Style: 10, Substance: 0

Whenever Paul Philip's name is mentioned, I recall the scene earlier this year in front of the Miami Beach houseboat where Andrew Cunanan killed himself. Metro-Dade police raided the floating home just before dusk and found Cunanan's body in one of the upstairs bedrooms. A communications snafu initially caused Miami Beach authorities to report that no one had been found onboard. But as night fell and more and more high-ranking law enforcement officials arrived on the scene, it was apparent that Gianni Versace's killer had indeed been found. County Mayor Alex Penelas flew in by helicopter to guarantee that at least part of the spotlight would fall on him during this worldwide photo op.

One figure stood out -- a tall, handsome black man dressed in a tuxedo. No one explained to the media throngs why the local head of the FBI had arrived in formal wear (he scurried over from the opera?), but his natty attire added a touch of class to an otherwise sordid affair, lent it a dash of panache. As far as the rest of the world knew, Miami had become so cosmopolitan and sophisticated that our major crime scenes were now black-tie affairs.

Paul Philip looked good as he mingled on the VIP side of the yellow police tape. At that point it didn't really matter what a poor job the FBI had done in tracking Cunanan over the months, or whether the bureau should have been more aggressive in warning people in South Florida about the threat he posed. Despite the criticism that had already been leveled at the FBI, when Cunanan's death was finally announced Philip exuded an urbane confidence and professionalism.

How much is an image like that worth? We now know: $99,500 per year.
This coming Monday Philip starts his new job as a "special adviser" to Alex Penelas. After 24 years with the FBI, he announced his retirement so he could go to work for a county government he has devoted considerable time and resources to investigating. A press release distributed by the mayor's office explains that Philip will advise Penelas on ways to "curb allegations of corruption and mismanagement."

Surely that was just a poorly worded press release. Obviously the priority isn't to "curb the allegations" but rather to stop the corruption itself. Then again, maybe it was some sort of Freudian slip by the mayor's staff. Penelas's entire fifteen-month tenure as county mayor, after all, has been the very embodiment of style over substance, perception over reality. Indeed the decision to hire Philip is perfectly in keeping with that preoccupation about image.

FBI man Paul Philip is just window dressing. When he reports to work next week, he will have about the same powers as a shopping-mall security guard. Under the county charter, he is forbidden to issue orders to the Metro-Dade police chief or any officer in the department. For that matter, Philip will be barred from giving orders to any county employee, be it department head or part-time sanitation worker. The only person who can legally do that is the county manager. And if Philip tries to subvert this chain of command, he will place Penelas in a perilous situation similar to that faced by Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez in his confrontation with the State Attorney's Office.

Penelas claims that Philip will conduct "internal investigations" for the mayor's office. Good luck. Philip can't compel anyone to answer his questions. He no longer has the U. S. Attorney's Office behind him to issue subpoenas, and he can't count on the vast resources of the Justice Department for support. He's more like one of those cut-out cops you sometimes see propped up by the side of the road. From a distance, he appears to be real, so you slow down. But soon you see he's just a cardboard fake and you're back up to 85.

Certainly Philip must realize that the next time he opens his mouth in public, his words will no longer resonate with rock-solid authority. Everything he does and everything he says will now be suspect. He has crossed the line. He is now a political hire, a petty bureaucrat.

In short, he has gone from G-man to Yes-man.
If Philip himself doubts this is true, let him begin to "investigate" the cronies and influence peddlers who camp out each day in the mayor's office. Let him prepare a report on all the lobbyists who use their close ties to the mayor as an inducement to new clients. Let him look into how Penelas's own father-in-law happened to get a county job at the airport. Anyone want to bet how far he gets before he's taken aside and reminded that he serves at the pleasure of the mayor?

Philip isn't there to do anything except make Penelas look good. The mayor has bought Philip's reputation, and he will wear it like a new coat for the public to admire. Too bad the lawman didn't take a closer look at the buyer.

Apart from showing up for press conferences at plane crashes and crime scenes, what has Penelas accomplished during his first full year in office? One thing I could determine: He has shown an uncanny knack for disappearing whenever the county faces a truly serious issue. When the fight for a gay rights ordinance was in full battle, for instance, Penelas was nowhere to be found.

And what about the Peggi McKinley fiasco? When her comments about Cuba prompted the county commission to remove her from the film advisory board, which then sparked a volatile debate over the First Amendment, Penelas once again vanished. He finally had to be shamed into making a public statement by the Miami Herald, which ran a story about his disappearing act under the headline "Debate Rages Over Cuba Ban, But Penelas Absent From Fray."

Penelas's most telling comment of the past year came just a few weeks ago, in response to the county's being under fire for not doing more to assist a program designed to ease people from welfare to work. Some had argued that the program was doomed to fail, but Penelas disagreed. "I don't feel that way at all," he declared. "I would be distancing myself from it quicker than you can blink if that were the case." Alas, a statement like that is more clear evidence that Penelas isn't guided by principle but by ambition. Perhaps his title should be Miami-Dade County Interim Mayor Alex Penelas -- at least that would accurately reflect his cynical approach to the job. The man will do only those things that make him look good and further his dreams of higher office.

Though Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez has recently been capturing headlines for his headstrong and, as Governor Chiles put it, "bizarre" behavior, I'm not sure which is more dangerous: Suarez's ego or Penelas's ambition. Egomaniacs don't care how others perceive them because they know they are always right. And so they plow ahead doing idiotic things like trying to fire the police chief and playing musical chairs with city managers.

Those blinded by political ambition have only the narrowest of vision; their sole concern is how they are perceived by others. And so every decision is driven by a desire to play well for the cameras.

Suarez can't help being egomaniacal. Penelas's ambition, however, is a cold and calculating thing.

This side of Penelas was evident when in November he publicly called on the county manager to fire Anthony Clemente, director of the county's water and sewer department. Given the scandals arising from his department's paving contracts with Church & Tower, it was obvious to many at county hall that Clemente was going to have to shoulder the blame. County Manager Armando Vidal had ordered an audit of the water and sewer department. Armed with the results, he intended to sit down with Clemente and discuss his future.

But before the audit was completed and before Vidal and Clemente could meet, Penelas decided the best way to advance himself was to embarrass a man who had served the county for 25 years and demand his resignation.

In a memo to commissioners dated November 21, Penelas wrote, "I am also recommending that the county manager immediately take the appropriate disciplinary action with regard to those county employees responsible for the mismanagement of contract W-755. These actions should include seeking the resignation of the department director, Anthony Clemente."

That raised an intriguing question. If the State Attorney's Office was willing to go after Xavier Suarez for demanding the resignations of the police chief and other department heads, why didn't Penelas's directive to Vidal -- fire Clemente -- qualify as a violation of the county charter? Section 3.05 of the charter states, "Neither the mayor nor any commissioner shall direct or request the appointment of any person to, or his or her removal from, office by the manager or any of the manager's subordinates.... Any willful violation of the provisions of this section by the mayor or any commissioner shall be grounds for his or her removal from office by an action brought in the circuit court by the State Attorney of this county."

Last week the State Attorney's Office determined that Penelas had pulled up just short of a violation -- recommendations, it seems, are not orders. And with that case closed, Paul Philip may have lost an opportunity to investigate his own boss. He might not have gotten very far, but there's little doubt he would have looked good doing it.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede