In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Charges against North Miami’s Tondreau add new wrinkle to fight with Museum of Contemporary Art

It was a case of inopportune timing and unfortunate phrasing.

In a story published Sunday, North Miami Mayor Lucie Tondreau complained to The New York Times about the Museum of Contemporary Art’s plan to pack up the museum’s wowsy artworks and abscond with them to Miami Beach. “The collection belongs to the city, and they are trying to steal it.”

“Steal,” Tondreau said. She probably didn’t mean it in a felonious sense. Not like the kind of pilfering that the FBI ascribed to the mayor the very next day. The kind that rates 20 years in a federal pen.

Tondreau and three associates were charged in a sleazy mortgage fraud scheme. By Tuesday, the governor had suspended the mayor from office. In North Miami, stealing had suddenly become a relative term.

In late April, MOCA had filed a 23-page lawsuit against North Miami, listing a number of reasons why the museum was anxious to decamp from the city. The lawsuit cited a leaky roof, dodgy air conditioner, neglected landscaping, broken security cameras and failure to promote the museum or to provide money for MOCA to expand its puny exhibition space.

Oh yes, there was that other sticky complaint about who was running the joint. The museum board has its interim director. The mayor and City Council appointed their own director. It’s a case not so much of dual directors as dueling directors.

Before this week, North Miami might have had the more sympathetic argument, this working-class immigrant town fighting for a cultural institution that, after all, was created (with federal, county and city funds) to provide for “underserved populations.”

But when the mayor making that argument gets dragged into federal magistrate court two days later in shackles, the moral imperative becomes a bit obscure.

Getting the hell out of North Miami begins to look like a reasonable business plan. No doubt disgruntled residents of the San Souci and Keystone Point neighborhoods will revive talk, inspired by the previous mayor, of splitting from North Miami and forming their own city.

The secessionist sentiment peaked in 2011 and 2012. But there had been some hope that Tondreau’s election last year might bring respite from the madcap ways of Mayor Andre Pierre. During his eight-year regime, Pierre did things like spend $4,151 in city funds for 43 gold badges imprinted with “mayor’s staff” (40 more than the mayor had in actual staffers), then not remember whom he gave them to. Just as he couldn’t explain the sudden appearance, in the mayor’s personal parking space at City Hall, of a navy blue Porsche Panamera.

There was also that $116,000 raised for Haitian earthquake relief that seemed to have slipped his mind until, months later, Miami Herald reporter Nadege Charles discovered the money mouldering in a city bank account.

Some close business associates of the mayor somehow convinced him that, if they could gain control of a large tract of undeveloped city land, they would build an indoor, solar-powered snow and ski mountain park, with a 550-foot-tall ski slope, a 163-meter ski jump, ice-skating rinks, a snowboarding half-pipe, gourmet restaurants, an indoor tennis facility and a 2,700-seat arena.

You might have noticed that Mayor Pierre’s solar-powered arctic retreat didn’t happen. Maybe the fantasy project provided a distraction from the story about the mayor’s nephew getting busted in a bribery scheme.

Give Mayor Pierre credit. He managed to finish his term with nothing more than an ethics charge for misuse of city playing fields for his private soccer team (also uncovered by Nadege Charles). Nonetheless, the departure of Pierre was supposed to bring an end to the craziness.

It didn’t take his successor long to disabuse folks of that dreamy notion. Last year, when the newly elected mayor went off to Haiti for a personal vacation, she took along the North Miami police chief as a bodyguard. At city expense.

Before last year’s election, the Miami-Dade state attorney’s anti-corruption unit had noticed that a suspicious number of absentee ballot requests had originated from Tondreau’s public relations office in North Miami. Her office was searched, records were seized and Tondreau’s campaign treasurer was charged with election fraud.

The absentee ballot fraud investigation is still open. But the feds got her first — implicating Tondreau in the audacious mortgage fraud scheme, which beat lenders out of some $8 million by faking loan applications on about 20 wildly overvalued houses.

MOCA may leave this mess of a city, headed for a new address (who would have ever thought that Miami Beach would be seen as a saner, less-volatile place to relocate?). And if these charges stick, Mayor Tondreau will be leaving town herself. For less-artsy digs.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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