Nonprofit agency had role in vote collections

 

aviglucci@miamiherald.com

All five employees of the Allapattah Business Development Authority -- a private, nonprofit agency that has received about $2 million in loans and grants from the city since 1990 -- engaged in an unusual all-out effort to help the campaigns of Xavier Suarez and Humberto Hernandez.

The vote-gathering came at a time when ABDA staffers and an affiliated consultant were lobbying for an infusion of city money to embark on new housing projects in Allapattah and expand their reach into the adjacent neighborhoods of Model Cities and Wynwood. Those projects had been stymied while Mayor Joe Carollo occupied the mayor's seat on the City Commission.

ABDA employees collected and witnessed absentee ballots at all hours -- including during the business day -- before the controversial Nov. 4 election, interviews with dozens of voters indicate. Employees of nonprofits are barred from engaging in political activity during work hours under federal and state rules.

ABDA staffers witnessed nearly 100 absentee ballots, according to election records. After visiting 47 of those voters, The Herald found 14 ballots that were questionable or possibly fraudulent.

In some instances, The Herald found, ABDA staffers used the dubious tactics that a judge cited last month in tossing out the Nov. 4 vote:

Some witnessed ballots from people who live outside city limits or in a commission district other than the one where they voted. Some signed ballots as witnesses even though they weren't present when the voters signed the envelopes, as state law requires. One voter whose ballot was witnessed by an ABDA staffer said it was punched without her permission.

ABDA executive director Rafael Cabezas declined to comment and would not allow his staff to be interviewed.

"I don't wish to speak of any of these things with The Herald, " Cabezas said, adding only: "It has been many years of sacrifice and struggle. My satisfaction is in doing my duty and helping those who have nothing."

STAFF DEFENDED

ABDA Chairman Peter Bernal, an unpaid volunteer who leads the agency's board of directors, said he was unaware of the extent of staffers' involvement in the November campaign. But he defended Cabezas and staffer Alberto Martinez Echenique, both of whom he said he has known for many years.

"They're very honorable persons and would never do anything wrong. I can vouch for them, " said Bernal, a businessman who writes a freelance opinion column for El Nuevo Herald.

Bernal, who said he was not involved in the November elections, said ABDA employees are free to campaign on their own time. But he said he was concerned by the possibility that some did campaign work on agency time, which could jeopardize its funding.

"They're supposed to know that rule very clearly, " Bernal said, promising to look into the matter. "So far we have nothing we need to be embarrassed about and I hope to keep it that way."

City: Agency gets results

ABDA builds affordable housing and helps small businesses take root and grow in impoverished neighborhoods. Such groups need commission votes to get grants and loans for salaries and projects.

Competition is stiff for the small pool of city funds, most of it federal money. In the coming fiscal year, for instance, the city has $12.7 million available in Community Development Block Grants -- and $63 million in requests from nonprofits.

City officials say the group is funded because it produces results. The agency has been especially successful in coordinating the renovation of scores of run-down storefronts, ranking at the top of the city's annual evaluation. The group is also developing three low-cost condominium projects.

"Allapattah has had a perception that you don't want to go there, it's dirty and you'll get robbed. They're very involved in changing that perception, " said Eddie Borges, head of the city's Allapattah Neighborhood Enhancement Team office.

"Face it, they're political animals. They're powerful as far as this community goes. But they have never come to me demanding anything."

ABDA's administrative budget of about $200,000 comes almost entirely from city, Miami-Dade County and State of Florida grants. That money pays for overhead and staff salaries: $44,000 for Cabezas, a businessman who has owned several gas stations, and pay ranging from $32,000 to $19,500 for his subordinates. The agency is now in line for public financing for its most expensive development, a $3.5 million condo project.

ABDA staffers' intense involvement in the November elections was motivated in part by old political rivalries and alliances. Executive director Cabezas and fellow ABDA staffer Martinez Echenique are Bay of Pigs veterans with longstanding ties to Hernandez's father, also a Bay of Pigs vet.

FISCAL SCRUTINY

Mayor Joe Carollo, on the other hand, had been on the opposite side of the political fence from Cabezas. After a long absence from politics, Carollo returned to the City Commission in 1995 by defeating Hernandez and then-commissioner Victor De Yurre -- the candidate supported by Cabezas.

When Carollo became mayor in a special election, he put ABDA under scrutiny, along with other nonprofits, asking city staffers to justify the expenditure of city money on the groups while Miami was in fiscal crisis.

City administrators concluded the agency was using its money appropriately. But ABDA leaders began running into obstacles at City Hall.

Commissioner Willy Gort, who represents Allapattah, said the disbursement of city funds was sometimes held up, putting some agency projects in peril.

"Items were deferred, " said Gort, who said he did not know who was to blame. "One time ABDA came to me because they had the foundations poured on a project and were having trouble getting their money from the city to continue."

Another example, Gort said: ABDA requested $75,000 from the city for a project to improve traffic flow at the giant Allapattah produce market.

PROJECT SHELVED

Commissioner Tomas Regalado, then Mayor Carollo's close ally, questioned the need for the money and helped essentially table the project.

Then ABDA deputy director Angel Gonzalez got nowhere with a request for $100,000 to start a new nonprofit development agency in Wynwood and Model Cities. City administrators found out his partners in the venture -- including Carlos Martell, a contractor and close Hernandez ally who has done extensive consulting work for ABDA -- had failed to pay back earlier loans.

When the elections rolled around, ABDA staffers threw themselves into campaigning for Suarez and Hernandez. Hernandez had been suspended from office after a federal bank-fraud indictment but was trying to regain his seat.

Agency director Cabezas made frequent pitches for the pair on Spanish-language radio. Administrative assistant Xiomara Pacheco volunteered at Hernandez headquarters. Most of the ballots collected by ABDA employees came from Hernandez's Little Havana district. Allapattah is within another district.

The names of all five staffers appear on questionable ballots, election records show:

* Cabezas witnessed the ballots of a dozen voters. Five of them said someone else had picked up their ballots and insisted they never met Cabezas.

* Pacheco witnessed five ballots, including that of Alfredo Perez. Perez told The Herald that Hernandez campaign workers changed his registration from the district where he lives so he could vote for their candidate. Pacheco declined to comment.

TAMPA RESIDENT VOTED

* Angel Gonzalez -- the ABDA deputy and Hernandez's appointment to the city code enforcement board -- appears as the witness on 38 absentee ballots. One of them was cast by a Tampa resident. Gonzalez didn't return phone calls.

* Business development specialist Antonio Gonzalez is listed as witness on 13 ballots, including that of Yvette Garcia. She and her husband, Esteban Garcia, voted from his parents' home in Hernandez's district. But the couple owns a home and claims a homestead tax exemption in West Kendall. Reached at the home, Yvette Garcia hung up on a reporter. Antonio Gonzalez didn't return phone calls.

* ABDA staffer Martinez Echenique's name appears as witness on the ballot of Margarita Moran of Little Havana. She says Echenique and another man from the Hernandez campaign came to her apartment to pick up her ballot. They never gave her a chance to punch it, she said. Echenique didn't return phone calls.

"We were sitting here and talking. They put the ballot in the envelope and they sealed it, " Moran said. "I said to them, 'But I didn't punch it.' They said to me, 'Yes, you did.' But I'm sure I didn't, sure, sure, sure."

Herald staff writer Alfonso Chardy contributed to this report.

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