They Owe It All to Odio
Miami's infamous ex-city manager hired more than 100 staffers entirely at his own discretion. Guess who's paying them.
By Robert Andrew Powell
Ramon Conte prides himself on his toughness. The Cuban exile and Bay of Pigs veteran endured 25 years in Fidel Castro's jails. After he was captured in 1961 while attempting to liberate his island homeland, revolutionaries forced him to crush stones in a quarry and till farmland like a slave. His flesh bears scars from the taunting jabs of a guard's bayonet. Before his release from prison and relocation to Miami in 1986 -- upon the intervention of Sen. Ted Kennedy -- Castro's minions failed to extract from him an oath of loyalty to the revolution.
He's not about to crack for me.
I've come here to the Brigade 2506 clubhouse in Little Havana to ask Conte a simple question: What do you do for the City of Miami? It's a question that took root almost six months ago, when the city's gross mismanagement first came to light. After FBI agents caught then-city commissioner Miller Dawkins accepting cash in exchange for his vote, and after then-city manager Cesar Odio was charged with soliciting kickbacks on a city insurance contract, a massive budget deficit was revealed. A contributing factor to the shortfall, according to Merrett Stierheim, the tourism official who agreed to step in as interim city manager while commissioners searched for a replacement, was "friends of friends" in Miami's government, i.e., people winning jobs for "reasons other than merit."
Stierheim could not have made his point more forcefully.
"There are many nonproductive employees that have been placed in jobs without a truly competitive recruitment process," he stated in his final report to the city commission. "I heard this not only from department directors as well as individual employees, but it came across loud and clear in my four meetings with approximately 1500 city employees."
Stierheim, who served for only two months, did not have time to solve the friends-of-friends problem. "I could have lost myself in that maze. There were just too many names," he told me after he returned to his post at the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. "There is absolutely no question that there were a lot of people placed in positions because of who they knew or who they were related to."
The man now at the city's helm, Ed Marquez, is aware of the problem and aspires to solve it. But he admits it's a difficult task. "The trouble with this issue is that many people get their jobs from who they know. That is the way the world works," he explains. "And everybody is telling me that this person is bad or that person is bad, and then, the next day, someone else tells me something completely different, that this person is not bad but good."
Amid this quagmire came the January 29 edition of Exito magazine. On page eleven of the Spanish-language weekly was a profile of Conte, complete with a big photo. It was a nice little story that chronicled Conte's Bay of Pigs exploits and told how he'd outwitted and outlasted his captors. I recalled as I skimmed the piece that Odio, a Cuban exile whose parents had both been political prisoners, had been a Brigade supporter. I fleetingly wondered if Conte was a city worker. Turned out he is. According to a directory of City of Miami employees that I keep on my desk, the veteran works 35 hours a week and is paid $12,000 a year. He was hired in 1987. His job title -- Personal Services IV -- gave no clue as to what services he actually provides to the city. Intrigued, I decided to find out. My seemingly simple query led me from the city's Riverside Center office building into Little Havana and back again, and eventually to the Brigade clubhouse.
I find Conte sitting at the end of a long conference table. Looking up from his newspaper, he seems confused when I pose my question:
What do you do for the City of Miami?
To secure a job with the City of Miami, it helps to have a connection.
Cesar Odio entered the bureaucracy in 1980 as an assistant city manager on the recommendation of Maurice Ferre, who was mayor at the time. Odio had worked at Maule Industries, Ferre's family business. Upon being named city manager in 1985, he approved the hiring of other Maule alums: Wally Lee, formerly Odio's boss, became an assistant city manager. Alex Martinez, a superintendent at a Maule subsidiary, landed a job in Solid Waste. "Cesar told me that this guy was a good guy and a good friend he knew from Maule," recalls Eddie Cox, the retired director of the Solid Waste department. "Quite honestly, as it turns out, Alex was a good employee."
Assistant City Manager Carlos Smith, who earns $106,000 per year, is a member of the Miami Rowing Club, as is Odio. Ari Fernandez, Solid Waste assistant director, is an Odio family friend from Havana.
"In the past seven or eight years, every person hired at the city was hired because of their last name," claims Community Development Coordinator Frank Castaneda, a high-ranking official with twenty years of city experience. "They can be competent, good employees, but even if they weren't, they'd still be hired."
