A Friend Indeed

This is a distressing time for Camilo Padreda. It's the end of an era. Possibly his. The self-proclaimed best friend of the Miami Police Department is mourning the recent departure of Chief Raul Martinez. Padreda has known Martinez for nearly three decades and could count on the chief to open his office door anytime for him. On January 1 the Cuban-born Martinez retired and a stranger from New York via Philadelphia, an Irishman no less, is now sitting in that office. In order to see John Timoney, Miami's new police chief, Padreda will have to make an appointment like anyone else -- a frustrating development for someone who's been so devoted to the department over the years.

There was a time when this devotion was fully appreciated. In those days Chief Martinez would invite Padreda to sit with the top brass at events like the September 28, 2001, promotion ceremony for two majors who are friendly with Padreda: Hector Mirabile and Mario Garcia. Padreda took a seat in an honored spot, nestled in among assistant chiefs and majors behind the podium, facing the audience, and looked on proudly as Mirabile and Garcia both publicly thanked him -- Camilo Padreda of all people -- for his support.

Yes, there were those in the audience that day who wondered why a civilian was sitting with the command staff. One cop remembers thinking, "Who is that guy?" But it's not as though he and countless others hadn't ever seen Padreda. The 70-year-old Cuban with the accent as thick as his glasses was a familiar sight, roaming around police headquarters accompanied by some high-ranking officer, or waltzing up to the chief's office. "It's common knowledge at the department that he's always around," recalls the officer. "It's just not known why he's always around."

Had the officer simply asked him, Padreda would have answered with an exuberant flourish: He is Camilo Padreda, Little Havana businessman, ex-Cuban police officer, staunch anticommunist, friend of law enforcement everywhere! "I have been helping police since day one," Padreda says briskly. "It is in my blood." Majors Mirabile and Garcia thanked him, he points out, for "my friendship." Martinez invited him to sit among the department's top brass because he and the ex-chief are "old friends."

And they're not the only officers of the law the voluble Padreda claims as amigos. Hector Pesquera, special agent in charge (SAC) of the FBI's Miami office, "is a good friend," Padreda says. James Milford, the retired SAC of the Drug Enforcement Administration's busy Miami shop, is "one of my best friends." Paul Philip, who ran the FBI office before Pesquera, is "a very good friend of mine."

But Padreda is more than a mere friend. He is the model concerned citizen, albeit one cast in a distinctly Miami mold. In this frontier town of crafty lawlessness, he perfectly captures the crime-fighting Zeitgeist -- namely, that sometimes you need to think, maybe even act, like a criminal. And he is as resilient as our lush tropical greenery, quick to recover from even the most severe storms.

The key to Padreda's success is that he is a people person. Personal, trusting relationships are everything to him. Alas, as sometimes happens in an inhospitable world, an honorable man's trust is subject to abuse. Several of Padreda's other relationships have provided rueful evidence of that. And yet no matter how many times a particular friendship or business partnership ends in disappointment -- felony charges even -- Padreda still reaches out to public servants everywhere and offers them his help.

For instance, he was once close to a wealthy Cuban banker until they were both indicted for embezzling $500,000 from a Texas savings and loan institution. The federal government eventually dropped those charges, but not before Padreda's reputation had been tarnished.

Padreda was once so friendly with a former Dade County manager that he included the man in a land deal, no money down. This was typical of Padreda's generosity -- helping a selfless but underpaid public official. Granted, he went to great lengths to persuade county commissioners they should rezone the parcel for commercial use, but it was worth it for the sake of his friend. Once rezoned the land sold for a very substantial profit. Unfortunately, when the public learned of the deal, the county manager, who had kept quiet about his interest in the transaction, was forced to resign.

Years later, under oath, Padreda testified he paid a bribe to one of the county commissioners, another of his acquaintances, to ensure that parcel was profitably rezoned. But the commissioner denied the bribe charge, so maybe it didn't happen after all!

He has also testified that he offered financial assistance to a Miami city commissioner in exchange for a favorable vote. Some people recklessly alleged the offer was a bribe, but Padreda's friends clarified that it was just ordinary campaign fundraising.

