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Monday, June 29, 2009
How business gets done in Miami-Dade
Three stories over the last few days illustrate some of the reasons so many people are totally fed up with South Florida politics and governance. From the Miami Herald this weekend, a tale of how influence is traded -- carefully:
The two-year corruption probe of Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones yielded no criminal charges, but it did offer a rare glimpse of influence at work behind the scenes at Miami City Hall.

Witnesses told investigators how developers hired -- and fired -- consultants to curry favor with Spence-Jones when crucial votes were on the line, records show. Spence-Jones asked a developer to hire a former campaign staffer, and tried to steer another consultant to the firm, witnesses said.

Beyond the commissioner's role, the papers spotlight how private companies try to win votes by deploying the right mix of politically-connected consultants -- while treading gingerly around lobbying laws.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office dropped its probe of the development deals last month, after investigators said they could find no evidence that Spence-Jones received any money or traded her vote for favors.

... Confounded by contradictory witnesses, the investigation unfolded like a children's game of telephone, with the whispers often leading back to one man: former City Manager Joe Arriola. In the spring of 2007, he recommended a Spence-Jones ally for a consulting job with a builder -- then called prosecutors weeks later with his suspicions of possible kickbacks.

''You know, you have no proof of this, but those are the rumors,'' Arriola told Assistant State Attorney Joe Centorino in an August 2007 interview, explaining why he came forward.

Over the course of the investigation, prosecutors chased vague rumors of payoffs and cronyism dating back to Spence-Jones' days as a City Hall staffer, the records show. Most tips were dead ends. Some leads were left unexplored.

''There were many inconsistencies -- which is code name for lies,'' said Spence-Jones attorney Richard Alayon.
So did the commissioner do anything wrong? Well, she didn't get caught doing anything wrong, so technically: no. then again, I'm sure it's not easy to get people to talk, even to prosecutors, when their bread and butter is city contracts. If you strike at the king (or queen) and miss, they're liable to apply the guillotine to your head at their next available opportunity. Financially speaking, of course ... But the overall theme of "pay for play" politics -- the all-encompassing search for government "contracts" and for financial gain, often with not a dime going to actually improve the community the money was ostensibly earmarked for, is way, way too familiar, particularly in the Black community, which is hurting like hell in Miami-Dade. You just get the feeling that's the way things are done around here, and that it will never change. That's depressing as hell, and it will also be true if the residents of that county don't stand up and start fighting for themselves, even if that means fighting their own Black "leaders." Read the rest here (pdf). If you're at all familiar with Miami politics, the names will be familiar.

The second story is about one of Commissioner Spence Jones' mentors, former Commissioner Barbara Carey Shuler, who left office a few years ago without ever being charge with a crime:
A confidant of former Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler has told prosecutors that he delivered cash payoffs to her from a prominent developer during the late 1990s, according to a newly released report.

Antonio Junior, 51, made the revelations to Miami-Dade public corruption prosecutors last fall -- too late to levy any possible criminal charges against Carey-Shuler because the statute of limitations had long run out, state attorney's office spokesman Ed Griffith said.

According to the report:

Junior, a longtime Miami International Airport businessman, admitted to repeatedly accepting cash from late developer Lowell Dunn starting in 1997, with instructions to pay Carey-Shuler for her support of Dunn's projects. Junior said he gave the commissioner much of the cash -- including part of $30,000 Dunn gave him in the restroom of a Design District restaurant.

Junior also said he funneled money to the commissioner after he landed -- with her help -- a piece of a controversial $25 million county contract to build the Martin Luther King county office building in the heart of Liberty City in 1999. The payments continued until about 2003, he said.

Junior said his payments from the MLK deal to Carey-Shuler started when she began scribbling dollar amounts on small notes. Junior said he purchased so many money orders for Carey-Shuler that postal employees knew him on sight.

Junior detailed his relationship with Carey-Shuler in interviews with assistant State Attorney Richard Scruggs and investigator Robert Fielder late last year, just before pleading guilty to his role in an unrelated racketeering scheme at MIA. Their report was recently released at the request of The Miami Herald.

Ah, the good old statute of limitations ... Read the rest of that story here. And if you care to read more about the airport case in which Junior was implicated, here's a story from the Miami New Times back in 2005.

Now, a lot of folks in the Black community in South Florida are going to dismiss both of these stories as just further evidence that the Miami Herald hates Black elected officials, and is determined to take them down, one by one (you often here that from supporters of the late Art Teele, who famously believed that the Herald was out to get him.) And Carey-Shuler remains both popular and influential in Black Miami. That too, is the way things work 'round here.

Story three is a simpler tale -- of what looks for all the world like greed, and county collusion in screwing the little guy on behalf of a rich golden goose. It's long, published recently in Aviation Week, but well worth the read. Here's a clip:

The Miami-Dade County Airport and Seaport Committee meets once a month on Thursday mornings at 9:30 a.m. Present on April 16, 2009, was attorney Willie Gary, a famed trial lawyer whose victories in the courtroom (one of which, against Disney, brought in $240 million, according to a press release) provide him with the wherewithal to travel the world in a Boeing Business Jet named "Wings of Justice II."

On this day, Gary graciously sought a few moments of the committee's time in the interest of saving them some money. "These five minutes could save years of litigation," he said, along with "millions of dollars." His press release, issued later that day, upped the ante, citing "billion-dollar litigation."

Gary told committee chairman Dorrin De Rolle and the assembled commissioners, "Nobody needs this kind of fight" by way of informing them that a fight was what they would get. He was there representing his client, "Opa-Locka Flightline . . . the only African-American owned and operated FBO in the nation." He was there because his client was "not being treated fairly, plain and simple." Gary noted that if an airport receives federal funds, the law says there can be no discrimination. "We don't come seeking special privilege, but there should be no discrimination or favoritism, and that's the case we bring today," Gary said. "We must all operate under one set of rules."

What's at stake here are a group of vendors currently leasing space at the airport, and a big, well-off company, the Adler Group, run by a wealthy real estated developer named Michael Adler, who along with his company, is a major, major Democratic Party donor. The county gave Adler's company, AA Acquisitions, a 240-acre, 70-year lease at Opa-locka airport by the county, essentially making him the new landlord. Now, Adler wants the existing tenants out, so he can do some big time development at the airport, and the article alleges AA (with the county's blessing, or at least wihtout their resistance) is using rather ... let's say creative ... tactics to force them out. Of course, the deal means big money to the county at a time of economic hardship -- big, as in hundreds of millions of dollars. It's a sad story, and one in which it's doubtful the little guys will win.

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posted by JReid @ 11:16 PM  
Monday, March 23, 2009
Don't call it a bailout: Marlins to get a practically free, publily financed stadium ... to have
My friend Tony Romano got arrested. Other than that, not much stood in the way of final approval by the Miami-Dade Commission of a $634 million baseball stadium (in a recession no less) for which the fan-free Florida Marlins will pay just $120 million minus the cost overruns the taxpayers of Miami-Dade will probably get stuck with ... oh, and they're gonna need to borrow about $35 million of their share ... from you. Hope that makes you feel less alone, AIG execs! From the Miami Herald:
The vote was 9-4.

Voting in favor of the stadium were Commissioners Dennis Moss, Bruno Barreiro, Audrey Edmonson, Natacha Seijas, Javier Souto, Barbara Jordan, Dorrin Rolle, Jose ''Pepe'' Diaz and Rebeca Sosa.

In the minority: Commissioners Carlos Gimenez, Sally Heyman, Katy Sorenson and Joe Martinez. Sorenson argued forcefully against spending public money for a private enterprise, saying trying to make changes to better the deal was like putting ``lipstick on a fish.''

Close enough.

Meanwhile, county manager George Burgess is wildly optimistic about hotel tax revenues which after all, are going to provide $300 million of the funding ... hey, stop that laughing! ... for the fabulous new venture, provided all those Canadians, Venezuelans and Brits come back for some sun and fun ... (gulp) ... like, in a hurry... So there it is. The AIG guys have to give back their fast cash, but the Lorias got you guys to buy them a new ballpark. Some people just have it...


  • If you give a rich guy a stadium

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    posted by JReid @ 10:34 PM  
    Thursday, March 19, 2009
    If you give a rich guy a stadium...
    So ... we're all pissed off (and rightly so) about the AIG Failure Bonuses, and about Vikram Pandit's "Pimp My Citigroup Remodel (complete with subzero fridge) ... and the bonuses at Merrill Lynch before they got sucked up by B of A (Keith Olbermann demolished the new robber barons in a special commentary tonight. Here 'tis:

    ... But shouldn't we as citizens be just as upset when public money is essentially SHOVELED VIA WHEELBARROW INTO THE OUTSTRETCHED ARMS OF A WEALTHY BASEBALL TEAM OWNER whose team consistently ranks as one of the worst attended in Baseball?


    So ... the Marlins stadium passed the Miami City Commission today, with Michelle Spence Jones providing the swing vote, after wrangling a bunch of concessions, including having the Marlins start a bunch of baseball academies and give $500,000 to local charities. There was also an intense lobbying effort aimed at the black community that involved the Marlins contracting with the Miami Chamber of Commerce and the NAACP to promise ... that ... the stadium ... in Little Havana ... will employ ... lots of black people ... but without actually using the words "black people..." ??? I confuse! The "no" votes were Marc Sarnoff, who has correctly pointed out to anyone who would listen that a $634 million stadium that the Marlins will control after they put in just $120 million unless the owner, Jeff Loria dies, sells the team, quits the business, or just flushes his puny share of the funding down the toilet, leaving the taxpayers holding the bag for all the inevitable overages ... okay that last part was hyperbole ... and Tomas Regalado. Joe Sanchez, Angel Gonzalez and the aforementioned Ms. Spence-Jones voted "yeah!"

    Should this be an election issue? You bet. Will it? We'll see.

    The next round of voting starts Monday at the County commission, which must also approve the deal for it to go forward.

    Play ball!

    Meanwhile, not everyone is against public funding for stadium construction. Case in point: the sports law professor. Others? Not so sanguine on the Marlins bailout.

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    posted by JReid @ 2:55 PM  
    Thursday, June 26, 2008
    Only in Miami:
    ... the brothel bus ...


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    posted by JReid @ 10:50 AM  
    Tuesday, April 22, 2008
    The politician and the preacher
    Commissioner Michelle Spence Jones (third from the right) and
    Rev. Gaston Smith (far right) at a cultural event in Miami in
    February 2006. Photo Credit: J. Perez/City of Miami

    Rev. Gaston Smith, the high-flying Miami preacher accused of stealing money from a non-profit named after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., turns on his friend and parishioner, Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones:

    In police interview, pastor says he feels used

    BY SCOTT HIAASEN [I wonder if that's Carl Hiaasen's son...]

    The Rev. Gaston Smith sat in the Miami-Dade state attorney's office last October facing a veteran prosecutor and a pair of investigators with some uncomfortable questions about one of his parishioners: Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.
    The investigators wanted to know about $8,000 in consulting fees that Smith paid Spence-Jones before she was elected in 2005. The money came from a $25,000 Miami-Dade County grant to Friends of MLK, a nonprofit organization the pastor ran.

    Under questioning, the pastor said Spence-Jones, then an aide to Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, had urged him to create the nonprofit in the first place -- and that she had helped arrange the county grant without his knowledge. Smith said he felt like he had been used.

    ''It's almost like date rape,'' Smith told investigators, according to an interview transcript. ``I've been violated.''

    The transcript was among more than 4,000 documents the state attorney's office released last week to defense lawyers for Smith, who was charged in January with stealing $10,000 in grant money for himself. The Miami Herald obtained these records under a publicrecords request.

    Smith's statements -- secretly recorded by a Miami-Dade police detective -- cast a new light on the ongoing investigation of Spence-Jones. Prosecutors and police have been examining the commissioner's finances while also pursuing allegations of influence peddling since Spence-Jones joined the commission. ...

    Note to pols: preachers don't do well in jail...

    Prosecutors would not discuss the theory of their investigation of the commissioner. The transcript of the Oct. 9 meeting shows that prosecutor Richard Scruggs told Smith, ``Either you got taken advantage of or you're a co-conspirator.''
    No theory yet? Really?

    Nearly four months later, Smith, the pastor at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City, was arrested on one count of grand theft, accused of taking $10,000 in grant money through ATM withdrawals -- including a $500 withdrawal at a Las Vegas martini bar.

    Smith's lawyer, Michael Tein, said Friday that the grant money went toward legitimate expenses. He said he believes his client was arrested in attempt to pressure him to provide more evidence against Spence-Jones -- but he insists his client has said all he knows.
    Let me stipulate to the fact that I really like Michelle Spence-Jones. She's a lovely person, and comes across as sincere, and truly interested in bettering her community. But there are so many allegations being made about her conduct, that you've got to wonder just how business is being done down in Miami. I also don't think she is the ultimate target of this investigation. It goes beyond her, and once prosecutors are finished squeezing the chubby Rev. Gasston, they're going to start squeezing her. There are other fish on that line. Let's just leave it at that.

    Blogging Black Miami is following the story too.

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    posted by JReid @ 9:25 AM  
    Monday, February 04, 2008
    Step three: call in the reinforcements
    Rev. Gaston Smith gets lots of support at "Save Our Pastor Day."

    I asked a pretty well known preacher here in town this morning, why pastors only seem to come together and bring out the community to save the prominent and the powerful -- or to save each other -- but not so often for one of us regular schmoes. He admitted that pastoring these days is kind of a ballers club, and the rest of us are just not in the league. From today's Herald:
    Inside a modest Baptist church -- beige with brown trim -- nestled amid dilapidated corner stores and low-rises at the corner of Northwest 58th Street and Seventh Avenue, a preacher known for his fiery oratory cracked a joke Sunday.

    Noting the crowd that had packed into Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, the Rev. Gaston Smith said:

    ``Maybe I should get locked up more often so we can always get a turnout like this!'' ...

    ...Smith, who has led a neighborhood revival of sorts aimed at economic growth and whose sermons are often tailored toward fighting injustice, has his own trouble with the justice system.

    Smith was arrested Thursday evening and charged with misspending a $25,000 county grant to a nonprofit he ran. The arrest is part of a continuing investigation into the financial dealings of Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.

    Police say two checks given to a company owned by Spence-Jones' family from the minister's charity, Friends of MLK, were among several payments under investigation. Spence-Jones was among the more than 1,000 parishioners, civic leaders and black clergy who attended Sunday's rally.

    ''My prayers go out to him and his family,'' she said. ``Smith and Friendship have been a beacon in this community for many years and this will pass.''

    Shaken by the thunderous applause, Smith thanked his friends for gathering on the communion Sunday.

    ''The support is overwhelming,'' he said. ...
    And next, cue the "internal investigation" -- not of the wrongdoing, but of the investigation into the wrongdoing. Herald, take it away:
    The fact that the city's sole black commissioner and now one of its most influential black ministers is under fire has stirred concern in Miami's black community.

    ... Bishop Victor T. Curry, head of the Miami-Dade NAACP, said the group is launching an investigation into Smith's arrest.
    So what happens next? We get the Black community all riled up to "fight the power" that's trying to take down yet another one of our leaders, we scream bloody murder and perhaps the authorities back down ... and there's still nothing being built in the empty lots that $25,000 was supposed to help fill, no children who are going hungry or desperately in need of tutoring get it, and the money's long gone. Nothing changes, except that we've saved another one member of the club from going down. To what end? Will anything change?

    I just finished working on a campaign in which I learned, first hand, that much of my community is for sale to the highest bidder -- including many of the pastors. How did we go from our clergy leading a mass movement for non-violent change, to our clergy hawking prosperity ministries and sticking up poor people for tithes that ultimately go into the pockets of the pastor, rather than into building the community outside and adjacent to the church's four walls?

