This past December 3, in the early evening, a man in an unkempt, dirt-stained Santa Claus suit with a ratty fake white beard twirled a placard that read: KB's Christmas trees. 34 years. Don't be fooled by impostors! He was on the sidewalk in front of a candy cane-colored tent filled with christmas trees at NE 108th Street and Biscayne Boulevard. "Dashing through the snow," he sang in an off-key gravely voice, "in a one horse open sleigh... oh what fun it is to ride..."
Then, suddenly, Santa was drowned out by "Jingle Bell Rock" pumping through a bullhorn stationed across the street at a similar-looking, red-and-white canopy also filled with Christmas trees.
"I turned the radio on to 93.1, the station that plays holiday music," says John Fahmie, owner of the second tree-filled tent. "I hooked it up to a 100-amp receiver and blasted it as loud as I could until the cops came."
A few minutes later, two Miami-Dade police officers ordered Fahmie and Santa to stop playing carols or go to jail.
Call it the great Christmas Tree Battle of 2010. In one corner is longtime veteran of the site, Kevin Burns, an ex-North Miami mayor and recently failed state Senate candidate. Across the way is newcomer John Fahmie, a feisty Christmas tree salesman looking to out-price and out-hustle his opponent.
Their rivalry has exposed the seedier side of the Christmas tree business. Three of Fahmie's employees who used to work for Burns claim their former boss is a covetous old sinner like Ebenezer Scrooge.
Dwayne Reid, Max St. Louis, and an unnamed 26-year-old woman contend Burns owes them about $4,000 combined in unpaid wages. "Burns asked me if I was going to work again for him this year," spits Reid. "I told him he had to be insane. He hasn't paid me for the last two years I worked for him."
Burns, however, denies stiffing any ex-employees. "Everyone got paid what they were due," he insists. "I've never had any problems paying my employees." He says the many claims his opponent makes about him are driven by envy — a sin St. Nick would surely check off as naughty, not nice.
Burns has been in the business of peddling holiday cheer for decades just up the street from a K-Mart in North Miami, where he was the top elected official from 2005 until last year. But almost as long as he's been selling pretty pines, he's been accused of not paying his bills. Some examples from court records:
•In the early '90s, he was ordered to shell out for a default judgment of $1,600 to a plumbing company and then a few years later, a final judgment of $13,000 was entered against him and a co-defendant for not repaying a promissory note.
•In the mid-'90s, trouble bled over to his Christmas tree business. A company called Joe Boxer Corporation won a default judgment for $6,000, which Burns later paid. Then a Fort Lauderdale-based Christmas tree wholesaler won $72,000, which is still outstanding.
•More recently, Deutsche Bank foreclosed on his three-bedroom house. And this past April, a long-time supporter, Annie Montgomery, won a $115,000 default judgment against him. Then in October, City National Bank of Florida garnered a $15,000 default judgment. That was three months after he lost his state Senate race against Gwen Margolis.
What a bunch of grinches!
Burns was a real estate broker for years. In 2005, he became mayor of North Miami. The position came with a $28,940 salary, which he supplemented with money from the popular Christmas tree business. (In 2009 he earned $11,000 from that concern.) Most years, he manned the cash register, handling political affairs at the same time he was cracking deals on trees that cost $70, $80, or more.
Fahmie arrived on the scene a few years ago, some years setting up across the street from Burns, and other years a few blocks down. He's a crafty elf with an eternal grin who gives part of his profits to a North Miami food bank. Sometimes he jams the parking lot full of employees' cars so his business appears busy. On occasion, he even loads trees on top of the vehicles. Call it Yuletide Marketing 101.
The competition hasn't been particularly cheery. "I call Kevin a crook to his face all the time," Fahmie boasts.
"He is just a jealous competitor," counters Burns, who's dressed in a navy blue sweatshirt, blue jeans, and brown loafers while moving Christmas trees. "He complains every day. He wants to be me, but he can't be me."
Maybe it's all part of the tension of the season?
Burns's alleged former little helpers don't think so. They say the politician and tree merchant disappears like the Ghost of Christmas Past when it comes time to pay.
Craig Steinhart is co-owner of a company that provided the mayor with a lot of trees in the Nineties. He claims to have been stiffed after giving Burns $70,000 in merchandise on credit. When he tried to collect, "[Burns] pretended we didn't even exist," Steinhart grouses. "He didn't seem to care that he screwed us over. There are a lot of decent people who are not like Kevin Burns."
Then there are the former employees of KB's Trees. Reid is a homeless man who, during most of the year, lives next to an empty building not far from the Grinch-zone. He says Burns offered to pay him $1,000 to work the 2008 holiday season. "He only gave me $600," Reid says. Last year, Burns only paid him $259 for 259 hours he worked, he adds. "The last day we were out there, he showed up, picked up all his equipment, and told us he would be back in 20 minutes to pay us what he owed," Reid recollects. "He never came back. And he never returned my messages or answered his phone when I called him."
Another man who says he is an ex-Burns employee, Max St. Louis, tells basically the same story. The 21-year-old says he worked for Burns for six years and was promised $600 last year. "He said he'd pay me, but just didn't show up," St. Louis says.
And an unnamed 26-year-old woman, who worked for the tree business as well as the failed 2010 state Senate campaign, says she was stiffed to the tune of $1,250. She asked to remain anonymous because she still works in North Miami politics.
Finally, there's Franklin Davis, who says he's owed $350 for one week's work trying to garner votes for Burns during his Senate run. "I don't know how he can walk around with a good conscience knowing he cheats people," says the 50-year-old.
Of course, Burns, who declared bankruptcy in 1997 and then emerged in 2003, insists he pays his debts. And he emphatically denies screwing over his former employees. "I never promised to pay [Reid] $1,000 for any work he did for me," Burns says. "That's not true. He got paid everything he was owed." Davis, he says, never worked for him; the rest is baloney.
So how come Burns moved across the street this year, abandoning the location where he's sold trees the last 33 seasons? He was just pinching pennies, like Scrooge. "I'm paying a third of what I paid last year," Burns says. "Seriously, I've never had a problem. I'm just a guy selling Christmas trees."
And who's the better value? When New Times went to buy a tree a couple weeks ago with three kids in tow, we checked out both locations. Each demanded the same price for a seven-foot tree: $85. The difference? Fahmie lowered it to $80 after some dickering. Burns wouldn't budge. "You aren't going to leave the place you've been buying trees since your kids were crawling, are you?"
We chose the lower-priced tree.
Editor Chuck Strouse and Managing Editor Jorge Casuso contributed to this report.