Small Town, Big Hell

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But some conduct defies legislation. Today's scuttlebutt has it that one investigation is focused on misappropriation of funds at the Mildred and Claude Pepper Senior Center. (Grocery bills for food for the elderly are alleged to include dog food and kitty litter.) More often than not complaints made to the State Attorney's Office come from Mayor Bango, who admits talking to Centorino as often as once a week during election time. Most of the matters concern procedural issues that are not prosecutable and Centorino can do little but listen.

He is not the only one to be dragged into Sweetwater politics. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement also regularly receives complaints about events in the city. A recent anonymous written tip alleges voter fraud taking shape this election. The letter suggests the Marono complaint is a clever diversionary tactic to obscure a much greater crime.

"The City of Sweetwater is involved in what will possibly be the biggest voter-fraud scandal in the history of [Miami-] Dade County. Mayor Gloria Bango has carefully orchestrated the act and positioned certain key players to carry out her misdeeds," the tipster reports dramatically. Showing a sense of hyperbole typical in Sweetwater the writer ends: "These days Sweetwater is equal to, if not worse, than any communist country!"

Bango, not averse to an occasional conspiracy theory herself (she usually begins, "I don't have proof but ..."), just shrugs and takes a drag of her cigarette. "After all the investigations we have had in the past four years, and we never got caught? We must be really good," she says sarcastically.

Complaining to state authorities is just one tactic. Periodically throughout the years city hall has been flooded with anonymous faxes, with satirical drawings of the mayor and council members, or just plain unsubstantiated accusations of wrongdoing. Then there are the newspapers that proliferate during campaigns to feed off free-spending candidates.

One such local paper is La Vanguardia, put out by Luis Pino, an avowed enemy of Bango. For only $250 Diaz got a back-cover advertisement, and a smaller one inside. In a recent issue, a Pino editorial blames Bango for raising taxes and the salaries of city employees. "Mr. Pino is saying the truth about matters," Diaz asserts. "If the truth hurts, let it hurt."

Pino is no stranger to the nasty turns Sweetwater politics can take. During a failed campaign for mayor in 1995, someone distributed an unsigned flyer detailing how in 1984 Pino had been charged for cocaine possession, gambling, and disorderly conduct. (Pino received a one-year probation on the cocaine charge; no action was taken on the others.) Pino, a tall man who can be ill-tempered, is still visibly upset by the flyer. "When I write something in my paper it is under my own name, not behind [my] back," he shouted when confronted recently with the circular. "That's what they use in this town. I am a 65-year-old guy. Don't try to do any Mickey Mouse [on me]. This is a fucking dirty business. They have to fight clean like a boxing fight. You tell this man who did this to come here himself."

La Politica Comica also took a bite. The free humorous newspaper has a wide distribution throughout the county and is published by former radio commentator Alberto Gonzalez. In the April 18 issue, Sweetwater plays prominently. A crudely doctored photograph of Bango and the council dressed as Twenties-style high rollers is printed on the cover. An inside article touches on yet another Sweetwater scandal, this time involving the city hall kitchen.

The piece, signed with a fictitious name, ends: "Let's vote so that peace reigns in Kosovo ... pardon, in Sweetwater and that the Mayor Milosevic ... pardon, the President Bango ... no, no, the President Milosevic ... well, whatever, that everything ends in peace in this 'small town, big hell.'"

The issue carries two advertisements of equal size, one for Diaz, and the other for dark-horse mayoral candidate Evaristo "Ever" Marina. The two men's campaign financial-disclosure forms reveal that Diaz paid Gonzalez $500 and Marina gave the publisher $1000.

Bango says she could take out an advertisement with Gonzalez but won't. "I am not going to pay for his silence," she says. "You are going to have to die talking to me -- that's integrity. You can call me old and fat but I have integrity."

For many in the city, though, it's the lawsuits that prompt the most disgust. Bango and Diaz first sparred in the courts in 1991 and their last case ended in 1997. The legal feud may have hit its lowest point in an incident now referred to as the "don't call me Pepe" motion.

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Jacob Bernstein
Contact: Jacob Bernstein

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