The arrest last week of Miami Commissioner Art Teele on assault charges following a wild car chase brought to a climactic close one more scene in the drama that has become his life. The saga began more than a year ago with state and federal agents launching corruption probes into allegations that he illicitly received hundreds of thousands of dollars as chairman of the city's Community Redevelopment Agency.
Teele, ever the actor, has used the car-chase incident to take center stage in a sideshow of his own making. It's playing well in his mostly black District 5, which stretches from Overtown to Liberty City. In this role, Teele has cast himself as the virtuous husband protecting his wife from an unknown "young, virile, handsome man" who was suspiciously following her. The suspect turned out to be a black Miami-Dade cop in an unmarked car.
The public-corruption detective, according to Teele, was just a bit player in a much larger piece of stagecraft in which he is the victim of a widespread plot to nullify his power by removing him from office. The conspiratorial web stretches from Miami City Hall to the State Attorney's Office to One Herald Plaza (home of the Miami Herald), and involves Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, manager Joe Arriola, a cadre of wealthy white real estate developers, Herald executive editor Tom Fiedler, and State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.
What could the 58-year-old lawyer have done to provoke such collusion? Nothing less than single-handedly obstruct Miami's unprecedented, billion-dollar development boom. As an example, just look at the proposed Crosswinds project, which envisions luxury high-rises in dirt-poor Overtown. The mayor's office and the developers appraised the land, which lies within the purview of the Community Redevelopment Agency, at $9.5 million. Teele detected a land grab, and so as CRA chairman commissioned his own appraisal, which valued the property between $15 million and $24 million. "This is the biggest giveaway since Julia Tuttle gave land to Henry Flagler," he says. "The difference is Julia Tuttle owned the land she gave."
Developers all over town also want his scalp because he's capable of scuttling plans by Arriola and Diaz to sell city-owned land on Virginia Key and in Little Haiti, Allapattah, and Coconut Grove. He says they're engaged in an "all-consuming effort" to develop public land. "Everything the city has is for sale right now," he exclaims. "Whether it be Dinner Key, the marine stadium, an abandoned park in Little Haiti, an abandoned park in Allapattah, an abandoned park in Coconut Grove -- it's for sale. It's not for redevelopment or for reuse as a park. It's for sale. And all you have to do is be connected to the right people."
As for the mechanics of the conspiracy to oust him, "Arriola is a pimp in this whole thing," Teele explains, "and Manny Diaz and Tom Fiedler are sitting back there orchestrating the strategy." Diaz is the "puppet master," while Fiedler hits Teele with investigative articles. Why? Because Teele also threatens the downtown real estate interests of Knight Ridder, owner of the Herald. Rundle, vulnerable in an election year, cooperates by pushing her corruption probe.
"These guys will do anything they can to get me out of the way," Teele says. "There are some huge deals they want to get done, and I'm the only person on the commission who understands them or gives a damn."
The criminal investigation into Teele and the CRA intensified six weeks ago with the arrest of Jacques Evens Thermilus. The 46-year-old businessman was among eleven individuals busted in a multimillion-dollar theft ring at Miami International Airport's fuel depot. A source at the State Attorney's Office says Thermilus has already struck a deal with prosecutors, pleading guilty in the MIA case and now cooperating in the Teele investigation.
A Broward resident, Thermilus is a principal in numerous corporations registered with the Florida Secretary of State. One of those companies is TLMC Enterprises Inc., which won a CRA contract in 2001 to build four parking lots in Overtown. The contract ballooned to more than twice its original $420,000 value after TLMC repeatedly and successfully sought more money from the agency. Aside from voting to approve the contract, Teele maintains he played no role in hiring TLMC and that he did not get along with Thermilus. "Everyone knows that I was bitterly disappointed with their quality of work," Teele says.
Thermilus won the lucrative contract at a time when two of his former employees, Robert Tyler and Brian Hankerson, held key positions at the CRA. According to state records, both men were corporate officers in several of Thermilus's now-defunct companies. (Thermilus, Tyler, and Hankerson have donated heavily to Teele's past election campaigns.)
