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A Plot Thicker Than Asphalt

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Suspicions about Pons surfaced several months ago when county auditors -- poring over the records of Church & Tower and its subcontractors -- uncovered invoices from a company called Construction Services of Miami, Inc. The auditors soon discovered through state records that the president of the firm was listed as Mario A. Pons. The name sounded familiar -- and with good reason. County officials were also seeing that name on all City of Miami requests for repaving work.

Pons, who has worked for the city for nearly thirteen years, was subpoenaed last month; his deposition was taken April 16, when attorneys for both the county and Church & Tower questioned him. They asked if he was in fact the president of Construction Services of Miami, Inc., if his wife was the company's vice president (as state records indicated), and if he had ever received any business or money from MBL Paving. To each of these questions and more than 200 others he fell silent, repeating only that his answers might be incriminating.

County records show that in December 1996 and January 1997, Construction Services of Miami received at least $13,800 worth of work from MBL Paving under the county's water and sewer department contract. (The president of MBL Paving, Paul Banks, did not return phone calls seeking comment.)

Attorneys for Church & Tower are quick to distance the company from Pons. "Mario Pons and his company had no direct contact with Church & Tower," says Mitch Bloomberg, an attorney for the construction firm owned by the family of the late Cuban exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa. Bloomberg maintains that if fraud did occur under the water and sewer contract, it took place without Church & Tower's knowledge or consent. He notes that when Pons sent the county a list of sites in need of repair, county officials would bypass Church & Tower and send the list directly to MBL.

Bloomberg also asserts that Church & Tower had nothing to do with the decision to hire Construction Services of Miami and learned about it only recently. He says he is not even sure MBL was responsible for hiring Pons's company, noting that in some instances county inspectors would hire their friends to do work under the water and sewer department paving contract and then have them submit their bills through MBL. "Pons is probably one of those guys who were hired by the county inspectors and then told to bill MBL," Bloomberg says. "That's why we had him under subpoena as well. We've been trying to get him to testify for months."

The paving debacle is also having an impact on the planned downtown performing arts center. Last year Church & Tower was awarded a $3.4 million contract to act as the center's construction manager, supervising the various firms that would actually build the facility. But several months ago a member of the Church & Tower team -- an engineering consultant who was to act as a subcontractor -- claimed that his signature had been forged on the company's proposal. In response, the County Attorney's Office recommended that the contract be voided. Bill Johnson, the county official overseeing the performing arts center construction, has yet to make a final decision.

On April 25 Hank Adorno, executive vice president of MasTec, the parent company of Church & Tower, wrote to interim County Manager Merrett Stierheim asking why it has taken the county more than three months to decide if it is going to cancel Church & Tower's contract owing to the alleged forgery. He added that if the county wanted to remove Church & Tower, the company would be willing to step aside. But he said a decision needed to be made soon. Adorno accused the county of trying to use the performing arts center as leverage in the water and sewer department lawsuit. (Johnson was out of town last week and could not be reached for comment.)

Adorno claimed that because Johnson has yet to make a decision, the performing arts center project itself was being hurt. Church & Tower had made more than two dozen recommendations about construction, he pointed out, and nearly all have been ignored. Adorno predicted that the arts center will therefore fall behind schedule and end up costing taxpayers more money. "To avoid harming the project or creating additional litigation, C&T is willing to negotiate a termination of its management agreement," Adorno wrote. "To accomplish this, we would have to obtain the consent of our other team members, who have, along with us, invested significant resources in the project."

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede