2013: A dirty year when it came to public corruption in Miami-Dade

 

mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com

Bag-men lobbyists paid off two allegedly corrupt mayors in an FBI sting. Another mayor was charged with working a clandestine consulting gig and misspending campaign money.

There were arrests for elections, tax and securities fraud. Crooked cops got busted. A city government acted like a crime racket.

And an elusive character in the investigation of a congressman who fled back and forth to Nicaragua.

From Homestead to Hialeah and beyond, 2013 was the year of Dirty Dade — an orgy of public-corruption news about indictments, informants, wiretaps and sleaze that confirmed some of the worst suspicions about some public servants who think the public should serve them.

Sleazy Sweetwater

Ground zero for Miami-Dade sleaze: Sweetwater.

A small city wedged in the northeast corner of Southwest Eighth Street and Florida’s Turnpike, Sweetwater’s claim to fame is that it was founded by Russian circus midgets 72 years ago.

But by the 1980s, Sweetwater gained a reputation as a corruption capital. Cops were investigated for beating up citizens. One officer went on a murder-robbery spree. And four city commissioners and the mayor were found guilty in a federal extortion scheme.

This year, Mayor Manny Maroño upheld the city’s sad tradition when he was indicted in an FBI grant-fraud sting.

Federal agents and the press then set about untangling the web of corruption in Sweetwater.

There’s a towing company, linked to Maroño, that financially preyed on some citizens and led to the questionable seizure of a Porsche Panamera.

Investigators are trying to track down missing police evidence — including cash — and have uncovered a secret evidence room that dirty cops might have used as a gift store for loved ones. Three officers are under investigation for police brutality and doctoring investigative records.

Even a police horse — a handsome black Percheron named Maverick bought by city taxpayers — made a corruption cameo. Maverick mysteriously ended up at the Homestead ranch of a former Sweetwater police lieutenant.

“It was a like a criminal enterprise,” Deborah Centeno, a twice-failed candidate for city commission, said.

Maroño’s mother, City Commissioner Isolina Maroño, showed off a mobster’s mouth when she threatened an El Nuevo Herald reporter who helped expose her son’s shenanigans.

“There’s a saying in Cuba,” Isolina Maroño said. “You either off the press or pay off the press.”

FBI stings

Sweetwater’s spate of bad press began in August when Maroño and Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi were both busted by the FBI, which had undercover agents pose as scummy Chicago businessmen with a phony company called Sunshine Universal.

In return for kickbacks, the mayors allegedly lied about Sunshine performing economic development work (it produced none) in a brief telephone survey. The mayors thought they were talking to a federal-grant administrator at AmeriCorps, but it was actually an undercover FBI agent.

“You answered questions knowing that you're f---ing lying, but you gotta be able to have that charisma, to be able to pull it off, to bulls--t,” Maroño, boasting of his intellectual prowess, told the undercover agents.

The mayors were identified by an informant, lobbyist Michael Kesti, who led the FBI to two lobbyists tied to the elected officials: Richard Candia and Jorge Forte.

The indictments portray Pizzi as the cagier of the two mayors. Insisting the deal was legitimate, Pizzi has pleaded not guilty to fraud charges tied to $6,750 of illicit payments.

Maroño took more cash with Forte, $60,000, and tried to recruit other mayors into the scam. Before pleading guilty in October, he unsuccessfully tried to convert his $300,000 city pension into a private retirement account.

“[Maroño]’s not gonna be shy, shy to ask for s--t,” Candia told an FBI agent in September 2011 during the scheme. “I mean, there will be no end.”

Securities fraud

A month before his indictment, Pizzi made an appearance in an unrelated fraud case — but as the lawyer for a defendant, Michael Boudreaux, the former budget director for the City of Miami.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission charged Boudreaux and the city with civil securities fraud for allegedly misrepresenting city finances to bond investors.

Boudreaux was accused of orchestrating financial transfers “to mask” mounting deficits and “falsely inflate” reserves reported in the city’s 2007 and 2008 financial statements, the SEC said.

“Miami cannot continue to play shell games with its finances,” Eric I. Bustillo, director of the SEC’s Miami regional office, said in a statement.

The SEC also charged the city with violating an existing 2003 cease-and-desist order based on “similar misconduct.” It marked the first time the SEC charged a municipality that was already under an existing cease-and-desist order.

