Sunday, March 15, 2009
Spotlight on most corrupt cities in America: The City of Coral Gables
Coral Gables has long been Miami-Dade's grande dame, majestic with her canopied streets, historic landmarks and stately homes, imperious in her municipal rectitude.
In the past three years, however, the City Beautiful has plunged headlong into a starring role in its own tawdry reality series.
• The city manager who had a fling with the mayor's secretary and indulged in fancy steak and red-wine lunches on the taxpayers' tab, and then, when caught, tried to cover it up.
• A lawsuit-wielding, wire-wearing whistle- blower.
• Sex in the office at public works. Cocaine and ghost employees at building and zoning.
Anything else? Oh, yes: the new purchasing director who quit on her first day on the job, apparently after the whistle-blower filled her in on the juicy tidbits.
What in city founder George Merrick's name is going on at Coral Gables City Hall?
''We're not used to being in the spotlight,'' said Vice Mayor William Kerdyk. ``We've always prided ourselves on being a community that has very few issues outside of dealing with the quality of life.
``This is something totally off our scale.''
Although the waves of scandal have subsided since City Manager David Brown, faced with certain termination by the City Commission, took early retirement from his $185,000-a-year post in November, the city is struggling to ride out the backwash.
Last week, the commission named Brown's successor, former Sunrise manager Pat Salerno, amid grumbles that few A-list candidates had come forward.
And as the April 14 election approaches, two veteran commissioners, Maria Anderson and Ralph Cabrera, have drawn challengers who criticize the incumbents' oversight of the manager -- or lack of it. Anderson, who unlike Cabrera defended Brown, may be especially vulnerable.
Anderson insists that she's done discussing the former city manager. ''I know there are issues that we are going to be dealing with that may be a result of his actions, but we've had enough,'' Anderson said. ``This is over. We put a bad chapter behind us. Let's move on.''
The City Hall foibles carry a cost not just to the city's manicured image, but to the pocketbooks of its 43,000 residents, too. And there may be legal consequences for the city administrators.
Among the potentially serious repercussions: an open public-corruption probe by state prosecutors into the city's Building and Zoning Department.
The longtime building director, Margaret Pass, was put on leave in 2006 while her department was scrutinized, but continued to collect her weekly $2,346 paycheck for 56 weeks -- before she was fired in October 2007 for gross mismanagement. She is appealing.
Some city leaders place the blame squarely on Brown's shoulders.
''In all, David's blunders have cost us millions of dollars,'' said Cabrera, long a Brown critic.
Brown did not respond to several attempts to reach him for an interview.
MANAGER OF THE YEAR
Commissioners began to sour on Brown when he didn't tell them that the operators of the Country Club of Coral Gables, a city property, hadn't paid their $25,300 monthly rent in nearly a year. ''That, to me, was inexcusable,'' Kerdyk said.
Many trace Brown's downfall to an arrest on Sept. 8, 2006, at City Hall.
Jorge Reyes, assistant to Pass, the building and zoning director, was charged with theft and fraud for allegedly splitting paychecks with acquaintances-turned-ghost employees from a temp agency who never worked a single hour. Police found cocaine in his pocket. Reyes was fired for bringing drugs to the workplace before his criminal case was heard.
After Reyes was led away in handcuffs, an anonymous six-page letter was sent to the commission, police and media, detailing malfeasance in the department.
Among the allegations: that employees used a city account to buy digital cameras for their personal use; that Pass, who ran the department for 18 years, sent her subordinates, on city time, to work on her 16-acre ranch near Lake Okeechobee; that Pass routinely awarded comp time to employees who hadn't earned it and let workers leave early -- sometimes after one or two hours -- and get paid for the day; that Pass told vendors to fake invoices; and that she received a $500 Publix gift certificate from an engineering firm doing business with the city.
Reyes has said these goings-on happened with the knowledge of Brown and Pass.
Coral Gables police began to investigate, as did Miami-Dade police's public-corruption unit. The case is still open, said Coral Gables police Maj. Ed Hudak. ''It's a huge case,'' he said. ``There are boxes and boxes of documents to go through.''
Reyes, meanwhile, struck a deal with the Miami-Dade state attorney's office. He pleaded guilty to official misconduct, agreed to pay back $100,000 he got from the bogus-paycheck scheme, and was sentenced to 60 days in jail and six years of probation. In exchange for leniency, he agreed to testify.
Pass, who did not respond to requests for an interview through her attorney, is fighting her termination through the city's in-house appeals process. A hearing is scheduled for March 23.
Two days before he fired Pass on Oct. 24, 2007, Brown had lunch with Mayor Don Slesnick at Anacapri on Miracle Mile. It was one of many meals that were scrutinized after Brown's use of his city-issued credit card became an issue.
