On August 6, FBI agents swooped into Sweetwater City Hall, handcuffed Mayor Manuel Maroño, and charged him with bribery. The feds alleged Maroño and business partner Jorge Forte accepted $40,000 in payola from a pair of undercover agents pretending to be corrupt Chicago businessmen aiming to defraud the federal government. That same morning, almost simultaneously, other G-men popped into the city hall office of Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi and led him out in handcuffs. He allegedly pocketed $6,750 for helping the fake Chi-town corrupters with a similar scheme in his town and in Medley, where he had a job as the town attorney.
Three weeks later, Miami-Dade prosecutors charged Homestead Mayor Steven Bateman with two felony counts of unlawful compensation. The barrel-chested, Oompa Loompa-hued South Dade pol was caught lobbying his fellow city council members and county officials to fast-track a water and sewer project for a nonprofit agency that was paying him $125 an hour under the table to be its "construction consultant."
Maroño, Pizzi, and Bateman (who have pleaded not guilty and have been suspended from office) are just the latest in a long line of Hizzoners, including Miami Beach's Alex Daoud, West Miami's Cesar Carasa, and Hialeah's Julio Robaina, to make the perp walk of shame. The odds of another mayor joining them is not a question of if but of who.
Hialeah's Carlos Hernandez: Next Mayor to Jail?
In Florida's sixth largest city, we imagine a crew of civic cheerleaders — or maybe haters — rooting for their main man, Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez (who did not respond to two phone messages or an email request for an interview). Consider this scene: They gather on the steps of Hialeah City Hall, holding pom-poms and placards for a pep rally led by Raul Martinez, the political don who once held Hernandez's seat for more than a quarter-century and beat three attempts by the feds to send him to prison in the '90s. Sporting a blue-and-red (the colors of Hialeah Senior High) cheerleader's sweatshirt emblazoned with the words "Alcalde for Life" across the chest, he'll grab a bullhorn and urge on the rabble:
Gimme a j, for "jodiendo el pueblo"!
Since becoming mayor, Hernandez has been screwing Hialeah citizens big-time, critics say. In August 2011, a month after the city council appointed him interim mayor, Hernandez pimped out Benny Babcock Park, Hialeah's oldest and most popular hangout, to Major League Baseball pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez's private academy. The only way kids in the City of Progress can play on the seven diamonds is to pay the $300 registration fee to attend El Duque's school. When the academy is not in operation, the park's fields are padlocked even though Hialeah taxpayers pay 100 percent of the park's maintenance and lighting.
Meanwhile, Hernandez has done squat to lower the unemployment rate in Hialeah, which is the highest in Florida. He was instrumental in helping the sugar-making company Banah International Group win approval for $430,000 in tax incentives to create 300 jobs in Hialeah last year. The mayor also persuaded the city council and lobbied Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Commissioner Rebeca Sosa to rename a portion of the street where the firm is headquartered to Banah Sweet Way. Well, turns out the company is owned by Alexander Perez, a convicted cocaine trafficker who never delivered the jobs he promised. Just months after getting approved for the tax breaks, Banah was forced to file for bankruptcy because it was facing a mountain of lawsuits from former vendors and employees claiming they had not been paid. The tax incentives have not been awarded because Banah hasn't created any jobs.
Yet Hernandez keeps sticking it to the residents. In October of last year, the mayor urged the city council to hike code enforcement fines. A first-time offense was doubled from $50 to $100. Daily fines were also doubled to $200. At the same time, he can't keep any cops on the force. More than 100 officers who have retired or left for other departments during his tenure have not been replaced. The city has a ratio of one officer to 766 residents.
Gimme an a, for "arranging favors"!
Helping political benefactors is a Hernandez specialty. Earlier this year, he recommended the city reject a developer's request to build an apartment complex at West 80th Street and 35th Avenue. On February 26, the council agreed and then, a few minutes later, rubber-stamped Hernandez's recommendation to allow Miami Lakes-based developer Martin Capparo to build a three-story apartment building ten blocks away in the same industrial district. Three weeks later, 34 companies owned by Capparo or listing the exact address as his Miami Lakes main office each contributed the $500 maximum to Hernandez's re-election campaign. That's $17,000 in bundled donations.
Hernandez also arranged more pay for city hall employees who'd helped him get elected two years ago. Shortly after taking office, he promoted mayor's assistant Arnie Alonso to chief of staff. Alonso, who beat an investigation into his alleged theft of vendor monies when he was a park department employee, went from making $40,200 a year to a little more than $65,000. Hernandez gave his star lackey a 62 percent raise at a time when he cut pay for firefighters, cops, and low-level employees by 5, 10, and 17 percent, respectively.
Gimme an i, for "intimidation"!
This is a Hernandez trademark. On September 10, the mayor was less than amused when local blogger Carlos Miller recorded video of him and other city employees trying to stonewall a couple of citizens seeking to inspect public documents at city hall. So the mayor called in Hialeah Police officers to force Miller and the two residents to leave, claiming they had "invaded" the city clerk's office and "attacked" them with their cameras. Miller alleges Hernandez insisted he was not allowed to record even though he was inside a public building. "But I knew there was no such policy, so I continued recording despite the mayor's objections," Miller says, "and despite objections from his chief of staff, Alonso, who planted his face right in front of my lens, ordering and threatening me to stop recording."
Juan Santana, a 28-year-old resident running against Hernandez for mayor, alleges the city's executive has sent police officers and campaign goons to harass him at his house. On April 8, Santana used his cell-phone camera to record Hialeah Officer Sandra St. Germaine unscrewing the expired tag from his wife's car, which was parked outside his house. Under state law, cops can seize a license plate only if they have stopped a vehicle that's in motion. "She was the one who broke the law," Santana seethes. "She was stealing it. This is just another way of Hernandez harassing me."
Three months later, ex-Hialeah Officer Glenn Rice, who lives in Miramar and volunteers on Hernandez's campaigns, went to Santana's house. Using his cell-phone camera, Rice began recording the young candidate. Then Santana started filming Rice, who responded by saying, "Are you fat?... You stink. You are farting in your pants. That is disgusting. Look at your house. And you want to represent the City of Hialeah?"
Santana contends this incident shows "[Mayor] Hernandez is a tyrant. He is making Hialeah look really bad."
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Gimme an l, for "loan shark"!
What else do you call a guy who charges an annual vig of 36 percent on money he lends, particularly if it seems he didn't report it to the IRS? Between 2007 and 2009, Hernandez loaned $180,000 to Luis "Felipito" Perez, a Hialeah Ponzi schemer masquerading as a jeweler who conned $45 million from investors. Perez, who pleaded guilty in 2010 and is serving a ten-year prison sentence, alleges he paid Hernandez $2,400 to $3,000 a month in interest payments for three years. None of the interest, which came to at least $100,000, appears on Hernandez's 2007, 2008, or 2009 tax returns, which are filed along with his public financial disclosure forms.
Hernandez was part of Hialeah's shadow banking industry, a group of well-heeled residents, among them politicians, including Julio Robaina, the mayor's predecessor. In May, Robaina and his wife, Raiza, were arraigned on federal charges of fraud, conspiracy, falsifying documents, and tax evasion for not reporting interest income on $750,000 in loans they gave Perez during an 18-month period that began in 2006 or 2007. In exchange for leniency, Perez has told prosecutors the Robainas falsified mortgage documents and promissory notes, stating the interest was 18 percent when it was actually 36 percent. He has also claimed the illegal portion of the payments were made in cash to Robaina.
What does it spell? Jail!