The SEC is also investigating the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County for the financing of the new Miami Marlins baseball park.

Separately, the SEC charged the city of South Miami for fraudulently failing to disclose problems with the tax-exempt status of bond deals. South Miami agreed to settle the charges and hire an independent consultant to oversee some future bond deals.

But in the City of Miami, officials are still fighting the SEC, as is Boudreaux.

“He was an employee who did his job and did absolutely nothing wrong,” Pizzi said of his client, Boudreaux, at the time.

Miami cops get stung

Miami’s police were also under federal scrutiny.

As many as 10 officers lost their jobs or were charged in the wake of an illegal protection racket for a Liberty City gambling joint called the Player’s Choice Barber Shop. The illegal police protection was organized by Officer Nathaniel Dauphin, who agreed to flip and inform on fellow officers.

With the FBI listening in, Dauphin enticed Officer Harold James into taking $800 in payoffs to provide protection for a fraudulent Liberty City check-cashing store that was actually an FBI front. James was sentenced in April to 15 months in prison.

Another crooked cop, Malinsky Bazile, stole the identities of Floridians he looked up in a law enforcement database. Bazile, who filed $140,000 worth of false tax returns, was convicted in October.

It marked the first time a South Florida law enforcement officer was found guilty of identity theft and tax-refund fraud.

Before his trial, Bazile and Dauphin set up yet another police officer, Vital Frederick, who participated in ID-theft grift involving 52 people and also accepted $1,400 in cash for protecting the phony check-cashing store.

Frederick’s defense: he’s gay and Bazile and Dauphin basically threatened to out him if he didn’t commit the crimes. Frederick was convicted just days after Bazile. The two await sentencing. Dauphin’s sentence was reduced to three years probation and 90 days home confinement.

Separately, in July, the U.S. Justice Department issued a report finding that the 1,100-officer Miami Police Department engaged in an unconstitutional “pattern or practice’’ of excessive use of force after Justice examined 33 police shootings from 2008 to 2011.

More cop controversies

In February, former Opa-locka Capt. Arthur Balom was sentenced to seven years in federal prison for tipping off and protecting the Back Blues Gang, and for distributing cocaine, Ecstasy and oxycodone.

Then, in July, former Opa-locka Sgt. German Bosque — nicknamed “Florida’s dirtiest cop” — was arrested for falsely imprisoning a man who complained that the officer punched him in the face after the man refused to hand over his 14-month-old child to the child’s mother in 2011.

It was Bosque’s third arrest. He had been fired six times before but somehow stayed in law enforcement, and has survived at least 40 internal-affairs investigations — 16 of which concerned excessive use of force, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported.

Bosque said he’s innocent and has been unfairly targeted in a “witch hunt.”

In nearby Miami Gardens, the owner of a quick-mart sued the police in a November federal civil-rights complaint that alleges the officers unnecessarily shoved, intimidated and arrested patrons and a worker.

Miami Gardens denies the charges. But the questionable police activity was all captured on surveillance video. Weeks later, Miami Gardens Police Chief Matthew Boyd resigned.

‘Whoop-de-doo!’

In Homestead, Mayor Steve Bateman was charged by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office with engineering a secret, $125-an-hour consulting job with Community Health of South Florida.

Community Health hired the city mayor to cut through red tape at Miami-Dade County Hall. But higher-ups in Miami-Dade said they had no idea Bateman worked for the company.

“He comes to me as the mayor of Homestead. He doesn’t come to me as a lobbyist from Homestead,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez told prosecutors.

Records showed Bateman overbilled Community Health for that meeting, charging eight hours for the meeting with Gimenez that lasted only an hour.

Bateman pleaded not guilty to two felony counts of receiving unlawful compensation and three misdemeanors for violating the county’s ethics code. Bateman’s late August arrest came three weeks after the federal busts of Pizzi and Maroño.

After Bateman got out of jail, he promptly hit the campaign trail to seek reelection. He lost.

Weeks later in November, the state attorney’s office filed seven new misdemeanor counts against Bateman for allegedly misspending campaign contributions in late 2011.

“Whoop-de-doo!” Bateman, again professing his innocence, said. “I am allowed to spend campaign money to buy my campaign workers lunch. It’s all very innocent. ”

Hialeah’s ‘shadow banking’

In Hialeah, Julio Robaina, the former mayor and a former candidate for county mayor, was indicted in May in federal court on charges of tax evasion and lying to federal agents. His wife was charged, too.

