Living in a democratic society is time-consuming. Under totalitarian regimes, no one has to spend valuable hours evaluating candidates. The deal with dictators is that they abolish voting, and as long as you don't try to depose them or say bad things about them, they don't drag you in front of a firing squad. Less time analyzing debates, more time to watch movies -- that's what The Bitch says. Still, for pure sociological phenomena value, this past week's presidential spectacle at the University of Miami was hard to beat.
Covering the event from the expansive and acoustically propitious University Center patio, The Bitch deployed her new invention, the jeer-o-meter, which produced the first scientific data of the campaign related to the UM student political psyche. This important, restless, at times brutally sarcastic electorate gathered at dozens of circular plastic tables, mobilized by free burgers, hot dogs, French fries, sodas, and bottled water. The jeer-o-meter was designed to register four types of debate responses: boos, cheers, whoops, and jeers (which can include assorted cackling and laughter).
High-volume boos were registered after the following President George W. Bush statements:
"I believe I'm going to win, because the American people know I know how to lead. I've shown the American people I know how to lead."
"The Patriot Act is vital."
Extensive jeers and rolling eye movements were recorded for these Bush incidents:
"The enemy understands a free Iraq will be a major defeat in their ideology of hatred. That's why they're fighting so vocifiercfully. "
"Of course we're after Ira --Saddam Hussein -- I mean bin Laden."
"I. Uh. [LONG PAUSE] As commander in chief. [LONG PAUSE.]"
"You cannot lead if you send mexed miss -- mixed messages."
Several male "woo-hoos" were documented upon Bush's transmission of:
"You better have a president who chases these terrorists down and brings them to justice before they hurt us again."
(Laughter minus jeers was picked up at the president's "No, what I said was that, because we achieved such a rapid victory....")
Several isolated debate-response phenomena beyond the jeer-o-meter's capabilities were noted. Sen. John Kerry's "You don't help yourself with other nations when you turn away from the global-warming treaty" resulted in one male student standing up and clapping loudly. Bush's "Saddam Hussein had no intention of disarming. Why should he?" prompted unique data emission from one male student: "He didn't have any weapons to disarm!" (Scattered laughter decibels resulted.)
Medium to heavy cheers were registered upon the following Kerry statements:
"This president has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment."
"Today we are 90 percent of the casualties and 90 percent of the cost: $200 billion -- $200 billion that could have been used for health care, for schools, for construction, for prescription drugs for seniors, and it's in Iraq."
"I think we need a president who has the credibility to bring the allies back to the table."
"Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us."
"It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong."
Bush sustained only one loud and extended cheer during the debate, after the utterance: "I'd like to thank the University of Miami." It was almost the loudest cheer of the evening, exceeded only by Kerry's "I'd like to say thank you to the University of Miami."
Before the showdown was even over, the war to control the perception of who won was underway. In the UM media center, where hundreds of journalists tapped laptops amid banks of TVs, campaign operatives distributed to-the-second ripostes. Partisans rushed around with copy-machine-warm one-pagers headlined "Breaking Debate Fact #10, Kerry's False Statement" ("John Kerry claimed he's önever, ever' used word ölying.' Fact...") or "Bush vs. Reality" ("Bush: Iraq wasn't a diversion from the War on Terror. Reality...").
But the real message-twisting work came post debate in "Spin Alley," a cyclotron of a room where highly accessible party affiliates milled about freely. At this pundit flea market, national notables such as Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove, Sen. John McCain, and Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe mingled with local politicos Bob Graham, Sen. Bill Nelson, and Reps. Kendrick Meek and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
A little after 10:30 p.m. and shortly after the debate had concluded, the on-campus set of MSNBC's Hardball turned into the political equivalent of ESPN's college football pregame show, except the role of viciously annoying loudmouth sports announcer Lee Corso was replaced by Zel Miller's favorite loudmouth political antagonist: Hardball host Chris Matthews.
