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Uncle Luke: Billy Corben's Attack on Keon Hardemon Is a Witch-Hunt UPDATED

Billy Corben
Billy Corben
Photo by Stian Roenning
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Billy Corben, Edduard Prince, and Kevin E. Spring have responded to this column. Their responses are included below. Updated with Keon Hardemon's response.

Though Billy Corben claims to be a good judge of bad characters, he has Keon Hardemon all wrong. The Miami documentary filmmaker recently attacked the Miami City Commission chairman for selling out the black community. Corben used alternative facts only Donald Trump would be proud of.

On May 18, Corben tweeted a link to a mysterious and anonymous fake-news blog that accused Hardemon of “stealing property from black owners for his rich developer buddies.” He made sure to tag Hardemon to get the commissioner’s attention. Sure enough, Hardemon replied, and Corben began hitting the commissioner below the belt. “My job is to expose facts and direct sunshine to shady people,” the filmmaker tweeted. “Your job is to enrich yourself at the expense of your constituents.”

Hardemon replied, “I thought so much better of you before you posted this. This [fake-news blog] is filth. Untrue. I’m shocked you would publish this. Sad.”

Corben also claimed Hardemon’s family members were getting paid by companies doing business with the city. Half true. Hardemon’s aunt Barbara has had a government relations business for more than 20 years and is a legally registered lobbyist for the City of Miami. No other member of Hardemon’s family lobbies the city. She is lawfully allowed to lobby the city, much like Carlos Gimenez Jr., the Miami-Dade County mayor’s son, who is allowed to lobby the county. So if what Hardemon’s aunt and Gimenez’s son are doing is illegal, Corben needs to give a sworn statement to Katherine Fernandez Rundle instead of making wild accusations on Twitter.

When I came to Hardemon’s defense, Corben responded by sending me more links to the fake-news blog and a recent Miami New Times article about an Overtown market suing the city over its battle with the Nuisance Abatement Board that makes no mention of Hardemon. In fact, he has no control over the actions of the Nuisance Abatement Board. If he intervened against the market or on behalf of its owners, Hardemon could be accused of official misconduct. Otherwise, I am sure he would have helped the market. But he is not going to risk his law license and his reputation over this sort of conflict.
Still, Corben’s “source” makes baseless accusations against Hardemon with no evidence whatsoever. That source is a website for the Araminta Group, a nonprofit organization incorporated last year that claims to be a “think tank created for the protection of Overtown and the greater Miami community.” But its true intentions appear to be asking for free money.

This “think tank” has a donation page that directs people to send contributions to a three-bedroom house in Liberty City. According to state incorporation records, members of the organization include Kevin E. Spring, who recently asked Hardemon to fund his nonprofit but was denied because he could not demonstrate that he actually had children in his program. Araminta’s president is Edduard Prince, a self-proclaimed community activist from Baltimore with an ax to grind with Hardemon.

In September 2015, Hardemon removed Prince, whom he initially appointed after the activist lost an election, from the Overtown Advisory Board. Prince’s removal came at the request of the City of Miami Attorney’s Office after learning the activist had filed four lawsuits against the neighborhood’s Community Redevelopment Agency over land it sold to Brightline. Prince was abusing his position by making requests of the City Attorney’s Office that was meant to strengthen his lawsuits, which created a conflict for the city. Three of the lawsuits were dismissed, while one is still pending. Prince, who has a 2015 misdemeanor battery conviction and was convicted of felony grand theft in 2009, is a habitual plaintiff. He has filed 21 lawsuits against various parties since 2009.

When the fake-news blog didn’t work, Corben sent me a link to an old New Times profile of Hardemon that rehashed his family’s controversies and scandals. Still, the hit piece didn’t implicate him in any wrongdoing.

I’ve known Corben for a long time and even granted him interviews for his U documentaries, which made him a lot of money and brought him a lot of fame. Yet he can’t fathom that a young black man from the projects who worked hard to graduate early from the University of Miami law school will do right by his community.

Under Hardemon’s watch, the city has finally finished building youth centers for Overtown’s Gibson Park and in Liberty City. Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson is opening a supper club in Overtown. And Lil Greenhouse Grill, a restaurant owned by Overtown residents, recently became one of the first establishments to offer dinner in the neighborhood. That doesn't even include the affordable housing projects Hardemon has championed and the free rehabilitation of hundreds of Overtown residences in the Town Park community.

Instead, Corben is taking part in the same type of witch-hunt that brought down Arthur Teele Jr. and Michelle Spence-Jones. When Hardemon decided to run for his seat, I asked him if he was prepared to handle the heat. After all, the powers-that-be have tried to jail every commissioner who fights for black Miami. One of them, Teele, blew his brains out occupying the seat where Hardemon now sits.

So Corben can fling all the mud he wants. He won’t tear down Hardemon. The black community won't let that happen.

Keon Hardemon adds: It has been an incredible experience to serve the City of Miami, but more particularly the constituents in District Five. District Five is the most diverse constituency in the City of Miami and its social ills are most devastating. Despite the challenges, our office has had tremendous success.

Our office mission is to help eradicate poverty by infusing opportunities and resources into troubled communities. In that spirit, we have provided for enhanced living and responsible wages in developments and government contracts when the norm was to pay a minimum wage. We have cemented local hiring requirements that give priority to hiring from our most impoverished neighborhoods throughout Miami and Miami-Dade County. We have implemented onerous penalty structures in contracts with developers that eradicated the abusive “aspirational goals” structure where developers did not have any motivation to meet community benefit agreements. We have implemented “ban the box” language in our development agreements that give convicted felons a second chance at life and meaningful employment. All of these things are not “friendly” to developers and contractors, and certainly not what you would do to your “buddies”, as Corben characterizes those that do business with the city.

