See the World, One Couch at a Time

See the World, One Couch at a Time
Filed under: Flotsam

Want to cross oceans, continents, and cultures, but lack the necessary scratch for a room in a sleazy hostel, let alone a tony hotel? Thousands of financially challenged would-be voyagers have found a way.

Enter the Couchsurfing Project: an Internet-based community with more than 208,000 users from 216 nations that connects travelers with spare futons and inflatable mattresses around the globe — for free.

It's the brainchild of Casey Fenton, a New Hampshire boy who e-mailed hundreds of students in Iceland in 1999, asking for a place to crash, and was inundated with offers of couches and friendship.

The project has attracted crashers from Singapore to San Jose to South Africa to Scotland, each of whom offers a couch to a complete stranger.

John Gustavsen, a 27-year-old University of Miami Ph.D. student, joined recently after reading an article about Couchsurfing online. "It was totally self-serving," he says. "I was planning on taking a trip to Oslo, and I was looking for ways to make my trip cost less."

Within two weeks, he received more than twenty requests to sleep on his three-seater sofa in South Miami. "I let this German girl stay," he says. "I didn't want to start out with a bunch of dudes who could beat me in my sleep."

The experience was so positive Gustavsen has since hosted three other surfers at his studio apartment. According to, just 0.2 percent of surfers have reported negative experiences. To reduce the risk of uncouchmanlike behavior, users are alerted via e-mail to unscrupulous surfers, such as one who allegedly stole two of his guests' credit cards and wrote bad checks to the tune of several thousand dollars.

"All the people I've met have been great," says Gustavsen, "though I'm not sure I'd do it if I was a girl." — Joanne Green

The Witch Strikes Back
Filed under: News

Six months have elapsed since County Commissioner Natacha Seijas survived a recall vote. But that hasn't stopped public corruption investigators from hounding the people involved in the political action committee that targeted her.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office and the Miami-Dade Police public corruption unit are probing allegations that Citizens for Positive Change submitted fraudulent signatures on the Seijas recall petition. Detectives have interviewed everyone involved in the recall drive, from the paid circulators to the volunteers who collected signatures.

Prosecutors subpoenaed McHenry "Hank" Hamilton, the PAC's treasurer, to turn over all of the group's documents. "They've asked for just about everything we ever produced," including things unrelated to signature gathering, such as bank statements, canceled checks, and the PAC's contact list, says Hamilton. "This is all politically motivated," the Kendall-based accountant asserts.

The investigation was initiated by Seijas. State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle referred comment to public corruption division chief Joe Centorino, who denied Hamilton's charge. "There is a legal basis for this investigation," Centorino said, noting complaints from people who insist they did not sign the petition. "Should we ignore that?"

Centorino denies Seijas has a direct pipeline to his office, noting it has investigated the county commissioner several times, most recently in 2003 after Seijas had threatened to take out former colleague Gwen Margolis "in a body bag" at the conclusion of a marathon budget hearing in 2002. "She issued Margolis a written apology after our investigation," Centorino said. "She is treated like anyone else."

Of course, Seijas was cleared of any wrongdoing. — Francisco Alvarado

Sweetwater Power Struggle Ends with a Whimper
Filed under: News

Manuel Marono's fight to defend his seat as mayor of Sweetwater came to an end this past Friday. He'd won the election three days before, by a scant 95 votes, but the battle was not over.

Marono's opponent — former Sweetwater cop Marcos Villanueva — and his supporters waged a ruthless door-to-door campaign to get registered voters to sign up for absentee ballots. Villanueva had not worked for ten weeks, instead spending his time circulating Spanish-language flyers accusing Marono of wide-scale corruption.

After the votes were counted, Villanueva could not believe he'd lost. He claimed to have taken affidavits from 175 voters who had mailed in their ballots and not had their votes counted. He demanded to see the ballots.

Wild allegations flew like rotten tomatoes at a crummy renaissance fair. The Miami-Dade County Public Corruption Unit responded to a call from Edgar Diaz, an unemployed former Sweetwater cop, who told officers the mayor had publicly vowed to prevent him from working as a police officer anywhere in the county because he believed Diaz had disrespected his mother on election day. Marono denies ever addressing Diaz. "I was talking to someone else," the mayor said.

This past Friday, in the city commission chambers, Villanueva stood before the city clerk and her assistant as they unsealed the ballots. The city attorney loomed in the background; a court reporter filmed the counting of each vote. Marono entered the room briefly, harrumphed, and left.

In the end, Villanueva was still a handful short. "It's over," he conceded, laughing affably. Despite his good spirits, he seemed not to know what to do that day. "Submit an application to Publix, I guess," he said.

In the past couple of weeks, his car had stopped running, his company had gone out of business, and he had sunk into debt. "Ah well," Villanueva shrugged, climbing into his lawyer's son's faded blue minivan. "I've got a hell of a resumé, and I'm charming as all hell." — Calvin Godfrey

Ript from the Blogs
Who Are We? What Do We Want?
We have been compelled to organize due to our frustration at the irresponsible priorities and political elitism represented by the fate of Virginia Key and Vizcaya (condos at Mercy Hospital), as well as the weak oversight of tax money benefiting the three museums in Bicentennial Park. The takeover of park space is wrong.
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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.
Calvin Godfrey
Joanne Green