Some students, along with school mascot Sebastian the Ibis decked out in a glittery Uncle Sam outfit, jockeyed to get their faces on the popular cable television news show by displaying very creative anti-Bush and anti-Kerry signs.
But mad props go to the intrepid, bespectacled dude in the green UM baseball hat and red T-shirt who held up a sign that spelled out "Poo" in white lettering on a blue background. Throughout the Hardball broadcast, whenever the camera panned to show panelist and MSNBC foreign correspondent Andrea Mitchell, there he was behind her, proudly holding up his Poo placard. The Bitch guesses he was standing up for the rights of those fixated on feces.
UM spokeswoman Margot Winick says the school welcomes all forms of free expression: "Our students are free to convey any form of political statement they want on campus and on national TV."
Too Many Dogs
Homestead resident Greg Duque was sentenced to 100 hours of community service for a boating violation four years ago. He did his time at the Miami-Dade County Animal Shelter in Medley. Duque loves animals, especially dogs; he found the experience not a punishment, but a pleasure. What he didn't like were some of the things that went on at the shelter. Duque says he complained about sick dogs -- some with communicable maladies -- being penned with healthy dogs, and shelter workers euthanizing animals without even trying to contact owners. He complained about the state of things at the shelter, and says he irritated some of the managers and a few co-workers (Duque can talk a blue streak, expounding ad nauseam on the shelter's deficiencies).
In September a Humane Society of the United States report commissioned by the county verified many of Duque's claims. Unfortunately for Duque, who hasn't worked as a bricklayer since a car accident left him with severe back injuries in 2000, the added cred doesn't change the fact that his nine dogs fell into the hands of that very same animal shelter. "I was keeping my dogs on a vacant lot in the Redlands, but the lady who let me keep them there was having some problems with me," says Duque. "I was trying to find a new place for the dogs when she called animal services and they came and took them." Duque, who relies on disability payments, got six of the dogs out, paying $290 of the $500 total, and tried to round up some cash for the rest. "We kept arguing, and they were telling me that I shouldn't have all these dogs if I don't have the money for them or a place to keep them," Duque recounts. "But I'm getting a place where I can keep the dogs, and by law, those dogs are mine. " After a couple of days of wrangling, Duque finally got an appointment to pick up his remaining puppies. "When I got there they told me one of the dogs was dead, that they put him down because he was sick," Duque says. "That dog was healthy the day before." Duque's other puppy was adopted out.
Sgt. Tom Mangan of Miami-Dade County Animal Services says he sympathizes with Duque but denies doing anything untoward. "We waived hundreds of dollars in fees for these dogs, most of which didn't have any of the required paperwork or shots. We waited much longer than the allotted ten days for Mr. Duque to pick up his remaining puppies. Instead of showing up with the money he owed, or with a verifiable address, he called everyone he could think of -- Internal Affairs, a county commissioner or two, the newspapers I guess -- and came down here and started a fight with an employee. It's a shame that his puppy got sick, but he knows how this place works."
Duque, currently staying with a friend, admits he may have a few too many pets, and hopes to find "happy homes" for his animals. Anyone interested in helping him out can call 786-234-7709.
Tobacco: At Least It's Not Crack
Quitting smoking is no picnic. Just ask Keith Jones, a 34-year-old Army sergeant first class from Homestead. He found himself an unwitting participant in the new reality show, Cold Turkey on PAX TV, the upstanding Christian values channel that features such fine programming as Miracle Pets and the Billy Ray Cyrus vehicle, Doc. Jones signed up for a show with a secretive premise that the producers described as "Big Brother meets Survivor meets something."
The show's producers told Jones he would be on a show called Race for a Lifetime that would pit him against the other housemates in NASCAR racing. Jones got all psyched because he loves his NASCAR. Turns out the producers told one poor sap he'd get to be an astronaut, another that he could design his own underwear line, one lady that she would be queen of her own island. They brought this ragtag group together to live a beautiful mansion in Calabasas, California, near Anna Nicole Smith's house. Then the show's host dropped the bombshell that they were there because they were smokers and they had to quit cold turkey in an hour. If they actually did manage to never smoke again, they'd win money.