Each of these people joined the City of Miami work force in one of two ways, one of them much easier than the other.
The tougher method is via civil service. To be hired in this manner, a worker must first pass a series of tests and interviews to prove his or her merit. Fort Lauderdale, which uses a similar system, posts job openings for a minimum of two weeks in the newspaper of largest circulation (the Sun-Sentinel). Applicants must then pass a drug screening, survive a criminal background probe, and pass a performance test. Only the top five candidates after testing are eligible to fill the position. Any friends-of-friends problem there? "Unless you are in the top five, it don't make a rat's ass difference who you know," Fort Lauderdale personnel director John Panoch replies.
In Miami the rules are somewhat more relaxed. When Charles Dawkins applied for a civil-service position in 1988 as an economic analyst, the job was posted for only ten days. And he didn't have to worry about cracking the top five; only two other people applied. Dawkins won the position despite, according to published reports, having nearly been fired from his previous job at the city's distributor of small-business loans for submitting inflated mileage reimbursement forms. It may be merely a coincidence that his uncle is Miller Dawkins, the former city commissioner.
Charles Dawkins's city supervisor, Frank Castaneda, tried to fire him in 1991 for forging signatures on city records, but union rules impeding the dismissal of civil servants stymied the effort. "We can't trust him to do anything," Castaneda told the Herald at the time, explaining why he had ordered Dawkins to sit at his desk and not perform any assignments. After Castaneda managed to have Dawkins transferred to the Beckham Hall homeless shelter, Dawkins filed abuse-of-power charges against him.
This past September Dawkins was transferred back to Castaneda's department, where he now earns $46,000 per year. On his second day at work, he fell in a storage room, filed a disability claim, and took four months of paid leave. He returned to work two weeks ago with a note from his chiropractor stating that he can perform only sedentary labor, and for no more than four hours a day. By Friday of that week, when he went home at 11:00 a.m., Dawkins had not yet been assigned any work.
The easier way to get one's name on the city payroll is to land an "unclassified" job. By declaring a position unclassified -- as opposed to civil service -- the city manager can hire whomever he wants, period. Angela Bellamy, head of the Department of Human Resources and the city's personnel director, signs off on the paperwork, but she doesn't check references or evaluate the candidates. "The hiring of civil servants is my responsibility," she says flatly. "The hiring of unclassified employees is his."
Cesar Odio enthusiastically exercised this responsibility, hiring scores of unclassified employees during his nearly eleven-year tenure. More than 90 of those hires are still on the work force, being paid in excess of $3.25 million annually. Altogether, 157 people serve Miami in unclassifed posts, out of a 3100-member labor pool. (Fort Lauderdale, by comparison, employs about a dozen unclassified employees, in a pool of 2100.)
Jorge Luis Hernandez is one of the City of Miami's unclassified employees. When he put in for city work in November 1995, the only experience he listed on his job application was general manager of U.S. Photos and Fingerprints, a business (since closed) owned by the wife of John Lasseville, a pollster and political consultant. The 54-year-old Hernandez didn't mention the campaign assistance he had provided to Joe Carollo, who had won a city commission seat earlier that month. Odio made Hernandez an assistant to the city manager, an unclassified position paying $70,000 per year. The hiring was reported in the Miami Herald as an attempt by Odio to curry Carollo's favor.
Much harder than hiring Hernandez was finding something for him to do. Initially assigned to the city's satellite office in Allapattah, Hernandez's voicemail message now proclaims that he provides media relations for the City Manager's Office.
He did not return a phone call from this media outlet.
Ramon Conte, according to his personnel file, was hired as a temporary employee. Temporary positions are a step below unclassified in that they pay no benefits and are supposed to be, well, temporary. According to Angela Bellamy, the hiring process for temporary employees is the same as the procedure for unclassifed staffers: completely up to the city manager.
There isn't much else inside Conte's manila personnel folder. Just an application stating that from 1959 to 1960 he was an aluminum worker in Miami, and from 1961 to 1986 he was a Cuban political prisoner. He arrived back in Miami in October 1986, and started working at the city four months later, as a "community cultural aide."
Odio personally created Conte's assignment.
"This is a new temporary part-time position at the [city-owned] Manuel Artime community center," reads the paperwork, which the city manager signed. "This position will be responsible for improving cultural and civic services and will assist in the preservation and development of archives related to Cuban history."
A second slip of paper in the file commemorates a technical change of Conte's title, in April 1988, to Personal Services IV. There is no indication of a change in duties. The file lacks even one annual performance review, the standardized form that composes the bulk of most employee records. No name is listed as Conte's supervisor.
Manuel Artime, where Conte ostensibly works, is a gathering place for Miami's Cuban community, a theater and community center housed in a massive, weathered church at 900 SW First St. The white steeple shows stains of rust and mildew; a marquee out front advertises an upcoming show: Tropical Night.
When I arrived at midday the doors to the center were not locked. The several community groups that keep one-room offices on Artime's three floors, though, appeared to be closed. A door bearing a nameplate for the National Association for Crime Prevention was locked, as was the one for an association of exile journalists. One door seemed relevant to Brigade member Ramon Conte: Room 208, Jefatura Militar Conjunta Brigada 2506. But there was no answer when I knocked.
On the main floor, behind a glass door festooned with the City of Miami logo, sat a receptionist flipping through a crowded Rolodex. Catching her eye, I asked where I could find Ramon Conte.
"He does not work here," she answered, but twirled through her Rolodex to a plain white business card embossed with Conte's name and the Brigade 2506 shield. "I think he works over at the Brigade house," she said, jotting, down the address for me on a yellow Post-It note. "I think you can find him there."
Before I headed over to the Brigade clubhouse, I put in a phone call to Christina Abrams, director of the Department of Conferences, Conventions, and Public Facilities. In addition to maintaining the Orange Bowl and the city's marinas, Abrams oversees the operation of Manuel Artime. I asked her what city work Conte performs at the community center. "I do not know who Ramon Conte is," she replied, clearly perplexed. "He is not on my budget and I do not supervise him."
Although he was interim city manager only briefly, Merrett Stierheim took a stab at the friends-of-friends problem. On September 30 he drafted a memo to his top managers ordering them to submit to him a list of all friends of friends. He distributed the memo to all nineteen department directors and assistant city managers.
Only one person replied.
Elbert Waters, director of the Department of Community Development, also oversees the city's Neighborhood Enhancement Team, a system of thirteen satellite city offices. In a memo to Stierheim dated October 4, Waters proposed downsizing the number of NET service centers to eight. He also attached an organizational chart with his suggested layoffs, including an optional layoff list of six people whom he labeled "political." All of them were unclassified Odio hirees. Though Waters also described the employees as "hard-working/asset to the dept.," he detailed for Stierheim the potential savings from their termination.
"I was pretty upset," recalls Ellie Haydock, administrator of the East Coconut Grove NET, whose name was on the list. "I felt that, fine, anybody can have an opinion. But if you have that opinion, you must be able to substantiate it." Waters has not answered Haydock's written request for an explanation, leaving her guessing as to what her political connection might be.
Allapattah NET Administrator Edward Borges's name was on the list too. "I have worked my way up from Clerk to Clerk II through testing and interviews to Zoning Inspector to NET Administrator in 1994," he harangues, speculating that his marriage to Dulce Borges, Odio's long-time assistant, is behind his inclusion. Although he's not sure if that's the case -- Waters hasn't elaborated -- Borges is not happy with the political label. "I feel it was unfair. I have been with the city for eleven years. I feel I have earned my position."
Stierheim fired none of the people on the list. Waters no longer wants to talk about it. "That list caused me a lot of grief," he says. "The list is still out there, I'm going to let it speak for itself. All I will say is that I have not recanted."
A personnel department employee was able to clarify for me that although Conte officially works at Manuel Artime, he is assigned to the Department of Community Development -- Elbert Waters's department -- which exists solely to acquire and distribute the millions of dollars in grant money the city receives each year from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The money is earmarked for social services to the poor and elderly, and for revival of blighted neighborhoods.
Basheva Wright is Waters's administrative assistant. She knows who Ramon Conte is, but not much else about him. "He doesn't work for Community Development," she told me when I stopped by her office at Riverside Center. "He works for another department. We just do the payroll. That happens all the time. You know that, don't you? That's just the way the system is." She scurried over to a file cabinet. "He does maintenance or security work somewhere, I think. I have a file for him somewhere around here." She laughed heartily. "I had to create one to cover my butt, okay?"