Padreda came to the aid of another city commissioner, a dear friend of his, by paying for improvements to the commissioner's home. When federal agents grew curious, the commissioner denied Padreda's involvement. This could have been simple confusion as the commissioner had many, many friends.

In any case, it's clear that the quality of friendship and munificence Padreda offers is not always suitably admired. "Camilo is nothing but a scumbag. He's the lowest of the low," seethes another former friend, Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez (no relation to the ex-Miami police chief). "I do not understand how anybody who is part of law enforcement has anything to do with him."

Martinez's bitterness stems from a criminal case more than a decade old in which federal agents fingered Padreda in a bribery scheme involving the Hialeah mayor. Had prosecutors simply asked Padreda, he surely would have jumped at the chance to help them. But no, instead they threatened to charge him and his daughter with felony fraud in an unrelated case. So before he could come to the aid of law-enforcement officials, Padreda first had to admit he had bilked the federal government out of money. While his cooperation and testimony against Mayor Martinez were crucial to the case, Martinez ultimately beat the charges.

Some would say the Hialeah affair did not reflect well on Padreda: Either he was guilty of bribing public officials, as he stated under oath, or he was a perjurer, as Martinez claims. And that's not to mention the whole messy business about ripping off the federal government. But this is an unforgiving view of a man who, a few missteps aside, has repeatedly sought to demonstrate that he is firmly on the side of law and order.

Nonetheless Mayor Martinez's caustic question lingers, unanswered: Why would a convicted felon who has confessed to bribing public officials be given free rein to wander the halls of the Miami Police Department?

Who knows what former Chief Raul Martinez might say? He declined to comment or answer questions faxed to him. But obviously the head of Miami's police force wasn't going to abandon a treasured friendship over technicalities like bribery confessions or felony convictions. Martinez is a man who had a vision for his department -- whatever it was -- and Padreda had a role in that vision. In fact Padreda was such a presence around police headquarters that one veteran investigator quipped, "The joke in the department was that Camilo controls us, that if you don't know Camilo you won't go anywhere."

Another officer offered a similar bit of folklore: "The joke was Camilo runs the department." Pause. "Actually it wasn't a joke."

Chief Martinez asked Padreda to help organize a Hemispheric Conference of Police Chiefs in 2000, using $27,000 in federal Law Enforcement Trust Fund money. According to police department records, Padreda was given responsibility for soliciting sponsors, affirming once again that this truly is the Magic City, a place where cops and convicts can work together in harmony. Among those who labored with him on that conference were then-lieutenants Hector Mirabile and Mario Garcia. "Yeah, there was a lot of talk in the hallways that everybody who worked on that conference ended up getting promoted," says the officer who pondered Padreda's presence at the promotion ceremony.

Padreda's prominent friends amiably look beyond the bumpy spots in his past. Sometimes they're blissfully ignorant of them. For example, his guilty plea for defrauding the government and subsequent cooperation in the Hialeah corruption trial are widely known, but his exploits stretch so far back in time that many friends are simply not aware. "No, I didn't know all of that," concedes former FBI boss Paul Philip when informed of the Texas indictments. Philip freely acknowledges his friendship with Padreda; the two sometimes lunch together. He cites Padreda's vital role in defusing dangerously high emotions in the Cuban-exile community following a Cuban MiG's attack on two Brothers to the Rescue airplanes in February 1996. "When you're dealing in intelligence circles, everybody is not a choirboy," Philip allows, referring to Padreda and his colorful past.

Hector Pesquera, current head of Miami's FBI office, declined through a spokeswoman to answer any questions regarding his relationship with Padreda.

