"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.
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.
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.