Fishing through a drawer, she hooked Conte's folder. "This says he works at Manuel Artime," she said. "It doesn't say who his supervisor is. But I've met him before [the supervisor]; he was a real nice young man -- er, old man. But all I know about Conte is that he comes up here every two weeks to pick up his check. He was here this morning."
Wright clacked Conte's name into her Unisys computer. The digital record did not indicate the name of his supervisor. From among a ream of papers, she produced several of Conte's time sheets: a series of sevens on each page, arranged five in a row, to equal 35-hour work weeks. Wright wasn't able to make out the signature at the bottom of the sheets, but her assistant said helpfully that it belongs to Jose Miro Torra.
Wright doesn't know it, but Torra is president of Brigade 2506. When I asked Angela Bellamy, the director of Human Resources, she told me that it is not common, but not unheard of, for a city worker to be supervised by someone who does not work for the city.
The "grief" Elbert Waters received for his clumsy approach to the friends-of-friends problem stifled other efforts to identify cronies on the payroll. To date, no other director or assistant city manager has produced a list of political appointees; most privately deride Waters for his naivete.
Progress has been made, however. Between December 1 and February 1, City Manager Ed Marquez approved the termination of 26 unclassified employment contracts, all owing to "budgetary restrictions." Among those let go was Carlos Lopez-Borges, an assistant to former commissioner Victor De Yurre who had been transferred to Solid Waste after De Yurre failed to win re-election in 1995. A few months ago, fax machines across the city churned out a photo of the 73-year-old Lopez-Borges at work, his feet up on his desk, sound asleep. He had been making $36,000 a year.
The cleaning process is a challenge, though, as Marquez will be the first to admit. Less than a week after he dropped nine unclassified employees in early December, six of those staffers addressed the city commission with complaints about how their dismissal was handled. In a follow-up letter to the city manager, Jean Dorce, one of the fired workers, pointed out that while Stierheim called for the firing of "nonproductive" employees, all of the dismissed boast solid performance evaluations.
And although Marquez's given reason for the terminations was "budgetary restrictions," the salaries of all six came via a grant that had already been awarded. "It is therefore our contention that the city's budgetary problems should not affect our employment, at least through the end of the current fiscal year," Dorce argued. (As New Times goes to press, Angela Bellamy is drafting a response to the letter.)
Dorce's grievance illustrates the murkiness of Marquez's dilemma: It is almost impossible for him to sift through the pool of city employees, separating the rumors of incompetence from the facts.
So he has left that task to his assistants.
"I am telling [my directors] that the responsibility is theirs," he says. "I can't micromanage them. I shouldn't micromanage them. If there are such unproductive political employees, get rid of them. If they are civil servants, then start the paper trail. The directors will no longer be able to say to me, 'We can't do it because of a political appointee in our department.' The responsibility is theirs. Let's go forward from here."
I have a friend who fought at the Bay of Pigs and who is an active member of the Brigade. I went to see him to ask if he knows Ramon Conte. "Of course I know Ramon Conte!" he enthused. "He's a hell of a nice guy. He works at the Brigade, writing a history. And I'll tell you something: It's a hell of a good book. A hell of a good book."
I recalled that the Exito article mentioned that Conte is assisting in the production of a Bay of Pigs documentary for Turner Entertainment and that he has unearthed photos from the invasion that no one has ever seen before. "He has a whole lot of stories and information that no one really knows about yet," my friend confirmed. "It is a good book!"
According to my friend, Conte is paid a small salary out of the Brigade's membership dues. Is it possible, I asked, that Conte is paid by the city to work for the Brigade? "No. No way. It isn't possible!" he stammered. "We pay Conte, the veterans."
And so it was that I made my way to 1821 SW Ninth St., home of Brigade 2506.
Although the Brigade 2506 clubhouse functions as a meeting place and a living memorial to the soldiers who fought in the 1961 effort to liberate Cuba from Castro, it doesn't look much different from any other well-maintained Little Havana bungalow. Orange tile roof, iron gates, imposing wooden doors. The only real giveaway that this is a clubhouse is the adjacent lot, paved for parking and protected by a chainlink fence topped with barbed wire.
Inside, beyond a model of a proposed Cuban memorial museum, are two main halls. The meeting room, in the back, is equipped with folding chairs that face a podium. Lining its walls are display cases filled with grenades, helmets, and other mementos of battle. Toward the front of the building is a library that contains dusty history books about the Brigade, as well as an imposing wooden conference table.
It is at the end of this table that Ramon Conte sits, scanning a Spanish-language newspaper. Beside him in a leather chair sits a friend, who introduces himself as Luis.
Conte told Exito how he escaped from prison on a motorcycle and took refuge in Havana at a house filled with ex-political prisoners. For two and a half years before his recapture, he made himself invisible by wearing a revolutionary police uniform -- or better yet, a mailman's uniform -- allowing him to travel incognito. Now he is wearing a purple shirt with triangles of white and small red fleurs-de-lis. He has a thick chest, and long legs that are folded beneath the table. His neatly combed gray hair sticks to his scalp, except for slight wisps around his ears. Tinted glasses shade his eyes a heavy shade of blue.
I introduce myself, and tell him why I'm here: I read the Exito profile and also noticed he works for the City of Miami. I keep my eye on Miami, I say, and I've come to inquire what exactly he does for the city.
There seems to be some confusion. "City of Miami?" Conte says. "'Do?' For City of Miami?"
I break the question down to a more basic element. "Do you work for the City of Miami?" I ask.
"No," he says, not looking up from his paper.
I ask again. He responds again.
"I don't work for the City of Miami. I work here!" he barks, poking a thick index finger onto the hardwood tabletop. Luis, who has taken pity on me for my lack of foreign-language proficiency, helps out by translating Conte's lapses into Spanish. "I work for here, for the Brigade. I don't work for the city."
Luis asks where I had heard that Conte works for Miami. Angela Bellamy, the director of personnel, I say. "Bellamy? Bellamy?" Conte parrots. "I don't know any Bellamy." When I explain her role at the city, Conte says he's unfamiliar with the bureaucracy. "Personnel department?" he spits.
I persist. "Have you ever worked for the City of Miami?" He shakes his head no. "Have you ever collected a paycheck from the city at any time?"
He looks up finally, glares at me from behind his tinted shades. "No," he deadpans.
I start to ask another question. He cuts me off. "Me? Work for Miami?" He puffs up his cheeks and blows the air out his mouth, his lips vibrating a raspberry reply. Clearly the interview is over.
Luis asks for my New Times business card. I hand him one. Conte grabs it out of his friend's hand. As I walk toward the door, mentally calculating that Conte has collected more than $100,000 from the city for, in his words, not working, he is staring at my card. His eyes canvass my name, the newspaper's address, and the number where I can be reached at any time.
Not that I expect a call back.
Several days later I return to the clubhouse to visit Conte once more. This time I've brought along copies of a few of his time sheets, which are clearly labeled "City of Miami weekly attendance records." I also bring along my friend from the Brigade to translate.
Whatever the language barrier, the message from Conte is easily understood: Repeatedly he denies ever having worked for the City of Miami.
I show him the copies of the time sheets.
"Who gave you these?" he demands.
"I got them from the City of Miami Department of Community Development. They are public records," I respond. He looks at the time sheets, at the places where his signature is scrawled below the word STAFF. He looks at the handwritten sevens that span the page, and at the signature of Jose Miro Torra. He looks at me.
"This is my own personal business!" he thunders. "No more questions."
On the way back to the office, I stop by with a question for Angela Bellamy: Who ensures that Conte actually works in exchange for his pay?
"Ultimately it would be the responsibility of the person who signs the paychecks, don't you think?" she ventures in reply. She knows full well, of course, that she is that person.
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Does Conte work for his pay? I ask.
"To be perfectly honest," she answers, "I didn't know who the man was until you mentioned his name."
There are 3100 employees still working for the city. Many, like Conte, serve in unclassified and temporary positions. And, Bellamy admits, Conte might not be the only one to have slipped through the system's cracks. "I can't say there aren't others like him out there," she sighs.
As I leave her office, Bellamy is talking to Basheva Wright about Conte's time sheets, and asking an assistant to draft a memo to the city manager explaining who Ramon Conte is, and where he can be found.
"They Owe It All to Odio," last week's story by Robert Andrew Powell about unclassified employees who work for the City of Miami, contained this question: Who ensures that city employees actually work in exchange for their pay?