Hankerson and Thermilus were also partners in crime. In June 2001 they pleaded guilty to one felony count of organized fraud. Several years earlier the two had "unlawfully and knowingly" underreported the payroll of Thermilus's Urban Constructors Inc. to his insurer in a scheme to lower his insurance premiums. Both received probation (Thermilus three years, Hankerson ten) and were ordered to pay more than $100,000 in restitution to the insurance company.
After leaving Urban Constructors, Hankerson worked for ten months as the CRA's comptroller, until his March 2001 arrest on the fraud charge. According to CRA personnel records, Hankerson was laid off not because he'd been charged with a felony but because his position was being eliminated. Two months after his conviction, Hankerson was rehired by the agency on a part-time basis and worked there until June 2002.
Robert Tyler, who worked as Urban Constructors' vice president but wasn't charged in the insurance scam, left Thermilus's company and joined the CRA as operations director, a position he held from January 2000 to January 2001.
Apparently Thermilus wasn't fazed by his felony conviction. Just two years after completing probation, he was arrested in the MIA conspiracy. According to his arrest warrant, Thermilus bribed a county aviation official with a 32-inch television set in exchange for her signing off on his fraudulent invoices. Prosecutors say he also kicked back some $70,000 to Antonio Junior, a lobbyist and businessman with several county contracts who was also charged in the airport case. Junior, a former Miami-Dade Housing Finance Authority employee, has long been a confidant of county commission chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler.
(Neither Thermilus nor his attorney returned phone calls seeking comment.)
Thermilus may or may not be the key to breaking open the Teele/CRA investigation, but the more immediate question is this: Will Gov. Jeb Bush remove Teele from office, even temporarily? Unless and until that happens, no one close to the action at city hall is willing to go on record speculating about the fallout for Teele or the identity of a potential successor.
That's not to say people are sitting idle. Within hours of Teele's arrest, a number of opportunists began calling city commissioners and the mayor's office to recommend a successor. (The commission would be responsible for appointing a replacement.) "The body is still warm and the buzzards are circling," remarks one city hall insider. "We're getting bombarded with calls."
One of those buzzards is the outspoken and influential Bishop Victor T. Curry of New Birth Baptist Church and its radio station WMBM-AM (1490). Several city hall sources reported receiving calls from Curry, or on his behalf. Teele acknowledges he's heard "all kinds of rumors" about people jockeying to fill his seat, although Curry wasn't among them. "I think Victor is smart enough not to get used like that by Manny Diaz," he scoffs.
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Haitian-American leaders, reportedly including Ringo Cayard and Gepsie Metellus, also have been advocating for one of their own fill the seat. Other names that have ground through the rumor mill include Rev. Richard Dunn (a previous commission appointee), Barbara Carey-Shuler aide Ronda Vangates, attorney Val Screen, school district bureaucrat Pierre Rutledge, and attorney Thomasina Williams. One limiting factor is the legal requirement that any potential appointee must have lived in Teele's District 5 for a year and be registered to vote there. That would disqualify a number of interested parties.
Ultimately the critical decision would be made by commissioners Johnny Winton, Joe Sanchez, and Angel Gonzalez, each of whom would be influenced by Mayor Diaz. Commissioner Tomas Regalado, a frequent Teele collaborator and Diaz opponent, may effectively be frozen out of the decision. In fact Regalado says he'd reappoint Teele to his own seat if he could. "I don't think four white guys -- three Cubans and an Anglo -- are capable of choosing the representative of an African-American district," he says. "To me, it's too arrogant."
Most of this speculation is occurring quietly as people wait to see whether this new bullet will bounce off Teele and only make him stronger, as has happened so many times before. In the meantime, Teele has set up damage control HQ at Soyka restaurant, where he met with New Times Sunday. He was also spotted there Monday with Ron Silver, former dean of the state Senate and currently a lobbyist who has the governor's ear.
On the issue of Teele's suspension, however, Bush's office has been mum. Teele himself, a Republican, is instructing his attorney to make the argument that the governor can't suspend him until he's been indicted, that a simple arrest is not justification enough. "Particularly," Teele says, "under the bizarre situation we have here."