Power Politics

Passed last week with all the subtlety of a kidney stone, Dade County's $4.1 billion budget immediately sparked a debate as to its political winners and losers. Tops on everyone's list of winners was Dade County Interim Mayor Alex Penelas. The big loser, by general agreement, was the county commission, which continued its well-earned slide toward irrelevance.

Most of the budgetary discussion centered on the transfer of power from the commission to the mayor. Commissioner Bruce Kaplan labeled it "an audacious power grab." Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla likened it to a constitutional crisis in which the role of the legislative branch of county government has now been usurped by the executive branch. Other commissioners expressed concern that they will become even less effective than they already are.

Following last year's countywide mayor's race, this shift was both inevitable and wholly predictable. Like it or not, we now have what is often referred to as a strong-mayor form of government. But all the talk about who's gaining power and who's losing it overlooks one important point: Without political courage, power is useless. And throughout this budget process, neither the mayor nor the commission has shown much political mettle.

How courageous do you have to be to pander to voters by rolling back their taxes? And since when is it a sign of political valor to come out against crime and in favor of hiring more police? Penelas, the perpetual candidate, was prepared to pay for these political gimmicks -- and hugely increase his own staff budget -- by slashing public transportation for the neediest segments of the community. Gutsy, right?

"I'll tell you the way we can really get rid of waste and abuse in government," Commissioner Katy Sorenson told her fellow commissioners during the budget hearing, "stop patronage hiring, stop patronage contracts, and stop patronage allocations to organizations." Sorenson's suggestion, while certainly novel for Dade County, still does not represent true grit. At least let's hope not. Doing your job fairly and honestly, without favoritism or graft, should not be the definition of courage, especially when there are so many issues dividing this community.

There was a moment during last week's budget hearing that revealed, in almost comic fashion, one such division. Several hours into the meeting, a citizen -- an obviously middle-class white man -- expressed his amazement that so many blacks in the audience were apprehensive about a proposed increase in funding for the mayor's Clean Sweep-Safe Streets police program. He noted that whenever his young son would see a police officer, the boy would gleefully shout, "Daddy, daddy, daddy -- the man! The man!"

I haven't heard police referred to as "the man" since The Mod Squad was canceled, which means either the kid has been watching a lot of bad reruns or he is as painfully out of touch with life in the inner city as his father. Clean Sweep has turned certain Dade neighborhoods into virtual police states, a tense situation made worse in recent weeks by the fact that police across the county seem to have been using minorities for target practice. But I haven't heard Penelas or the commission talk much about that issue.

Caught somewhere between the mayor and the commission in the struggle for power was County Manager Armando Vidal, who saw all five assistant county managers axed from his office. This past May Vidal had called for a 7.7 percent tax hike in order to preserve services. "We can't allow this government to be put in the position where the city of Miami is today," Vidal argued. "That led us to only one option and one option alone, and that is a budget that recommends a tax increase." But Penelas didn't like that option and, as Vidal preferred employment over martyrdom, he eventually endorsed the mayor's slash-and-burn proposals. "Now comes the hardest part," Vidal said late last week, "which is implementing this budget with all its cuts."

The only recent bright moment for Vidal had nothing to do with the mayor or commission or budgetary matters. It arrived in the form of good news from the Dade State Attorney's Office, where investigators closed their probe into allegations that Vidal abused his position for personal gain.

This past January New Times reported that during the previous two years, Vidal had accepted dozens of free rounds of golf from the Muirfield Group, the company hired to operate the county-owned Golf Club of Miami. During that same period, the county manager recommended changes to the company's contract that financially benefited the group. The most significant amendment, which was made against the advice of his staff and the county attorney's office, allowed Muirfield to deposit golf course revenues directly into its own private bank account instead of a county-controlled account, as the contract originally stipulated. As a result, the county has had difficulty collecting the money it is owed. According to county officials, Muirfield is currently $100,000 in arrears.

