HOMESTEAD

Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman under probe over secret consulting deal

 

jweaver@MiamiHerald.com

At $6,000 a year, the salary for being the mayor of Homestead is a pittance. But Steve Bateman, a barrel-chested booster of this gateway city to the Florida Keys, has found that the position comes with hidden perks.

This past February, Bateman leveraged his role as mayor to land a lucrative, secret side job working as a construction consultant for a nonprofit that needs the blessing of the city and county to expand its chain of health clinics.

The deal, which the head of the nonprofit, Community Health of South Florida Inc. (CHI), says he did not initiate, pays Bateman $125 an hour — more than $4,500 during one 38-hour work week, according to a sampling of invoices reviewed by the Miami Herald. Bills for other weeks were unavailable for review.

Bateman, who has a county license to install awnings, shutters and screen enclosures but is not a general contractor or registered lobbyist, has not publicly disclosed the lucrative arrangement to his colleagues on the City Council, which holds sway over CHI’s plans. Nor did Bateman inform the county of his employment with the nonprofit, even when he met with Mayor Carlos Gimenez and his top aides to personally plead for Miami-Dade to fast-track a multi-million-dollar Homestead sewer system expansion that would facilitate construction of a proposed CHI children’s clinic in downtown Homestead.

The city’s interest in expanding its downtown pumping station is not surprising. The $3 million sewer project could spur development in a downtown that has withered since Hurricane Andrew nearly leveled the city in 1992. The station would benefit five projects that are currently on the drawing board but can’t proceed without added sewer capacity. The mayor or his wife has a financial stake in three of the five, none of which he has disclosed.

Bateman, 58, who is running for reelection in November, did not return the Miami Herald’s email or phone calls for comment.

The office of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle is investigating several allegations stemming from Homestead.

“We have been subpoenaing records and interviewing witnesses for the past several months,” Fernández Rundle said in a previous Herald story about the mayor. She declined to discuss Bateman’s CHI connection.

The Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust is also investigating.

A University of Miami ethics expert said Bateman’s conduct “raises serious questions under state and county laws.”

Anthony Alfieri, director of the UM Law School Center for Ethics and Public Service, said the mayor’s actions appear “flagrant” under the county’s code of ethics and conflict of interest laws.

“The more difficult hurdle is in applying the state’s unlawful compensation statute, because it requires some evidence of corrupt intent, showing that he acted knowingly and dishonestly for a wrongful purpose,” Alfieri said.

Bateman went to work for CHI while he was seeking the city’s and county’s support for expanding the sewage pumping station in Homestead. Bateman and other Homestead council members voted to allocate city funds to pay for upgrading the pumping station.

In February, Bateman, in his role as Homestead’s mayor, set up a meeting with Gimenez and one of his deputies to urge them to expedite the county permits required to expand the pumping station so that CHI’s project could move forward. At their County Hall meeting on Feb. 21, Bateman did not disclose to Gimenez or his deputy, Jack Osterholt, that he was being paid by CHI.

Later, when it appeared the city’s permit applications were stalled, Bateman emailed Osterholt about the urgency of expanding the pumping station.

“I have been advised of a rumor that Homestead is ‘closed for business’ because of this situation,” Bateman wrote on March 6. “That rumor is starting to hurt us and businesses are starting to turn away.

“I pride myself on over 600 new businesses in three years,” he added. “Please HELP us. … Perhaps I misunderstood something during our meeting two weeks ago, but nothing has changed.”

Batemen also advised and billed CHI behind the scenes on its application to be a grant recipient of nearly $1.9 million in county bond funding to help pay for the company’s planned children’s crisis center.

The county mayor’s office said this past week it had no clue about Bateman’s employment with CHI when he went to bat for it.

“Neither Mayor Carlos Gimenez nor Jack Osterholt had any information that Mayor Bateman was working for that company,” Miami-Dade spokesman Fernando Figueredo told the Herald. “If the mayor [Gimenez] had known [Bateman] had come in on behalf of a company, he would have required him to meet with staff and not the mayor.”

The head of CHI, a nonprofit chain of healthcare facilities in South Florida, said Bateman was hired as a part-time employee on Feb. 1 at an hourly rate of $125.

“We have a contract with Steve Bateman,” said Colonel Brodes Hartley, CHI’s chief executive officer, adding that he was hired to “manage our projects” renovating existing facilities and building new ones.

