At a sidewalk table at Rosinella's restaurant on Lincoln Road in late November, Miami Beach Commissioner Simon Cruz had a cup of coffee with former Miami city manager and convicted felon Cesar Odio.
"It was literally a meeting of happenstance," Cruz says wearily, sensing a snarky newspaper story on the horizon. He recounts how he was waiting to be seated at the Italian eatery when the white-haired former jailbird, who was released from the federal prison at Eglin Air Force Base in October 1998, came strolling along in the company of Gino Falsetto, co-owner of the South Beach nightclub Amnesia. Cruz says he knew Falsetto well enough, and recognized Odio by sight, perhaps from televised accounts of Odio's 1996 arrest for plotting a kickback scheme with the City of Miami's health-insurance program.
Cruz remembers the two were coming from city hall, where they had gone on some business related to Amnesia -- a magnet for lawsuits, code-enforcement complaints, and politically charged explosive devices. They walked up to him, exchanged pleasantries, and sat down for a chat over coffee. "The normal stuff, 'How's it going,'" Cruz recalls. "Gino wanted to ask me a couple of questions about parking across the street from Amnesia."
Falsetto says he and Odio had met earlier that day to discuss renovations at Amnesia. The former public servant has worked for his brother Javier's construction company, Tropical Development, since his release from prison. (Falsetto notes that he has employed Javier's company on various properties he operates, including Amnesia and the Grand condominium, for some eight years.) After that Falsetto and Odio proceeded to city hall for a meeting with code-enforcement director Al Childress to talk about the city's New Year's Eve preparations and how they would affect the nightclub. From there they headed to Lincoln Road and their impromptu coffee klatch with Cruz. (Odio could not be reached for comment for this story.)
"Cesar brought up the fact that we were searching for a new city manager," Cruz recalls. (Indeed Sergio Rodriguez had announced on November 12 that he would resign from the post.) "[Odio] commented that city manager was a very difficult and tough position," Cruz recounts without a hint of irony. "That was the general gist of it. Nothing earthshattering.
"Listen," he adds with a half-chuckle, "if I had to do something clandestine, I wouldn't do it in the middle of Lincoln Road." He says the encounter lasted fifteen minutes or so.
Should he have been worried about being spotted with someone as politically radioactive as Odio? Cruz says no, displaying a generous and forgiving spirit: "As far as I'm concerned, he, like anyone else in the city, is entitled to my time if he asks for it. Far be it from me to refuse to be seen with anyone. Unless you do something to deserve otherwise, I'm going to treat you with respect."
Odio and Falsetto's visit to city hall could qualify as a trip down memory lane for Odio. The edifice is chock full of old hands from the City of Miami. Three of Miami Beach's four assistant city managers -- Christina Cuervo, Janet Gavarrete, and Matthew Schwartz -- once worked for Odio during his eleven-year reign at Dinner Key. So did city clerk Robert Parcher, parks director Kevin Smith, fire chief Floyd Jordan, and Sergio Rodriguez, the city manager who had not yet left to begin his new job at the University of Miami.
Have such visits by Odio become a regular occurrence? Reports are mixed. Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin says he's neither seen nor heard from Odio. "[Odio] sent me a congratulations card when I won," says newly elected Commissioner Matti Bower, who adds that she's never spoken with Odio. Most of the aforementioned former employees of Odio say they haven't seen or spoken with their ex-boss. Gavarrete remembers spotting him at city hall only once "around the holidays," which could well have been the same day he crossed paths with Cruz. "He was there for a meeting, I suspect," Gavarrete says. "I said, 'Hello, how are you, how's the family?' That was it." Cuervo, Odio's onetime chief of staff at the City of Miami, says she's seen him at city hall but hasn't spoken to him.
Another city employee recalls seeing Odio at a city hall meeting earlier in 1999, also on behalf of Amnesia, and once again toward the end of last year, though the employee couldn't remember what Odio's specific business was on the latter visit.
Not that there's any injunction against Odio skulking around city hall, on either side of the causeway. He will be on probation until October of this year, but other than the restrictions on his civil liberties resulting from his felony conviction (can't vote, can't carry a firearm), he has the right to chat up any politico who doesn't mind being seen with him.
At the time of his release in 1998, his brother Javier (himself a convicted cocaine dealer with a lengthy rap sheet) told the Miami Herald Cesar was planning on joining Tropical Development. Whatever salary he earned there would augment his $58,000-per-year pension from the City of Miami. "Politics is definitely not on his agenda," Javier said at the time.
Several Miami-Dade political observers contacted for this story posit that Cesar Odio's occasional appearances on the Beach are isolated incidents, that Odio has for the most part stayed away from politics. Falsetto says he's seen a good deal of Odio during the past year or so, mostly through his dealings with Tropical -- which until recently was headquartered in the Grand condominium's office space, which Falsetto manages. (State corporate records show that Odio in 1999 formed a company called CHO Enterprises, whose address is the same suite in the Grand that once housed Tropical.)
Other political insiders, though, assert that Odio simply hasn't been able to resist the allure of the public sector. "I think he wants a say in choosing the next [Miami Beach] city manager, maybe some government consulting business," says one former City of Miami Beach employee.
Odio is not the only catch from Operation Greenpalm to surface after his release from prison. In August 1999 ex-Commissioner Miller Dawkins, who served nearly two years for accepting $100,000 in bribes, showed up at a fundraiser for Manolo Reyes, who made an unsuccessful run for Miami City Commission. Jorge de Cardenas, Odio's co-conspirator in the insurance-kickback scheme, served a year in a Kentucky prison. Because he had never become a U.S. citizen, INS took him into custody once his sentence ended. After a three-month ordeal in Louisiana and at the Krome Detention Center, during which his health deteriorated rapidly, de Cardenas was released in March 1999 by order of a federal judge.
De Cardenas says he hasn't spoken to Odio since his release. "We have the same probation officer," he notes.
Manohar Surana, the city finance director who helped the feds capture Odio's criminal act on tape, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit extortion and bribery in June 1996. He is still free, though, and has yet to be sentenced for his crimes.