Kicked Back and in the Green

Hector Pio Ortiz is a made man. The electrician owns a Hialeah company that routinely wins multimillion-dollar contracts from Miami-Dade County to install and maintain traffic and street lights. Over the past five years county commissioners have awarded Ortiz's Horsepower Electric eleven contracts worth about $24 million.

Now Horsepower Electric may snatch a no-bid deal to install safety devices on more than 19,000 light poles in the county. If the county commission approves the contract, Ortiz's company could net more than nine million dollars over three years.

The negotiations come at a time when the county's Office of the Inspector General has taken a keen interest in Horsepower Electric's dealings with the Miami-Dade Public Works Department, which administers the company's contracts. Investigators recently began auditing all Horsepower's contracts as well as having an agent present during the company's negotiations on the new no-bid deal. However, Inspector General Chris Mazzella won't say why his office is investigating Ortiz's enterprise. "I can't comment on anything while the audit is pending," he says.

Ortiz welcomes the scrutiny. "I have no problem with it," says the raspy-voiced University of Havana graduate. "They can take a look at whatever they want. And if they want me to negotiate at the domino park in Sweetwater so the public can see what is going on, so be it."

Ortiz is accustomed to being in the crosshairs of government watchdog and law enforcement agencies. Two years ago he came under federal investigation for allegedly bribing Miami International Airport's former construction chief, Richard Mendez, in exchange for no-bid work. On December 21, 2002, Mendez pleaded guilty to 34 counts of mail fraud, bribery, money laundering, tax evasion, and filing false tax returns. His wife Mirta also copped a guilty plea to one charge of bribery conspiracy. Mendez, who spent most of his county career in the public works department before going to the airport, is currently serving a five-year prison term.

According to federal court documents, Mendez steered work to three contractors in exchange for kickbacks. The vendors were Ortiz, Marilyn J. Parker, and Edwin L. Perkinson. Parker received three years' probation after cooperating with investigators and admitting she paid $145,000 to Mendez after he handed her a no-bid contract to provide three-dimensional digital models of the airport's renovation plans.

Perkinson was sentenced to one year after admitting he paid $81,500 in bribes to Mendez for a soil-cleaning contract. At the time, Perkinson's company shared its no-bid work with Pios & SonsEnterprises, a company owned by Ortiz and his son that had no background in removing contaminated soil.

Federal prosecutors alleged that Pios & Sons paid Perkinson, who in turn funneled the kickbacks to Mendez. Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Mulvihill identified $72,000 in checks that went from Pios & Sons to Mendez's personal bank accounts, as well a $26,777 loan to help Mendez pay off a mortgage. (Ortiz is a close friend of the Mendez family.)

The investigation, which examined events that took place from 1995 to 1998, ended without charges being filed against Ortiz, and now the statute of limitations for any bribery or fraud violations has expired. "It's remarkable that Ortiz escaped prosecution," says Andres Rivero, a Miami attorney who represented Marilyn Parker. Mulvihill declined comment.

With his silvery hair in a ponytail, dressed in blue jeans and a denim work shirt, Ortiz could easily be mistaken for a cattle rancher. He arrived in Miami from Cuba in 1981 and four years later became a state-certified electrical contractor and opened Horsepower Electric. The company started with one truck and three journeymen working out of an office cubicle in Sweetwater. Today Horsepower employs 70 people from Key West to Sebastian.

On the advice of his attorney, David Garvin, who was present during a recent interview, Ortiz refused to discuss the MIA kickback scandal or say why he regularly raises thousands of dollars in campaign contributions for elected officials, including county commissioners Jose "Pepe" Diaz and Natacha Seijas, who were instrumental in pushing through the no-bid deal Horsepower Electric is about to land. "That's not an avenue we want to travel," Garvin said.

According to public records, Seijas and Diaz headed the government and operations committee that in 2004 instructed the public works department to negotiate with Horsepower Electric to install the Safe-Lite devices on all county light poles. The two commissioners earlier sponsored a resolution that authorized the public works department to enter into a pilot program to test the Safe-Lite product on 400 lightpoles.

"If you had seen what I saw, you'd understand," Diaz says by way of explaining his interest in getting the Safe-Lite project under way. Diaz was referring to an incident in 2000 in which two Sweetwater boys were electrocuted when they touched a light pole that had become electrified during a storm. Diaz, then mayor of Sweetwater, was one of the first public officials on the scene. Diaz adds: "We did stop to make sure his company was the only one that had a patent for this device, and they were."

Diaz claims he only recently discovered Ortiz had been under criminal investigation, even though several media outlets, including the Miami Herald, reported on the airport cases.

Seijas did not respond to repeated attempts to reach her.

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.
Kris Conesa