Homestead Jones stood strong. He wasn't even angry when the ruse was revealed. He'd been smoking for 22 years, and being the father of two pups, he already knew he had to quit sometime. For a month Jones lived in a teeny bedroom with five guys. They slept on bunk beds that weren't long enough. Their room reeked of beer and dirty clothes.
"It was worse than the army barracks," Jones grumbled. "At least there I'm in charge." The contestants were under constant surveillance, and their every whim was catered to by an unseen staff they referred to as "the people in the walls."
"You could literally just say, "God, I could use a beer," and a beer would show up. Or like ... God, I could use a ... "
"Pack of cigarettes?" The Bitch helpfully offered. Jones didn't chuckle.
"Look, cigarettes are like crack. I've been in the army, I've been all over the world, I've done the most crazy, stupid things you could ever imagine in your life, and one of the hardest things I've ever done is attempt to put those cigarettes down. I'm not making excuses for it, 'cause if you smoke you should want to quit. But when you smell it, you want one. When a cigarette's burning, it's the best smell in the world. It's just so weird." Of course then, The Bitch had to ask him one question: "So, are you still smoking, you junkie?" Coyly, Jones laughed and replied, "You'll just have to watch the show to find out."
The Area 51 in Section 8 Carrie Mosley qualified for federal funds in 2002 that would help her purchase a home from affordable-housing developer Jerry Flick (whose battles with the Miami-Dade Housing Agency are chronicled in "House of Horrors," New Times, May 27, 2004).
Only one thing stands between Mosley and a new single-family home for her and her ten-year-old foster son: a piece of paper. Specifically a piece of paper indicating that her Section 8 voucher has been transferred from the City of Miami to the county's Section 8 program. (Mosley currently resides in a Liberty City housing project.)
Mosley applied for the transfer three months ago, thinking she was getting things done early. But after weeks of unreturned phone calls and being directed from bureaucrat to bureaucrat, she may well lose her chance at the home because some paper pusher dropped the ball. "I kept calling people at the city, and no one would call me back," Mosely says. "Finally a woman named Marisol called and said the paperwork was almost ready, but it wasn't. Her voicemail is always full and when I finally got ahold of her again, she told me the county was the problem. She said to talk to Mr. Bill Pupo."
Pupo, a supervisor with the city's Section 8 program, was surprised to hear from The Bitch. "I have nothing to do with the transfer process, so whoever is telling you that is trying to cover up their own mistakes. I can tell you that the transfer process takes at least a month. I feel very bad for the people who are stuck in that process. I do what I can, but I am just a tiny cog in the machine. "
After expounding on his existential dilemma, Pupo referred The Bitch to Herve Moises, the county employee who actually does supervise the transfer of Section 8 vouchers like Mosley's. "As of right now, we don't have any documents on her," Moises says. "We can't do anything until the city sends us her information, so we are not the holdup. Someone at the city is trying to blame their mistakes on us. I can tell you that once we get her paperwork she will have to make an appointment, but we only have appointments on Thursdays and Fridays, and we only have two case workers who handle them."
Meanwhile, Flick is fuming. "These people never answer their phones, the voicemail is always full, and now I'm running into a situation where I can't just hold on to the house indefinitely," he says. "I've done everything I can to try to get this woman into this house, but if she can't buy it, I'll have to sell to someone else to pay my bills."
Marisol, the city employee who told Flick and Mosely that the county was holding up the process, did not return a phone message. Further attempts to contact her met with a full voicemail box.
Card Caper Canceled
Detectives Yolanda Lombrage and David Colon of the Miami-Dade Police Economic Crimes Bureau swung into action one day last month on their biggest credit card caper in memory. They didn't have to go far. Lombrage and Colon are two-fifths of the bureau's North Credit Card Squad -- based at 7925 NW 12th Street, Suite 301 in Doral -- and are charged with cabashing credit card criminals operating north of Flagler Street. (Those plying their fraudulent trade south of Flagler have to contend with MDPD's South Credit Card Squad.) After gathering on September 17 with several agents from the Federal Trade Commission at the economic crime bureau's office, they walked across the hall and knocked on the door of Suite 318. Inside telemarketers were standing by for calls from credit-starved immigrants, lured by commercials on Univision and Telemundo stations across the United States. All you had to do was send a money order for $299, and soon a credit card supposedly as good as a MasterCard or Visa was on its way. They arrived with any number of names, including Advantage Platinum Card, La Familia Gold Card, Stored Value MasterCard, Pro Line Card, Latin Card Plus, Premier Card Plus, and Kapital Card Plus.
"We don't ask nothing about the person -- where they work, how much they are making in the payroll," Carlos Mendez, a Pro Line manager, told the East Bay Express this past August, before the busts. The Emeryville, CA-based weekly (a part of the New Times chain) started investigating Mendez and his cohorts, in response to complaints from people who discovered their new credit cards were about as handy as a purse-snatcher. The only place a Pro Line Card was accepted, for example, was on a Pro Line Card Web site offering merchandise such as computers, televisions, CD players, watches, and drum sets at grossly inflated prices and ludicrous shipping charges.
Lombrage and Colon encountered no resistance as they served their soon-to-be ex-neighbors across the hall a document ordering them to cease operations, and turn over computers and financial records. Then they were off to Suite 407, one floor up, where a similar racket was abuzz.
Next stop: a five-story building about twenty blocks north at 3401 NW 82nd Avenue. By the time they arrived, however, telemarketers and managers had split from a large ground floor office. Lombrage says they left the telephones and terminals, but took the server. "The security guards said everyone just ran out of there," Lombrage recounts.
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Over the next two weeks, the detectives and FTC agents closed down three more phone banks in the Doral area. They served restraining orders to several defendants instructing them to cease operations and fill out forms detailing their financial assets, real estate holdings, and other possessions such as automobiles.
One of the FTC's lead investigators on the case is Lew Freeman, a private Coconut Grove-based forensic accountant with much experience in federal fraud cases. Freeman says the scam started sometime in 2003 with the establishment of several companies, including Call Center Express and Pro Line Card LLC. Most of the eleven defendants named thus far are Guatemalan. They include: Edgar Alirio Gonzalez and Pablo Jose Martinez (Call Center Express, Inc.); Carlos Felipe Mendez and Julio Cesar Sandoval (Pro Line Card, LLC, among others). Lombrage says the owners of Abreu Advertsing, Liens and Rafael Abreu, who helped make and advertise the cards, are Cuban-Americans. Freeman notes that another defendant, a 33-year-old former bank executive named Jose Armando Llort, is a fugitive from Guatemala, where he is charged with embezzling several million dollars from the Banco de Credito Hipotecario Nacional.
Investigators believe the seven operations closed down thus far were bringing in $600,000 per month. But they suspect there are other "franchises" out there. "I think we got the tip of the iceberg," Freeman surmises.
A criminal case could ensue, if the U.S. or state attorneys decide to get involved. Thus far, it remains a civil matter to be waged with restraining orders, the result of a series of FTC complaints against the defendants, citing federal laws regarding telemarketing and consumer fraud. Pending the outcome, a court-appointed receiver (Freeman, in this case) takes control of all of the defendants' assets he can get his hands on. As of last week, they included computers, telephones, office furniture, some of the merchandise once available on the credit card Web sites, and about $80,000 from one of Call Center Express's bank accounts. In a report to the FTC, Freeman says he has identified eight banks the defendants used. Several of those accounts have "a preponderance of over-drafted balances," he notes. Which means a lot of the money has probably departed these shores. Perhaps some of the defendants have, too. Lombrage was going to deliver restraining orders to Sandoval and the Abreus, but says she hasn't been able to locate them. --Kirk Nielsen