A visitor could be excused for mistaking the lobby of the Center for Special Care (CSC) medical clinic on NW 35th Avenue in Little Havana for some sort of government office, or perhaps a branch of the chamber of commerce. Amid bucolic pictures of waterfalls and churches in pre-Castro Cuba are framed posters for 1999's "Mayor's Summit of the Americas" and others commemorating the "Hemispheric Conference of Chiefs of Police, Oct. 24-27, 2000." One of them has an engraved plaque reading, "Camilo Padreda, with sincere appreciation for all your hard work and dedication that made this conference a success." Another poster for the chiefs' conference has a handwritten note on it from then-police Chief Raul Martinez: "Sin tu ayuda no hay conferencia" ("Without your help there wouldn't be a conference"). Behind the clinic's reception counter a poster depicts the deceased leader of Cuban exiles raising his arms in exhortation: "¡Jorge Mas vive! ¡Seguiremos adelante!"

Padreda's cubbyhole is down a hallway of the modest building. The cramped space must be a far cry from his offices of the Seventies and Eighties, when he was an energetic Republican fundraiser at the helm of a multimillion-dollar construction company. Those days are fondly remembered, but they are now history. Today he works at CSC, which is a state-registered Medicaid provider. Because Padreda is a convicted felon he can't be the licensed provider, and indeed his name is nowhere to be found on the clinic's official paperwork. His wife Jeanette is the sole registered owner and director of the clinic, according to a spokesman for the state's Agency for Health Care Administration. A receptionist at CSC refers to Padreda simply as "the administrator."

"I am not a crook," Padreda begins, sounding vaguely Nixonian. He's sitting behind his desk, brows furrowed, registering a look of reproach, maybe hurt. "If you find somebody who say I take money or I am crook, then you come to me, tell me. I will call them a liar.

"There was one thing in my past, but it was long ago and it was not my fault. That was because of my daughter," he continues in an unsolicited burst of autobiography. "No, no, I'm not going to go into it." This is most likely a reference to the feds' agreement not to arrest his daughter if he pleaded guilty to fraud and cooperated in the Martinez trial. The daughter operated a company that installed lighting fixtures in the HUD-funded housing project he used to swindle the government.

"Did you know that Castro's police put a gun to my daughter's head?" Padreda asks, deflecting the subject slightly. "She was less than three years old. They asked where I was. I tell you I would do anything for my daughter. I would take care of my daughter forever and ever."

Among the clutter of his office, on a shelf behind him, is further testament to his civic interests. There he is in a photo with a smiling police Chief Martinez. And over there is a framed gold badge. In the middle of the bric-a-brac is a soft-focus black-and-white photo of a young man in a ribbon-bedecked jacket staring resolutely into the distance. That, he explains, is a picture of himself as a young policeman in Havana. "I have been in law enforcement all my life. Since I was 21. I was a first lieutenant in the police department in Cuba," he says with pride, adding that he was on the force from 1953 to 1959. At one point he worked for the Bureau for the Repression of Communist Activities, known by its Spanish acronym BRAC. "This was created by the CIA, the FBI," he declares with a sharp nod of his head.

Presumably this was why gun-toting Castro thugs threatened his family. Did he continue his association with the CIA after coming to this country in the Sixties? He smiles: "I always tell people I can't comment on that."

Regrettably Padreda stopped commenting altogether after this first interview, protesting that he is a humble man who does not want to be in the spotlight. "I'm not answering any more of your questions," he concluded. "I don't think you will be fair."

But his accomplishments speak for themselves. After arriving here, he promptly established himself in his new hometown, and by the Seventies his entrepreneurial spirit was paying dividends. He had become a successful Miami developer who specialized in low-income housing. He also assumed the presidency of the powerful Latin Builders Association. And he learned early that, in Miami, knowing the right people made doing business easier -- a lot easier.

It was during this period he partnered with politically savvy businessman Guillermo Hernandez Cartaya, a fellow Cuban and Bay of Pigs veteran who ran a worldwide network of investment banks called, collectively, the World Finance Corporation (WFC). Hernandez Cartaya was a perfect fit for Padreda's construction enterprises. His banks loaned the money needed to build large housing projects, which were then insured by HUD.

In the mid-Seventies, WFC somehow attracted the attention of the Dade County Police Department's Organized Crime Bureau (OCB) and later, the U.S. Attorney's Office, which launched a wide-ranging investigation into Hernandez Cartaya's business practices. Padreda, because of his association with Hernandez Cartaya, came into the feds' sights as well.