    This isn't just an issue in the Black community -- it's a very American cancer, and its rotting us away at the core. And yet, the rot is much more lethal in the Black community, because our position is so much more precarious to begin with.

    There's something wrong with the way we're doing things in the Black community. Something very fundamentally wrong, and unfortunately, it just might start in our churches. ...


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    posted by JReid @ 10:49 PM  
    Friday, August 24, 2007
    Do the HUD shuffle
    Why is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in such a hell-fire hurrry to take over the Miami-Dade Housing Agency? The County's court fight to stop the pending federal takeover of the embattled agency sheds light on some possible reasons why. A district court judge has ordered mediation between HUD and the county over the takeover, delaying the receivership until at least September 20. (Read the judge's order here.) But the really interesting document is the detailed memo filed by the county (with the mayor and commissioners in rare agreement, along with local housing activists, who didn't file a friend of the court brief, but who probably for the first time are in line with the county...) to support their case for relief. In that memo (read it here), the county argues that HUD broke its own rules by now giving the county sufficient time to correct any violations, rather than seizing the housing agency and all of its properties. Speaking of properties, the county argues that the takeover would do irreparable harm to the county. How? Let me count the ways:

    The loss of control over a significant County department, by itself, constitutes irreparable harm that cannot possibly be repaired by money damages. This is particularly true where the County has recently spent tremendous time, money, and other resources in creating an expert management team to run and revitalize its Housing Department.

    Moreover, approximately 545 employees work in the Housing Department. If HUD is allowed to implement its final decisions, HUD will be able to abrogate the collective bargaining agreement that these employees have with the County. 19 42 U.S.C. § 1437d(j)(3)(D)(i)(V). HUD has given the County no assurances as to how these employees would be treated. In fact, Assistant Secretary Cabrera stated publicly that if HUD did fire these employees, this would be the County’s problem, not HUD’s.20 See Orlando Cabrera Interview, The Jim DeFede Show, AM 940, Aug. 9, 2006. Putting 545 County employees at risk of being fired or losing their health and retirement benefits and disregarding their collective bargaining agreements constitutes irreparable harm to the County and its employees.
    And now for the big finish:

    Furthermore, if HUD does take possession of any of the County’s assets, HUD could sell these assets, including valuable riverfront property where public housing projects sit. 42 U.S.C. § 1437d(j)(3)(D)(i)(II). HUD could build market-rate housing, and could privatize the public housing stock and/or programs. Thus, HUD would seize County assets, control them, privatize them, and the County would never regain possession or control. Clearly, this represents irreparable harm to the County and the public.
    Again, when HUD Secretary Orlando Cabrera -- formerly the chief counsel to the powerful Latin Builders Association -- appeared on our morning show (with Andre -- I was out on vacation -- ) He refused to rule out privatizing the Liberty City properties that would come under HUD's control under a receivership. He refused to do that, because he very likely plans to flip some of those valuable public properties to private control. This is a guy who in March, gave a speech about what a burden Section 8 is on the federal government. He he doesn't believe in public housing, that I can tell. But he does have his relationships, and the LBA is likely to be the chief beneficiary of this quickie takeover, if it is allowed to happen.

    In this case, I'm rooting for the county.


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    posted by JReid @ 8:19 AM  
    Thursday, June 14, 2007
    Quick take headlines: only in Miami edition
    Only in Miami, take one: the head of the city's affordable housing agency shares the wealth -- doling out lucrative housing contracts to her felonious ex-husband. That and the no-bid contracts, and all we need down here is Haliburton.