After a seven-month review, the State Attorney's Office decided no charges were warranted against Vidal, who cooperated with investigators, answering their questions under oath and without the promise of immunity. "Mr. Vidal at no time denied that he received free rounds of golf at both the Golf Club of Miami as well as Key Biscayne," states the final report, issued by the State Attorney's Office on September 9. "He explained that he considered himself to be the 'CEO' of the county government and that the ability to use these facilities was an understood 'perk' for executives. He maintained that this arrangement was no different from that which applied to previous county managers."

But Vidal also admitted that he was playing at the invitation of Carlos Morales, marketing director for the Golf Club of Miami, and Jorge Lopez, a lobbyist who is a close friend of the Muirfield Group's owner. "Mr. Vidal acknowledged that Jorge Lopez was a good friend," the report notes. "He also acknowledged that he knew Mr. Lopez was a lawyer and lobbyist. He did not consider this a problem as he insisted that no discussions centering on work were allowed on his Saturday outings. He considered this unwritten rule sufficient protection against any allegations of wrongdoing and did not contemplate the potential for any appearance of impropriety."

Lopez, who was subpoenaed and spoke with prosecutors under oath, said that he did not recall ever discussing county business while golfing with Vidal. Morales, who was also under oath, agreed. "Armando wasn't really very good," Morales told prosecutors, "so just the overall scope of golf was more than enough for him."

Investigators were swayed by several factors, according to the report, which is known as a "close-out memo" and was written by Assistant State Attorney Matthew Hodes. First, Vidal had reported the free excursions on his financial disclosure forms. "The fact that Mr. Vidal reported the free golf rounds in question removes any suggestion that his actions were surreptitious or that he attempted to deny the activity took place," Hodes wrote. Second, after Vidal's golfing habits were publicized, he wrote a check to the Golf Club of Miami for $968, which he said covered the cost of the 46 free rounds he had received, plus interest.

Prosecutors also questioned Vidal, Lopez, and Morales concerning other allegations made in the New Times article -- namely, that in addition to free rounds of golf, Vidal received free food and golf supplies. All three men denied that. Vidal explained that they took turns paying for meals, so some weeks Vidal didn't pay, but then other weeks he picked up the tab for all three friends. He produced credit card statements showing some of those expenses.

Prosecutors also seemed impressed that this past June the manager proposed an ordinance, approved by the county commission, that no Dade County employee or official is entitled to receive a discount or complimentary round of golf or tennis unless the same discount is available to the general public. Vidal told prosecutors that after the New Times story, officials in the parks and recreation department uncovered a 1989 memo that listed the names of 74 people who should be given lifetime free access to all county golf courses. The names included former mayor Steve Clark and former commissioners Charles Dusseau, Harvey Ruvin, Joe Gersten, Sherman Winn, Mary Collins, and Barry Schreiber. Those privileges, Vidal explained, have since been revoked.

Vidal also expressed regret that the issue had arisen at all. "I told my wife that I was selling the clubs and I don't want to go through this again," he told prosecutors. "Stupid on my part to place myself in this position and it's not going to happen. It's not going to happen [again]." Later in the interview he added that "from a perception standpoint ... it looks terrible."

Most important in the decision to close the investigation, however, was the fact that prosecutors said they could find no link between the free golf and the favorable changes Vidal made to the Muirfield Group's contract. "As there was no direct evidence of any quid pro quo affecting Mr. Vidal's decisions, the statutes relating to bribery and unlawful compensation were considered and dismissed," Hodes wrote.

The prosecutor also examined whether Vidal violated any county ordinances, specifically one relating to exploitation of his position. "Some might argue that the facts of this case may violate the county ordinance," Hodes wrote. "However, it may be argued that it would be unreasonably harsh to base a charge under this ordinance on activities which a) were not undertaken with corrupt intent, b) were properly reported as gifts as required under law, and c) were ultimately paid for by Mr. Vidal."

In an interview last week, Vidal said he is "satisfied and relieved" the investigation is over. While maintaining that he had done nothing wrong, he acknowledged that he is now more sensitive to the appearance of impropriety. He also has recused himself from making any future decisions about the Muirfield Group. "I think there is a big lesson to be learned," he said. "I'm very aware now of my role as manager and the perception that people have.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede