caride get some cash too." (Carey-Shuler denies being asked to renew the contract, adding that, at the time, only the airport director had the authority to approve the contract.)

Caride said he approached Nichols in early 2000 about giving general-contracting work to Thermilus's company, T.L.M.C., and when Nichols expressed some skepticism, Caride told her "about Antonio Junior's influence with Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler and other county officials. Caride told Patricia Nichols that Antonio Junior could help them, or really hurt them."

That, apparently, was enough for Nichols. Thermilus's T.L.M.C. was hired to remodel buildings at the fuel farm. In exchange Thermilus would pay Caride kickbacks for the work and for passing along fraudulent billing invoices. Junior would act as a middleman and deliver Thermilus's payments to Caride.

Shortly after approval of the first T.L.M.C. invoices, Caride said, Junior called him. They arranged to meet in the parking lot of Junior's office, where he handed Caride a box. "Here I got a little gift for you and it should brighten your day," he reportedly told Caride. Inside the box was a shaving-kit bag from Sharper Image. Inside the bag was a bundle of $50 and $100 bills, about $1500 in all. "See green? Bye," Caride recalled Junior telling him.

Another time, Caride said, "Antonio Junior stopped by Caride's office ... with a Lord & Taylor box. Antonio Junior told Caride: öI figured that you would like something nice.' Caride looked in the box and observed a blue and burgundy colored silk shirt. Caride discovered that $3500.00 in fifties and hundreds was under the shirt. Antonio Junior stated to him, öJust keeping my part of the deal.' Caride asked why he [Caride] wasn't getting more money. Antonio Junior replied that Caride should remember that he had to pay their friend downtown from his share."

After a while, Thermilus suspected Junior was skimming the kickback money meant for Caride. He told Caride he wanted to deal with him directly. Caride, however, was reluctant because "it would make Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler and Antonio Junior mad at him and would put the ASIG contract in jeopardy. Evens Thermilus told him not to worry because he is hooked up with Barbara Carey-Shuler too. He stated that he had previously dated her goddaughter or relative. Evens Thermilus convinced him that it was OK."

When Junior found out "he had been cut out of the fraud with the TLMC invoice," Caride said, he became upset and warned, "You can't trust them [Thermilus and his associates], they are connivers." Then Junior flexed his political muscle, according to Caride. He summoned Caride to a meeting at Carey-Shuler's office at the school board's annex building. "Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler asked Caride if everything with the fuel farm security was O.K.? Caride informed her that it was. Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler told Caride: öWell, keep him there and keep him happy' referring to Antonio Junior.... Caride stated that Antonio Junior reminded him that Barbara Carey-Shuler is the one who votes on his job. Caride stated that Antonio Junior made a regular habit of reminding him öspecial friends keep you in place.'"

Caride was back in business with Junior, but Caride still had his deal with Thermilus. In fact, Caride told investigators, he received more than $230,000 in cash from Thermilus, adding that several T.L.M.C. invoices Caride sent to Patricia Nichols for approval were utterly fake, "submitted solely to generate cash to steal from the [Miami-Dade Aviation Department]. Patricia Nichols approved all invoices despite the fact that much of the work was never done or was grossly overpriced." Thermilus has admitted submitting more than one million dollars in invoices to the airport through Caride.

Patricia Nichols is described as the key to the smooth operation of the various fuel-farm scams. According to Caride, that's why Thermilus and Roberto Finale, from the maintenance company Waldron Enterprises, showered her with gifts, including visits to spas, coupons to Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and other restaurants, a digital camera, and more. Caride said he was present when Thermilus had a large flat-screen TV loaded into her car (which Thermilus independently confirmed for investigators). When Nichols at one point balked, Caride said he had another company allegedly involved in the fraud, American Petroleum Services, buy yet another TV for her. Caride himself delivered the large projection-screen unit to her house. (When investigators confronted Nichols, she claimed she became suspicious about the gift and disposed of it the next day by taking it to the dump.)

So when Nichols said her job might be in jeopardy, the whole operation was at risk. Caride described a meeting with Nichols in which she complained that her job status was temporary, she was only an acting project manager. "I have been playing ball and I have been nice, but now I want something," Nichols allegedly told Caride. He asked her if she wanted another TV or a day at the spa. Nichols reportedly responded, "No, I want a promotion, chief of the department." Caride said he'd see what he could do. "Quid pro quo," she supposedly told him. Caride said he gave her a puzzled look and she responded, "You know, tit for tat, something for something."

Caride said he immediately contacted Antonio Junior on Nichols's behalf with a "top-priority request," telling him: "Let's see how good you are." Caride said Junior told him "he would get with Barbara Carey-Shuler and get it done." The next day Junior called Caride and allegedly said "that he had contacted Barbara Carey-Shuler and she said that it would be taken care of."

When a couple of weeks passed and there was no word of a promotion, Nichols became impatient, Caride said. She told him she "wanted to hear from öthe horse's mouth' that she was going to be promoted," otherwise she wouldn't sign any more invoices, fraudulent or legitimate.

"Caride told Antonio Junior about Nichols' new demand to meet the Commissioner. Junior told Caride that he would set up lunch. Junior called Caride and told him to purchase take-out lunch with Nichols and to come to Commissioner Barbara Carey-Schuler's office at the school board building. Caride said that he and Nichols went to Pollo Tropical and picked up salads."

Caride recounted that when Junior introduced Nichols to Carey-Shuler, he said, "Remember I told you about her and how she is helping us and about her promotion." Caride said that Nichols and Barbara Carey-Shuler hit it off and began to talk about how they both had gone to the same university. At the end of the meeting Nichols and Barbara Carey-Shuler hugged and said goodbye.