Besides the accomplishments listed by Luke, we have also introduced a “Wheels to Work” program that helps low income residents afford reliable transportation; provided educational scholarships to residents; provided roughly one million dollars towards employment programs for juveniles in at-risk communities; provided $100,000 for a Senior’s house painting initiative to help beautify the community and assist low-income residents in maintaining their homes; and created a program where student trainees clean eyesores in abandoned yards without the hassle of code enforcement bureaucracy. Not to mention the millions of dollars in grants that have been awarded to assist in business creation, stabilization, and job training in our redevelopment area.

My tenure has been one that has guaranteed the least of us are respected and honored. The aforementioned accomplishments have everything to do with the sort of leadership that I have provided for my community. The baseless, inflammatory, and accusatory remarks of individuals like Corben are only meant to disparage who I am and use the power of media to spread deceit. Yes, I am a graduate of Miami Northwestern Senior High School, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, and the University of Miami School of Law. But most importantly, I was a child born into poverty in James E. Scott Housing Projects and raised in Liberty City by the same people that I serve today. Those that are raised in inner cities are not strangers to adversity, and we expect to be attacked each step of the way towards success. But we come from praying families who are encouraged that our steps are ordered when we do God’s work. I know that righteousness is on my side. Thus, I can sleep well at night while those who conjure lies against me are awake fashioning their next assault.

Edduard Prince responds:

Prince claims Hardemon reinstated him (which Hardemon confirms). Prince says he was placed back on the advisory board after he called the commissioner’s uncle, Billy (which Hardemon denies). Prince says he was blindsided by the removal because he agreed to withdraw his lawsuits at Hardemon’s request. “I was one of his biggest cheerleaders when he got elected,” Prince says of the commissioner. “It’s not personal.”

Prince says the blog posts on the Araminta website are based on his firsthand knowledge of what is taking place in Overtown. “A person who doesn’t know what is going on might say it is opinion-based, but everything I write is extremely factual,” he says. “I have dared Keon to call me a liar on Twitter.”

He says Araminta is just getting its footing and doesn’t have any money. “I have to work and try to feed myself,” Prince says. “I do these things like blogging on the side. I am trying to make a difference.”

Bringing up Prince's criminal record is meant to distract people from Hardemon’s failure to help black Miamians, Prince says. “[Luther Campbell] can try to discredit me, but we are talking about Keon’s actions,” Prince says. “It is a frivolous argument. Everybody knows who I am.”

Kevin E. Spring responds:

Spring, who runs a nonprofit called Spring4Forward, denies he requested funding for a children’s program. “We wanted to partner up with another organization to do an entrepreneurial program so people in Overtown don’t have to worry about background checks and other foolishness that are barriers to decent employment,” Spring says. “I had only one meeting with Keon about it. And he told me: ‘What am I supposed to tell my friends if I give you money and they don’t get funding?’ Hardemon and his crew are a cancer on Overtown.”

Billy Corben responds:

As skeptical as I am of all politicians, I’m particular leery of politics as family business, which is practiced all too frequently in Miami-Dade. When the sibling, offspring, or spouse of a political family wants to enter the arena, I believe voters are entitled to greater transparency, not less. So reasonable questions about a public official’s record do not constitute a witch-hunt any more than Luke’s recent criticism of Ben Carson, Alonzo Mourning, and Frederica Wilson.

The Hardemons are respected local civil rights activists turned powerful lobbyists and political consultants. But in 1997, his uncle Billy was indicted for bribery, money laundering, and stealing campaign funds (he was acquitted of the first two and pleaded guilty to reduced charges on the last). In 2003, his uncle Allen was charged with fraud and grand theft in a scheme involving a county contract (he also pleaded to misdemeanors).

I was willing to give Keon Hardemon, my fellow Miami Hurricane, a chance. And Keon has certainly done positive things for his constituents (though, to be fair, several of the initiatives Luke credits to him originated with Keon’s predecessor, my friend Michelle Spence-Jones).

Billy Corben
Billy Corben
Photo by Stian Roenning

But as Hardemon's first term concludes, I and many others have concerns over the increasing semblance of improprieties and unanswered questions:

• Keon’s vote for $88 million in tax subsidies for the $1.7 billion luxury Miami Worldcenter complex

• Being the sole commissioner to support the oxymoronically named Miami Innovation Tower, where his aunt Barbara was also on the payroll

• His tepid response after emails revealed Miami cops in Little Haiti had illegal arrest quotas

• His even worse response to Overtown residents being systematically arrested for crossing train tracks

• His silence on the questionable enforcement of onerous nuisance abatement regulations that could force the closure of black-owned businesses

• The selection of a generous campaign contributor, friend of his uncle Billy and inexperienced contractor, who botched the $15 million taxpayer-financed renovation of crumbling Overtown condos

These are matters that Keon Hardemon has not sufficiently addressed — and probably won’t because he’s running unopposed for reelection in November. I had high hopes for Keon, but he has yet to distinguish himself from that pack. In the spirit of greater transparency, this is a conversation he should be willing to have, whether he draws an opponent or not in this election.

Francisco Alvarado contributed to this column by contacting Prince and Spring for comment.

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