"When their audit comes to light, we are going to give credit for what does not meet their specifications, " Rodriguez said. "There's no need to crucify anyone over this. There was a problem and it's been resolved between both parties. Everybody's a winner."
Diaz declined to be interviewed. But in a letter Monday to Publisher David Lawrence Jr., he wrote: "As an act of good faith, I have extended to Metro Dade County a very generous credit to satisfy whatever discrepancies might exist with my present installation contract."
He said trees should be valued by overall quality, not just by height, and added: "I have always grown the best quality trees in this state."
Diaz, 49, is a rags-to-riches entrepreneur who's become a top government landscaping contractor over the past two decades, collecting $16 million from Metro alone. Behind the scenes, he is considered well-connected to powerful politicians at County Hall and in Tallahassee.
Publicly he is known as a local Johnny Appleseed of sorts -- regularly donating trees to green Dade County, including the stately royal palms along Rickenbacker Causeway. He also provided without charge the lush palm backdrop at an open-air Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II during his visit to South Florida in 1988.
While Diaz contributed thousands of dollars to commission election campaigns, his company landed most of the county business: $9.2 million since September 1994, nine times more than any other Metro landscaping vendor, records show. Metro officials say Diaz gets most of the work because his prices are the cheapest around, not because of political favoritism.
Diaz's share of county business is fueled by a multimillion dollar effort to spruce up county roadways -- a program whose cost has jumped $1.6 million in the past eight months alone.
Part of the reason: Some commissioners have turned palms into political pork, lobbying the county to deliver palms to neighborhoods in their districts.
Footing the bill: Dade County motorists, through a two- cents-a-gallon tax paid at the gas pump. Transportation money for landscaping was freed up when the county commission in 1993 increased the local gasoline tax by six cents to cover road and traffic improvements.
But taxpayers aren't always getting their money's worth. Metro's landscaping program is troubled by a number of problems, records show:
* Cutie, the acting parks director, OKd Diaz's billings without checking what the county got, approving thousands of dollars in overcharges for undersized palms. The county even paid $105,000 last January after a Metro supervisor complained that Diaz was overcharging for a strand of royal palms planted along Florida's Turnpike. The trees were short, the supervisor reported. The county was paying $50 too much for each palm.
Cutie blamed bureaucracy -- that Diaz was submitting his payment invoices to his department while Metro's public works department was in charge of the actual planting. The supervisor's complaint and other problems fell through the cracks.
"When there are too many hands, you lose quality control, " Cutie said. Tighter controls, he said, have been implemented in recent weeks.
* Diaz billed the county $55,770 for 338 tabebuia trees -- $165 apiece -- claiming they were 15-17 feet tall. They are typically eight to 12 feet tall, worth $40 less apiece. A Diaz competitor, Vila & Son Landscaping, put in a low bid of $120 for that size tree -- and should have gotten the order if that was the height the county wanted.