Caride described Nichols as "giddy" when she left. He asked if she would sign invoices now and claimed she responded, "Yes, I'm happy, make sure you call Antonio Junior and tell him thank you." Then she reportedly added, "I like this whole thing with politics."

But after a couple of months went by and still no promotion, Caride said Nichols became impatient again and told him to set up another lunch, "or she won't sign any more invoices."

According to Caride, Junior acted swiftly. He scheduled a meeting the next day with Carey-Shuler at the now-defunct Café Del Mar on Biscayne Boulevard and 87th Street.

"Nichols asked Barbara Carey-Shuler about the status of her promotion. Barbara Carey-Shuler told Nichols that it was a case of bad timing because she had had a friend in personnel; however, she now has to go through other channels. Barbara Carey-Shuler stated that she appreciated her patience and thanked her for being so nice to Antonio and Rick [Caride]. Barbara Carey-Shuler told Nichols öThey came to me to make sure you are happy.'"

Caride grumbled about having to pick up the tab for the $100 crab-and-lobster lunch. But Nichols was pleased, he said, telling him "she really liked Barbara Carey-Shuler and that she was very happy."

Invoices began flowing again, and paperwork for Nichols's promotion was eventually submitted, according to investigators.

After taking a day to read and consider the report, Carey-Shuler wants to meet again. The day is sunny as we have lunch at the Blu Moon restaurant on Biscayne Bay. But while the literal clouds have passed, the metaphoric ones linger.

The commissioner recalls the meetings described in Caride's statements (investigators confirmed them after examining her calendar) but asserts she was never asked to do anything illegal or unethical.

"I do remember meeting with her [Nichols], but I never called anyone on her behalf. I don't get involved in personnel issues. If she got a promotion, it was not on my call," Carey-Shuler says, adding that she meets with many people. It could very well be that Nichols asked for help in her job, she allows. "I probably said I'll look into it. A lot of people ask for that kind of thing, but there's nothing I can do."

Carey-Shuler also points out that she didn't have a very good relationship with the county manager at the time, Merrett Stierheim, or former airport director Gary Dellapa. The airport, she notes, is not even in her district.

And although it's true Antonio Junior set up luncheon meetings with Richard Caride, she again asserts she believed it was to help the fuel farm win an award. If Junior was using the lunches as proof he was on good terms with the commissioner, implying she would get things done for him, "I just can't help what he might say about me. People do that all the time."

Cast of Characters

Barbara Carey-Shuler, age 65, was appointed to the Miami-Dade County Commission in 1979. Since then she has repeatedly been re-elected to the commission. She has had a long and storied career in politics, instrumental in establishing affirmative-action programs and minority set-asides for companies doing business with the county. She holds a doctorate in education and has worked as a teacher, administrator, and assistant superintendent for the Miami-Dade school district. She is no stranger to controversy. A technical school she founded shortly after the 1980 Liberty City riots, Carey Technical Institute, defaulted on a $300,000 loan from the City of Miami; the federal government later accused the school (though not Carey directly) of numerous financial and ethical irregularities. In 2002 the State Attorney's Office concluded she falsified time sheets for a part-time job with the school district but said the matter was not criminal. A subsequent ethics complaint was dismissed. Carey-Shuler denied the accusation, stating she had personal records that investigators did not examine. Now she has been implicated in a scandal at Miami International Airport.

Richard Caride, age 46, is the former Aircraft Services International Group supervisor who managed the fuel facility at Miami International Airport, known as the fuel farm. He is also a former Hialeah police officer who took part in an armed robbery at a Coconut Grove home in 1985 during which two people were killed. Prosecutors cleared him of being the triggerman, and he pleaded guilty and cooperated with authorities. He served three years of a seven-year sentence for second-degree murder. Caride pleaded guilty in the fuel-farm case and is now cooperating with prosecutors. The information he provides must be truthful or he'll be charged with racketeering and his information will be used against him. In exchange for his assistance, he is expected to serve two years in prison. He was also forced to sell his home. The $200,000 in proceeds was transferred to the Miami-Dade Aviation Department as restitution.

Antonio Junior, age 47, is the owner of Diversified Management International, which was awarded a contract to provide security at the MIA fuel farm. Junior was also a minority partner in a company that won the contract to provide baggage-cart services at the airport. As a minority businessman (Junior is black), he has been a partner in other MIA contracts as well. For years he has maintained a close relationship with county Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler. In 1996 he loaned her county commission election campaign $20,000. Carey-Shuler says she didn't ask for the money and that it was used to cover payroll when banks were closed. The money was immediately repaid, she says. He is charged with two counts of racketeering and one count of organized fraud.

Patricia Nichols, age 50, is a former Miami-Dade Aviation Department project supervisor who oversaw expenses at the fuel farm. She is charged with three counts of unlawful compensation for allegedly accepting expensive gifts from airport vendors and jockeying for a promotion in exchange for signing fraudulent and overpriced invoices.

Jacques Evens Thermilus, age 46, is the owner of the general-contracting firm T.L.M.C. He admitted paying Caride $230,000 in kickbacks and bribes and submitting to the county's aviation department more than one million dollars in fraudulent invoices. He pleaded guilty in the fuel-farm case and is cooperating with prosecutors in the upcoming corruption trial of former Miami City Commissioner Arthur Teele. Thermilus admitted paying kickbacks to Teele to steer city contracts his way.

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