The weekly Coral Gables Gazette published a story detailing the manager's spending habits in March 2008, after a police major was disciplined by the chief of police for spending more than $600 on his city-issued Visa card for Christmas gifts to his officers.
The meals raised questions because Brown was cutting city programs due to state-mandated reductions.
Commissioners questioned Brown, who had been authorized to spend up to $10,000 a week.
The tabs included:
• A $615 bill at The Palm Restaurant in the Village of Merrick Park on Jan. 9, 2007, with the planning staff and both assistant city managers as a thank-you after a zoning-code rewrite.
• A $241 lunch at the Biltmore on Oct. 6, 2006, with Commissioner Wayne Withers and Finance Director Don Nelson. Two men ate filet mignon, one had a New York steak, and the three shared a $48 bottle of Robert Mondavi cabernet.
• A $198 dinner with Slesnick at Ruth's Chris Steak House on April 23, 2007, to discuss the commission agenda.
• A $184 dinner at the Biltmore on Jan. 9, 2008, with Deputy Fire Chief Tim Daniels, a candidate for the fire chief's job. On the menu: veal, swordfish and a $57 bottle of Clos Du Val wine.
• The next night, Jan. 10, a $178 dinner, also at the Biltmore, with Deputy Fire Chief Walter Reed, the other applicant for the job. Their menu: rack of lamb, scallops and a $51 bottle of Ferrari-Carano. (He got the job.)
It wasn't Brown's spending that led to his downfall, but the cover-up that followed.
When a Gazette columnist asked for the city manager's receipts, Brown told purchasing supervisor Danilo Benedit, who manages the city's purchasing card invoices, to stall. Brown wanted to insert in the file two backdated receipts that showed he had partially paid the city back for two meals with wine months earlier.
Benedit called Miami-Dade public-corruption detectives, already busy looking into the building and zoning mess. Benedit wore a concealed microphone to record Brown talking about holding back public documents to mislead the reporter.
In July, Brown was charged with a civil violation of state public-records laws and walked away with a $500 fine and $2,100 in investigative costs. ''I'm both relieved and appreciative that the state attorney recognized my error was not a criminal act, just a foolish one,'' Brown said at the time.
The Miami-Dade public-corruption unit, however, issued its own report in early October, concluding that Brown committed two crimes: official misconduct and falsification of public records. Brown was not charged.
The report was the final act for the commission, which pressured Brown into abruptly announcing on Oct. 14 that he would retire on Jan. 31, 2009.
On Nov. 3, a shocker: Olga Garcia, the mayor's former secretary, alleged that she and Brown, who is married to longtime Miami-Dade School Board administrator Linda Brown, had a nearly five-year affair that she ended last spring.
Garcia's allegation came in a sexual-harassment complaint she filed against Brown with the city's human resources department. Her complaint contended that Brown booted her from the mayor's office, a plum post he had given her months after the romance began, to a job in the assistant city attorney's office because she rejected his attempts to reconcile. Garcia declined to be interviewed.
''He looked me in the eye and swore it wasn't true,'' Slesnick said.
The break in trust was too much for commissioners to overlook.
''Whether or not there was sexual harassment or a relationship gone bad, obviously I was lied to, and that is something I can't accept,'' Slesnick said.
Commissioners requested a special meeting on Nov. 7 where they were prepared to fire Brown. Three hours before the meeting, Brown announced his immediate retirement.
In December, Brown got his last paycheck from the city: $178,000, after taxes, for accrued annual leave and sick time.
Before leaving, however, Brown had created a position of chief procurement officer. Benedit, the employee who called in police detectives, said he had been fulfilling that role since 2005.
In December, Benedit filed a federal civil-rights suit and a Florida whistle-blower's suit against the city, charging that, in effect, he had been demoted because of his cooperation with the police.
Benedit also claimed that Brown was retaliating for his repeated complaints about a city employee having loud sex in the public-works office next to his.
Last month, the new procurement officer -- hired from Sarasota after a national search -- quit after her first day on the $105,000-a-year job.
Among the people who talked with her while she was here: Benedit.
``She couldn't believe I was suing the city. She was shocked.''
A new candidate has since been hired.
Friends say Brown, who has been spotted at the Village of Merrick Park and the Biltmore, has been seeking spiritual guidance and is trying to reconcile with his wife.
''He's struggled,'' said Gene Prescott, president of the company that runs the city-owned Biltmore and a Brown friend.
Added Slesnick: ``It's like a Greek tragedy. His undoing was personal issues that led him to an ending that was undignified and horrible.''
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