Asked how CHI came to hire Bateman, Hartley told Herald news partner WFOR-CBS 4: “We’ve had a relationship with Steve for many years.” Originally, the relationship had been a personal one, Hartley said. When it came to initiating the contract, Hartley said: “I didn’t bring it up, I didn’t initiate the discussion with him.”

Pressed further, he said Bateman’s name “came up” with his staff. Asked how it came up, he replied: “I don’t know.”

Hartley said he hired Bateman because “he has a construction background.” Bateman owns a Homestead construction business, but is not a licensed general contractor. He has a county license to install shutters, awnings and screening enclosures.

Asked if he was concerned about a possible conflict of interest — paying someone who could vote up or down on his projects — Hartley said it was Bateman’s responsibility to handle that issue.

CHI’s project had a checkered history from the start. In June 2010, Homestead architect Robert Barnes obtained an administrative variance from then-City Manager Sergio Purrinos to allow the company to place 22 parking spaces in front of the proposed new building on West Mowry Drive.

According to Homestead’s director of development services, Joseph Corradino, the variance request should have been reviewed by the city’s Planning and Zoning Board.

Months later, in September, Bateman and fellow City Council members, sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) board, voted to upgrade pump station #1, which had reached capacity.

Bateman, in his role as mayor, became CHI’s head cheerleader.

In September 2012, he scheduled a meeting for himself and his public works director with Hartley “to discuss the proposed children’s crisis center.” The question of when the pumping station was going to be approved by the county so that CHI could start construction became more urgent.

The mayor stepped up his lobbying efforts, reporting back to CHI.

“Colonel Hartley, I am at Dade County waiting for final review on city lift station,” Bateman emailed on Feb. 19, 2013, nearly three weeks after he was hired by CHI. “I think it’s important for final work and permits. I will update you tonight.”

He followed up an hour and a half later: “Just leaving. Things went well. Maybe one week for completion of review for lift station Homestead.”

The next day, Feb. 20, Bateman told his fellow council members about his upcoming meeting with top county officials “to go over some of the issues the county needs to take care of.” The pumping station was one of four he identified. He did not disclose he was now being paid by CHI.

On Feb. 21, Bateman met with Gimenez in the county mayor’s office and urged him to put the Miami-Dade review of the pumping station on a faster track.

Gimenez’s spokesman, Figueredo, said the mayor and Osterholt were under the impression the purpose of the meeting was to discuss sidewalk expansion. In reality, Bateman spent the whole time on the pumping station. He left with the understanding that CHI and other Homestead developers could move forward.

When the agreement Bateman thought he had with Gimenez did not materialize, he fired off the “Please HELP us” memo to Deputy Mayor Osterholt.

It could not be determined whether Bateman billed CHI for his visits to County Hall about the pumping station, but CHI benefited from his actions as mayor, while keeping him on the payroll behind the scenes. His duties as CHI’s construction consultant seem unremarkable by comparison.

Bateman’s invoice for the week of April 21-28 included such items as “multiple correspondence,” “continued review,” and “multiple discussions” with CHI’s architect, other vendors and staff, regarding construction work on a half-dozen health facilities in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. Of the 38 hours he billed that week to CHI, 10 were for the children’s crisis center.

CBS4 News contacted several construction industry experts and, without identifying Bateman, described the duties he was charging to CHI. The experts said the role Bateman appeared to play was that of “owner’s representative” and that $125 an hour was on the high end of the spectrum — but still within industry standards.

On June 19, in the wake of a Herald article about the mayor’s behind-the-scenes dealings with another downtown Homestead developer, Dade-Medical College CEO Ernesto A. Perez, Homestead’s City Council members took an unprecedented step. They suspended the $3 million in funding for pump station #1 until September.

The vote put the five projects that would have immediately benefited on hold. While lobbying for all of them, the mayor stood to benefit financially, directly or indirectly, from three. In addition to Bateman’s salary from CHI, his wife, Donna Bateman, works as a real estate agent for Dade Medical College and Perez, and represents charter school developer Wayne Rosen.

“In the interest of integrity, I think we should wait to consider the pumping station with the rest of the budget [this fall],” said Councilman Stephen Shelley.

The vote was unanimous. Bateman did not participate, having left the dais without explaining why.

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