New Times obtained a Justice Department file that included a copy of an investigative background report produced by Dade's OCB detailing the WFC investigation. The report was meant to orient investigators from other agencies involved in the case. "The following report is only an attempt to bring together and possibly show a relationship of the many separate facts, concerning the possible ties between illicit narcotic trafficking, terrorist activities.... This information may stem from a multitude of sources, such as many confidential informants, street talk, federal law enforcement, and local agencies throughout areas of the United States." (Today Hernandez Cartaya, who lives in Miami, denies allegations that he or WFC did anything illegal.)

At the time, investigators suspected that Hernandez Cartaya was linked to the Central Intelligence Agency, which may have used the WFC banking network to move funds to anticommunist guerrillas and agency operatives in South America and Cuba. "Files of the Miami FBI office disclose that several persons suspected of being involved in terrorist activities are employed by WFC," the report states. "Perhaps the most prominent figure is Duney Perez Alamo, allegedly the building manager for WFC. Perez Alamo has expertise in guerrilla warfare and explosives, and self-admittedly was an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency in the mid-1960s." (Hernandez Cartaya acknowledges that his company employed Perez Alamo. "He worked security for us," he says. "I had nothing to do with hiring him." As for the alleged CIA link: "I don't recall any of that. There is no direct connection to the CIA.")

In addition the background report notes that Myriam Rodgers, daughter of notorious anti-Castro terrorist Orlando Bosch, was arrested on June 17, 1977, while trying to smuggle 7.5 pounds of cocaine through Miami International Airport. In her purse investigators found the address for WFC offices in Coral Gables. Court records show that Rodgers pleaded guilty to a lesser sentence.

Camilo Padreda's involvement with WFC, according to the report, appears to have begun in 1973, in association with a troubled housing project in Virginia Gardens called, simply, the Virginia Gardens Project. The project's owners, Orlando Mendez and Oscar Ferrer, ran short of money to complete construction. They took out a second construction loan with WFC Mortgage, a subsidiary of WFC, but still encountered delays. At that point Hernandez Cartaya wanted to foreclose, according to the report, which cites a WFC source working on the deal with Hernandez Cartaya.

"At this time, Camilo Padreda came into the picture," the report states. "[Padreda] told Hernandez Cartaya that he was going to obtain a building permit regardless of the faulty building construction. A major structural defect was present at the point where the two sections of the building connect. The permit was obtained by Padreda."

The report continues: "As a result of C. Padreda's influence, they 'muscled out' Ferrer & Mendez, who were furious." (Hernandez Cartaya counters: "It was all very friendly. Padreda had nothing to do with it.")

Nonetheless a business partnership was born. Padreda and Hernandez Cartaya got along so well that within a year the two resourceful entrepreneurs worked together to expand Hernandez Cartaya's business interests into other fields. "On five separate occasions during 1977, Guillermo Hernandez Cartaya attempted to incorporate a life insurance company," reads the report. "On each attempt the Dade County Organized Crime Bureau supplied the Insurance Commissioner's Office with sufficient information to stop the certificate of incorporation. On the fifth application for incorporation, Hernandez Cartaya withdrew his name from the corporation and had it appear that the following individuals would control the company: Camilo Padreda, head of Latin Builders Association; José R. Paredes, Miami Assistant City Manager; Mike Abrams, head of Dade County Democratic Party." (Hernandez Cartaya says this passage from the report sounds "accurate." Abrams says he can't recall specifics from so long ago, but that it's possible he put his name on the incorporation papers. "I did do some consulting work for him," Abrams recounts. "I liked the guy.")

Once again the organized-crime task force was able to provide sufficient documentation to prove that these men were merely fronts for Hernandez Cartaya, according to the report. The application was denied.