The Robainas deny wrongdoing. Trial is scheduled for May.

The U.S. attorney’s office hopped on Robaina’s trail amid an investigation into Hialeah’s “shadow banking” industry. While mayor, Robaina allegedly made $1 million worth of usurious and clandestine loans to friends and constituents, including a Ponzi schemer.

Months later, in August, Robaina’s uncle — Sergio “El Tío” Robaina — was convicted in an election-fraud scandal that marred the 2012 mayoral race and primaries.

El Tío pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of possessing multiple absentee ballots and illegally filling out the ballots of two others. El Tío was known as a Hialeah boletero (“balloteer” or “ballot broker”) who helped round up absentee ballots on behalf of candidates or causes.

In October, another Hialeah ballot broker, Deisy Cabrera, struck a plea deal with prosecutors. She accepted probation for, in her words, merely helping elderly voters cast their ballots in the 2012 mayoral race and area primaries.

“Ms. Cabrera truly was the lamb led to the slaughter by the political wolves that wished to distract the media from the true corruption that continues to exist,” said her lawyer, Robin Pimentel.

Scandal hits congressman’s pal

As old-school block-walking boleteros disappear, a new breed of fraudsters began using computers to handle absentee ballots — requesting them on behalf of unsuspecting voters.

In late October, Jeffrey Garcia received a 90-day jail sentence for masterminding a plot to electronically request the absentee ballots of unwitting voters in the 2012 Democratic primary on behalf of his client, current U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia. No votes appear to have been stolen or unlawfully cast.

Rep. Garcia said he had no knowledge of the crime and promptly fired Jeffrey Garcia, who is of no relation and was his chief of staff.

State investigators got onto the case after a Miami Herald story detailed the suspicious ballot-request patterns. They raided three locations tied to the congressman’s spokesman, Giancarlo Sopo, and his 2012 campaign manager, John Estes.

The Miami Herald also learned that a consultant told the FBI that Jeffrey Garcia played a secret role propping up a phony Tea Party candidate named Rolando “Roly” Arrojo, who ran in 2010 against Democrat Joe Garcia and Republican David Rivera.

Arrojo spent mystery money he never disclosed — as much as $30,000 — to attack Rivera in mailers, essentially on behalf of Joe Garcia, who said he was unaware of Arrojo’s ties to Jeffrey Garcia. Rivera won the race anyway and became a congressman.

The Rivera-Alliegro imbroglio

The scheme — a ringer who spends mystery money and acts like a proxy for another candidate — repeated itself two years later. It also involved the same candidates: David Rivera, who was then a congressman, and challenger Joe Garcia.

The candidate taking the illegal money in late 2012: political nobody Justin Lamar Sternad. He spent at least $81,486 in unreported cash and checks to attack Garcia in the Democratic primary.

Sternad pleaded guilty March 15 and apologized in a written statement read outside the court house by his lawyer, Enrique “Rick” Yabor.

“I was taken advantage of and used by others,” Sternad’s statement said.

Sternad, who’s to be sentenced March 28, has told the feds that he suspected Rivera was behind the illegal money, much of which was handled by Sternad’s de facto campaign manager, Ana Alliegro, a pal of Rivera’s.

Though a self-described Republican “bad girl,” Alliegro hitched herself to the Democratic Sternad’s campaign to help undermine her friend’s rival in at least one illegally paid-for mailer.

The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald first drew attention to the apparently illegal activity. The feds jumped on the case. And Alliegro skipped town before an FBI interview.

Alliegro moved to Granada, Nicaragua, and opened up a hair salon. She was frequently visited by Rivera, who tried to cover his tracks by entering the country from Costa Rica, The Herald learned.

Both have denied wrongdoing. Neither has been charged.

Separately, Rivera’s finances were also the subject of a now-stalled IRS investigation launched amid revelations of a secret $500,000 dog-track payment. Rivera also faces state ethics charges into his campaign activity as a state representative.

This fall, Alliegro briefly returned to Miami, spoke with the feds, but then left again for Nicaragua, according to her Facebook account, where she wrote: “I guess it took a bit for me to realize my world was full of horrible people.”

And too many, unfortunately, hold positions of public trust in Dirty Dade.

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