The Herald's November 28 "lunch with ..." column about Lee Brian Schrager was typically fawning. This guy's cool, right? Director of catering at the Hotel Inter-Continental. A South Beach "supercaterer" and "party king," whom staff writer Lydia Martin obsequiously compared to a "rock star." One thing the newspaper left out: Back in 1992 Schrager pleaded no contest to two counts of grand theft. He tried to defraud an insurance company out of thousands of dollars by falsely claiming thieves had stolen three limited-edition artworks, including an Andy Warhol print of Grace Kelly. It appears that someone else is picking up the be-kind-to-felons-sleazeballs-and-miscreants tradition hewn by former publisher Dave Lawrence.

Radio Martí, that monumental waste of taxpayer money, has entered a new biz: giving away VCRs in Cuba. And Chris Coursen, head of the group that monitors the station, is outraged. Seems America's voice on the island is promoting a Christmas essay contest for kids there. The children's compositions will be sent to Miami and judged by Padre José Luis Menendez. A hundred winners will (maybe) receive television/VCRs provided by famed Spanish-language vitamin hawker and Castro hater Manuel Rico Perez. The problems with this are legion: The religiously inspired contest is being promoted with government dollars. And sending the stuff from South Florida to Cuba likely will line Fidel Castro's pockets (through theft and customs fees or both). U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart's office doesn't seem to care. "We don't know if they'll get there; all we can do is try," says Stephen Vermillion, Diaz-Balart's chief of staff. "It's worth it just to get under Castro's skin." Coursen wants an investigation.

When it comes to arboreal shrinkage, Manny Diaz is king. Metro auditors and Miami Herald reporter Tom Dubocq busted the South Miami-Dade nurseryman and campaign fundraiser back in 1996 for hustling county taxpayers by providing shorter-than-promised trees. (Diaz reimbursed the county at least $250,000.) Now a county bond program is withholding payment to another department of more than a half-million dollars on trees ordered from Diaz. The reason: Administrators suspect at least some of them are vertically challenged. The dispute centers on oak trees for West End Park in Southwest Miami-Dade, says Beverly Mirman, director of the county's Office of Safe Neighborhood Parks. Also included are plants headed for the former Homestead Air Force Base. "We said we weren't sure but we thought maybe that some of them could be [shorter than ordered].... We aren't experts," Mirman comments. County auditors are studying the matter.

You thought they could go no lower. And you were right. Sponsors of the December 26 King Mango Strut in Coconut Grove actually are rejecting participants this year. Big boobs and tired O.J. jokes will be allowed, but plans for a soggy John-John Kennedy and mate Carolyn Bessette are out, says überstrutter Glenn Terry. "We're just tired of dead Kennedys," he says. As for the Florida Straits Children's Water Ballet, Terry adds, "We said no because we didn't want to get shot." Wanna risk rejection yourself? Call 305445-1965, "the number for sick ideas," according to Terry.

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Chuck Strouse is the former editor in chief of Miami New Times. He has shared two Pulitzer Prizes and won dozens of other awards. He is an honors graduate of Brown University and has worked at newspapers including the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times.
Contact: Chuck Strouse