Despite WFC's anticommunist connections, investigators wrote that they developed credible leads indicating it received money from Castro's government and may in fact have interacted with the Cuban military. "It would appear that WFC would be anti-Castro, but with facts obtained by Dade County Organized Crime Bureau ... there is a question where WFC's political loyalties lie," the report asserts, citing among other things loans to WFC from the Bank of Moscow in London; meetings between a WFC representative and Cuban military officials in Cuba, and then that WFC representative's apparent debriefing sessions with Hernandez Cartaya; and statements from "the supervisor of the telex mechanic in the WFC office stating that coded messages were sent to Cuba via Panama." (Hernandez Cartaya scoffs at this assertion: "Everybody knows I'm a veteran of the Bay of Pigs and that I'm a very strong anti-Castro person. I had nothing to do with Cuba and didn't meet anybody from Cuba.")

In 1982 the FBI snapped shut its six-year investigation of WFC and a federal grand jury in Texas indicted Hernandez Cartaya, his father Marcelo, and Camilo Padreda on four counts of embezzlement and fraud. The feds alleged the three men embezzled $500,000 in December 1977 through a complex series of bank transactions that funneled deposits from the WFC-controlled Jefferson Savings and Loan in McAllen, Texas, to the Miami bank account of the WFC-controlled American Atlantic Assurance Co. (The father and brother of former Democratic vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen sat on the Jefferson Savings board of directors.)

A year later federal prosecutors in Texas labeled the WFC investigation "flawed" and dropped all charges against the three men. The assistant U.S. Attorney who launched the probe, Jerome Sanford, was incensed. After leaving for private practice, he told New York Newsday in 1988 that "the CIA may have intervened with the FBI to limit the scope of the investigation," given WFC's alleged ties to the CIA. Sanford filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA to obtain WFC-related documents. The agency denied his request but did reveal it had 24 reports and memoranda dealing with the company. Sanford has since rejoined the U.S. Attorney's Office, and works in Florida's northern district, in Gainesville, where New Times contacted him. He declined to comment for this story. James Rider, currently the Glades County Sheriff, was a sergeant with Dade's Organized Crime Bureau at the time. His unit worked the WFC investigation for two years from a secret office near the airport until the FBI took all the files for its case against WFC. He was surprised the case was dismissed. "It was my opinion the CIA was involved," Rider says.

As the WFC case illustrated, these were heady times in Miami. This was Reagan-era, investment-banking boom time. Neon lights and cocaine time. The red threat hovered menacingly, the Cold War simmered, and the CIA worked its agents and informants on the streets of Miami Beach and Little Havana to fight not only Castro's regime but also leftist movements burgeoning in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Miami was to the Eighties what Casablanca was to the late Thirties -- a hotbed of spooks, crime bosses, and cops playing each other for all they were worth.

Back from Texas, a freshly exonerated Padreda wasted no time taking advantage of the surging economic climate. By the mid-Eighties he had more than a half-dozen low-income housing projects up and running, all fueled with HUD loans, grants, and loan guarantees. There was the HUD-insured, $17.8 million Casa del Lago apartment complex in Kendall; the $2.1 million Riverside Apartments for seniors in Miami; the Airport Seven office building, which received a $1.4 million federal loan guaranteed by the City of Miami; Fontanar Park, a $3.2 million HUD project in the southwest part of the county; and the $7 million Esperanza Turnkey housing project in Hialeah that Padreda was bidding on. (Despite Padreda's evident success, in 1984 HUD inspectors sought to "debar" his construction company -- ban it from future government contracts -- for allegedly underpaying employees on the Riverside Apartments project in Miami and then forging documents to hide that fact. Padreda's company paid a fine without admitting guilt and a judge ruled against debarment.)

Padreda was also hard at work gaining influence with the gatekeepers to all that taxpayer money. He became the Dade County Republican Party's finance chairman, and he collected cash for political candidates. He was a regular at fundraisers, where he schmoozed politicos and promised his support and friendship. "He's a very intense guy, and he's very bright," says former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré, who knew Padreda from power-circuit parties. "He's got that Cuban populist charm about him." An ex-federal official who knew Padreda from that era describes him as someone "who liked to brag that he could help you." He cultivated relationships with state Insurance Commissioner Bill Gunter and Gov. Bob Martinez. In 1988 President Reagan made him a "distinguished presidential appointee" to the White House's Conference for a Drug Free America. He even had business dealings with the young Jeb Bush.

One of Padreda's HUD projects was an office complex he built at 5040 NW Seventh St., across State Road 836 from Miami International Airport. Signing on as a tenant was Miguel Recarey, a wealthy Cuban businessman whose company, International Medical Centers, would become the nation's largest health-maintenance organization. But Padreda had trouble finding occupants for the rest of his building, so he hired Jeb Bush's firm, Bush Klein Realty, as a leasing agent to secure tenants. Bush, however, was unsuccessful. (Recarey, who like Padreda was a Republican fundraiser, also hired Bush and paid him $75,000, ostensibly to find new headquarters for his company. Recarey would later flee a federal investigation into massive health-care fraud. From Spain, where he now lives as a fugitive, he would tell ABC's 20/20 that hiring Bush was just a way to gain political influence. It seems to have worked. At Recarey's behest Bush had contacted federal regulators to ask that Recarey receive a fair hearing on a requested exemption from federal laws that would affect his HMO empire.)

Padreda also developed a special friendship with an up-and-coming young public official named Sergio Pereira. In 1985 Padreda and some business partners negotiated to buy a parcel of land at the corner of West Flagler Street and 114th Avenue from a corporation controlled by Manuel Lopez Castro, who later became a fugitive after being charged with laundering drug money. Padreda and partners purchased the land for $925,000. One of the people Padreda cut in on the deal was Pereira, an assistant county manager at the time. Pereira put no money down but was nonetheless made a 25-percent partner in the property. A few months later the Dade County Commission voted unanimously to rezone the land so a shopping complex could be built there. (Years later Padreda would testify he paid Commissioner Jorge Valdes $40,000 for his vote. Valdes vehemently denied the accusation.) Padreda and partners then flipped the property for $1,533,000 -- a $608,000 profit. Pereira cleared $127,000 on the deal without having invested one penny.

Three months later Pereira, who had become Miami city manager, created a special job for Padreda's daughter on the municipal payroll. He reclassified a vacant secretary's position into a new post titled "User Support Representative," according to the Miami Herald.

In 1988 the Herald came across the land deal and wrote a series of stories about it. Pereira, who by then had taken a big step from city manager to Dade County manager, had not listed the transaction on his financial-disclosure forms, though he did report it on his federal tax returns. He said the failure to disclose was an oversight. Then it was revealed he had subsequently hired Padreda's daughter. "Can't I ask a favor of anybody to give a job to my daughter?" the Herald quoted Padreda as saying. By then public confidence in Pereira had eroded to the point he was forced to resign.

Padreda, meanwhile, weathered the scandal relatively unscathed. But his luck would not hold.

In the mid-Eighties the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami launched one of its most ambitious corruption investigations. The feds probed what was believed to be a construction-extortion racket run out of Hialeah City Hall by Mayor Raul Martinez. A grand jury indicted Martinez in 1990.

Padreda was one of the first snared in the net cast by the feds, who alleged that Martinez extorted a $150,000 bribe from Padreda to win a $7 million contract to build low-income apartments. Instead of charging him in the Hialeah scheme, however, prosecutors disclosed their investigation of Padreda's Casa del Lago project in Kendall. They threatened to go after his daughter, whose company installed fixtures in the HUD-insured project. The threat worked. Padreda agreed to cooperate in the case against Martinez and also pleaded guilty to two felony counts of defrauding the federal government: falsifying documents to pad construction costs, and hiding subcontracts to family members.

When he took the stand in the Martinez prosecution, Padreda didn't merely cooperate, he gushed like a geyser. In addition to the bribe he allegedly paid Martinez, he recounted the $40,000 bribe he paid to Jorge Valdes for his zoning vote; the $2200 he spent on improvements to the home of Miami City Commissioner Miller Dawkins; and his offer of a $50,000 bribe to Demetrio Perez, at the time a city commissioner. (In 1985, Padreda testified, he and Al Cardenas, now chairman of the state Republican Party, offered Perez the cash if he'd vote for Sergio Pereira as Miami city manager. Money was actually placed in an escrow account, according to Padreda, but the deal never went through because Perez's vote wasn't needed. Cardenas later acknowledged he met with Perez -- to explore the possibility of fundraising for the commissioner in return for his support of Pereira.)

The jury convicted Martinez. An appeals court overturned the conviction, and the case went back to trial, which ended in a hung jury. A retrial ended the same way. Prosecutors decided not to try Martinez a fourth time. It was a bruising defeat for the feds.

"I never took a penny from Camilo Padreda," insists Martinez, who since the final trial has continuously won re-election in Hialeah and still occupies the mayor's office. "I never asked him for any money. When he testified at my trial he produced a document that was an outright lie. The government knew he had lied, had committed perjury, and they never went after him."

In 1991, after hearing heartfelt testimonials from prominent civic figures like assistant county manager Dewey Knight, Jr., a federal judge sentenced Padreda to two months house arrest, two years probation, and fines and restitution totaling roughly $116,000.

In the wake of his guilty plea, a dejected Padreda retreated from the main stage. This civic-minded citizen no longer dreamed of projects to help the poor. He curtailed his efforts to reach out and reward public servants for their devotion to duty. These were tough times. Even his publicly subsidized housing empire seemed to crumble around him in what has become a legacy of bankruptcies that left taxpayers footing the bills.

Airport Seven, the office building he developed in 1986 with a city-secured $1.4 million loan, was foreclosed upon in 1991. The $17 million Casa del Lago project, the one in which Padreda pleaded guilty to defrauding the government, was also foreclosed upon by the government and found to be so structurally defective it was deemed uninhabitable. Another HUD project called Fontanar Park went bankrupt in 1991.

But Padreda's thirst to help people could not be permanently curtailed. He seemed determined to insert himself in public life once again, and eventually found a new role -- a facilitator for law enforcement. "He is like a cat," says a veteran of Miami's political arena who knew him years ago. "You never know where he'll turn up, and when you toss him away he lands on his feet."

Padreda re-emerged on the scene in early 1996, after a Cuban jet shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes. An FBI informant in Miami named Juan Pablo Roque turned out to be a Cuban spy and was suspected of involvement in the incident. Rumors spread through the exile community that the FBI had set up the Brothers' planes for the kill. Padreda offered to help.

"The word spread that the FBI was involved in this homicide," recalls Paul Philip, the FBI agent in charge of the Miami office at the time. "We had our first bomb threat in twelve or thirteen years. Someone came and told me there was a hit on me.... I thought, 'This is getting out of hand.' And that's when Camilo steps up and asks, 'Would you be willing to come to this meeting and defend yourself?' I went to that meeting and we spent two hours talking to these people.

"That took some stones to do that," Philip continues. "To say, 'Folks, these are my friends. I invited them here. Let's hear what they have to say.' There was a time when you took your life in your hands doing stuff like that."

To this day he and Padreda stay in touch. "We have lunch every once in a while," Philip says. "I'm very fond of him. When my dad died, he was very supportive. When his mom died, we talked a lot about it. He's sold me a lot of tickets to charity events for the DEA." (Philip is aware that Padreda is also close to the former head of the Miami DEA office, James Milford. Messages left for Milford were not returned.)

Philip has created a reputation for himself, along with former County Manager Merrett Stierheim, as one of the stalwarts you turn to when you need to clean up a mismanaged bureaucracy. When Stierheim took over as county manager in 1998, he hired Philip to be his "ethics czar." When the scandal-ridden school board hired Stierheim as its superintendent, Philip followed to help bring accountability to the behemoth organization. His effectiveness lies in his integrity; he cannot afford to be compromised.

Philip says he knew about Padreda's guilty plea in connection with the Martinez trial, but admits he was ignorant of his friend's other activities. "Here's the thing," he sighs. "I've got receipts showing where I picked up the tab or we split the tab. I've had no business dealings with him. I've accepted no gifts from him. What I know is that when the chips were down, he was there for the U.S. government."