    Only in Miami, take two: the Mayor of Miami, Manny Diaz, sees no evil. I guess he figures it's just par for the course. Then again, his friends are benefiting from the largesse, and Diaz has his own history to deal with:
    Manuel C. Diaz, another Jeb Bush business associate, runs a commercial nursery with headquarters in Homestead, Florida. Manny Diaz's previous business sidekick, Charles Keating, Jr., is now sitting in a California prison. But during Keating's days at the helm of the $6 billion Lincoln Savings, Diaz became a Keating insider, confidant, and beneficiary. For example, in 1987, as federal regulators closed in on his crumbling empire, Keating instructed his attorneys to transfer a large chunk of prime Phoenix real estate to Diaz, for just $1. And right before filing for personal bankruptcy, Keating transferred his $2 million mansion on the island of Cat Cay in the Bahamas to Diaz.

    At the same time Diaz was palling around with Keating, Jeb, then serving as Florida's secretary of commerce, arranged a private meeting for Diaz with Florida's Republican governor Bob Martinez. Promptly afterward, Diaz Farms landed a lucrative, $1.72 million, state-highway-landscaping contract -- despite the fact that Diaz had little prior highway-landscaping experience. This raised howls of protest and charges of political influence-peddling from other contractors. But state officials explained that the extraordinary speed in issuing the contract had occurred because the state was anxious to spruce up 113 miles of freeway for the coming visit of the pope.

    Did Jeb know about Diaz's business association with Charles Keating? Did he have reason to believe Diaz was qualified for the Florida highway contract that he helped Diaz land? These are the kinds of detailed questions that the Florida chairman of the Bush re-election campaign refuses to answer. [Source: Mother Jones, 9/1/92]
    Only in Miami, take three: the lieutenant governor gets his blog on, deleting unflattering facts about ... the lieutenant governor.

    Only in Miami, take four: the JFK geriatrics are tied to a disappeared Iranian:
    GEORGETOWN, Guyana -- As murder mysteries here go, few are as intriguing as the execution-style killing of an Iranian Muslim cleric with links to a key suspect in the alleged JFK airport bombing plot.

    Mohamed Hassan Ibrahimi was abducted by two gunmen in April 2004. His body was found several weeks later, face down in a shallow grave. He had been shot twice in the head. His mouth was taped and his hands and feet were tied.

    The homicide made a brief splash and then turned into a cold case over the next three years -- until earlier this month, when prosecutors in New York charged three Guyanese men and one Trinidadian with plotting to bomb the city's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

    Ibrahimi was a close friend of one of the men accused, Abdul Kadir, a former opposition member of Guyana's parliament. Ibrahimi received money from Iran and changed it at a currency exchange business where another of the accused, Abdel Nur, sometimes ran errands, and where a suspected al Qaeda member and former South Florida resident wanted by the FBI, Adnan el Shukrijumah, was spotted in 2003. The business' owner was slain last month.

    Kadir, Nur and Trinidadian Kareem Ibrahiim are jailed in Trinidad pending U.S. extradition requests. The fourth man accused, Russell Defreitas, a Guyanese-born U.S. citizen, is being held in New York. Two of Kadir's sons were arrested in Guyana on Sunday on charges of illegal possession of ammunition.

    At the time of Ibrahimi's disappearance and death, Guyana's Muslim organizations were quick to deny speculation that the case was linked to international terrorism or clashes between Shiites and Sunnis. Other speculation centered on a robbery attempt gone bad or a settling of business scores.


    Acting Guyana Police Chief Henry Greene told The Miami Herald he would not speculate on who killed Ibrahimi or why.

    ''Initially, we felt it was a kidnapping. But there was no demand for a ransom,'' said Greene, who was head of criminal investigations at the time. ``We could not find a motive for the killing. Just another one of those strange killings.''

    But the slaying was certainly of importance to the Iranian government. Four Iranian police officers and Tehran's ambassador in neighboring Venezuela came to ask about the case. Even television crews from Tehran turned up in this South American nation.

    ''We don't know if it was normal practice,'' Greene said of Iran's interest. ``It looked to me like there was a national interest.'' ...

    Only in Miami, take five: Rush Limbaugh, talent on loan by the devil, winds up in the center of the hurricane ... coverage ...

    It must be the sunshine.

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    posted by JReid @ 11:00 AM  
    ReidBlog: The Obama Interview
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