The former FBI man's cautious appreciation of Padreda is understandable. On paper Padreda is a convicted felon who's confessed to other crimes authorities simply never charged him with. Some might not understand if Philip, whose good name was built on a career spent fighting corruption, were to take gifts or go into business with such an individual.

For others, though, Padreda is simply an indispensable community resource. Recently resigned Miami Police Chief Raul Martinez, for one, seems to have felt that a negligible thing like a criminal conviction was no reason to avoid the man. After all, Padreda had a lot of experience dealing with public money. So Martinez used him to help organize the chief's conference. "It was my idea," Padreda boasts.

Sources inside the department say that soon after Martinez became chief in 2000, Padreda began showing up at headquarters. "When Raul came in, all of a sudden Camilo shows up," recalls one officer, who remembers having meetings with the chief cut short when Padreda phoned: "He would call on the chief's private line. When he called, Raul would, well not exactly jump, but close. I never understood it."

Neither did Maurice Ferré, who, in his run for mayor of Miami against businessman Manny Diaz, publicly announced he wanted a new police chief. Ferré recalls a meeting he had with Martinez in the summer of 2001. "I went to the chief's office for a briefing. I had a bunch of questions for him -- key, critical questions about the police department," Ferré recounts. "And Camilo just walks in. He had [Miami FBI boss] Hector Pesquera with him."

Padreda had strolled into the lobby area of the chief's office. Martinez excused himself from the meeting with Ferré to greet Padreda and Pesquera. Later Padreda approached Ferré: "Camilo said, 'Listen, don't fool around with this chief. He's a good guy. You're wrong about him.'" And then, according to Ferré, Padreda added a non sequitur: "You know, Pesquera and I are best friends, and in fact I brought him over to meet the chief."

Though Ferré didn't know the purpose of the Martinez-Padreda-Pesquera meeting, others in the department say there was a rumor at the time that Pesquera was considering whether to make a bid for the chief's job when Martinez eventually retired.

Ferré lost the election. But he wasn't alone in his concerns about the chief. After thirteen Miami officers were charged with planting evidence at shootings, and the department received a scathing report from a national certification agency, pressure mounted for the chief to resign. Padreda, staunch defender of his friend, would have none of it. In late September he set up a meeting with the mayor.

Padreda arrived at Mayor Diaz's office with Felix Rodriguez, a former CIA operative who hunted Che Guevara in South America and oversaw clandestine logistics for the Nicaraguan contras. Those with knowledge of the meeting say that by its end, Padreda was warning the mayor not to touch Martinez; otherwise he and his allies would take to Spanish-language radio and wage a grassroots campaign to save the chief (see "Raul Martinez's Goddaddy," November 21, 2002).

Padreda initially denied he met with any elected officials on the chief's behalf. "I'm a busy man, I don't have time for that," he said. Two days later, though, he conceded meeting with the mayor but never with the city manager, as sources have alleged. "There were three of us -- myself, Felix Rodriguez, and Roberto Martinez Perez," he related. "You know what we tell him? What problem do you have with the chief? You say there are communication problems. Why you no call him and discuss the problems?" He denied threatening to exploit Spanish-language radio: "Whoever tell you that, that's a liar!"

Felix Rodriguez added this: "We tried to get them [the mayor and the chief] together. We are friends of Chief Martinez. We're very proud of him. He's the first Cuban-American police chief."

The meeting failed to sway the mayor, and three months later Martinez announced his resignation.

Back at the CSC clinic in Little Havana, Padreda sweeps aside any concerns about his influence within the police department -- past, present, or future. He would never have pushed Chief Martinez to promote someone: "If I told him to promote John Doe, what do you think he would do? He would not listen to me.

"I'm a businessman," he continues. "You know who has the power in Miami? The people who raise money for politicians. I don't do that anymore. Fourteen years I'm not involved in politics." He pauses for effect. "I have friends, yes. And I will help my friends in any way I can. Maybe someday you call me and say your wife, your daughter needs help. My door is open to you."

And then he gestures toward that door. The conversation is over.

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Tristram Korten
Contact: Tristram Korten