June 27, 2013

Pastor handles political consulting from Hialeah city office

A pastor who operates out of a city of Hialeah office has made some $50,000 for his political consulting work for more than a dozen county and state campaigns since 2010.

A pastor who operates out of a city of Hialeah office has made some $50,000 for his political consulting work for more than a dozen county and state campaigns since 2010.

In each case, the same candidates who hired the Rev. Julio Epifanio Perez also received the political endorsement of the Christian Family Coalition, a conservative group that’s based in that same office and run by Perez and two other people.

“This shows how the banner of religion is being used for politics, and in this case, how they’re apparently selling endorsements,” said Raul Martinez, a Democrat and former mayor of Hialeah.

Perez declined to comment for this article.

The reverend had said last week he would respond to questions about his political activities in writing, after which El Nuevo Herald sent him a list of questions by e-mail. But Perez said this week that he did not understand the reasoning behind the questions and dismissed criticism of his “impeccable reputation, earned over more than five decades in the defense of human rights, social justice, and fighting poverty.”

Perez does not have the permission from Hialeah to do political work at the Blanche Morton community center, 300 E. First Ave., according to municipal attorney William Grodnick.

“If he’s registered political consulting companies at that address, he’s done that without the authorization from the city,” said Grodnick, who assured the city will take “appropriate measures” after conducting its own investigation.

Since 2010, the city has leased office No. 104 at the community center to New Hope Community Center, a nonprofit corporation that belongs to Perez, Anthony Verdugo Jr. and the Rev. Luis Arenas.

Perez, 77, is married to a woman who shares Verdugo’s last name, and the three own a house together in Southwest Miami-Dade. Perez, Verdugo and another woman, Amanda Verdugo, are registered as the Christian Family Coalition’s directors, according to state records.

Anthony Verdugo, who did not return messages, is president of the Christian Family Coalition, which is actively involved in local politics and, according to its website, was founded “with the purpose of serving as a voice for the pro-family citizens of Florida to ensure that our religious liberties are protected from government intrusion.”

New Hope Community Center pays $4,861.96 per year for use of the Hialeah office space. According to the lease, the office can only be used to provide social services to low-income residents.

But state records show that the Christian Family Coalition and two for-profit consulting companies that belong to Perez also operate out of the office. Last year, the Eye on Miami blog reported on the use of the office by the Christian Family Coalition.

In 2010, Perez registered the office as the principle address for his company Winning Campaigns Inc. That year, the company charged at least $33,254 for consulting work, publicity and phone banking for more than 10 candidates in races for county and state positions. These included then-State Reps. Carlos Lopez Cantera and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, and Miami-Dade County Commissioner Javier Souto.

Lopez Cantera, now Miami-Dade’s property appraiser, recalled dealing directly with Verdugo, and not Perez. He paid the company $2,700 for what he was told was a phone banking operation.

Meanwhile, Souto said he doesn’t know Perez at all and can’t remember why he had hired his company.

“In political campaigns, we buy all sorts of publicity, in the newspapers, on TV and on the radio,” said Souto, who paid Winning Campaigns $2,500 in 2010. “If we paid him something from the campaign, I just can’t remember.”

Last year, Perez registered a new company, Campaign Victories Inc., in the same city-owned office building. This company billed at least $14,950 for its campaign work to candidates who aspired to be judges, county commissioners and state representatives.

One of the judicial candidates was attorney John “Johnny” Rodriguez, who paid $1,000 to Campaign Victories.

Rodriguez recalled getting endorsed by the Christian Family Coalition but couldn’t remember having ever met Perez.

“But during campaigns, you get approached by so many people who want your money and promise they can deliver votes, that I can’t remember if I maybe hired somebody from that group,” said Rodriguez, who lost his race. “What I can tell you is that there was no quid pro quo, that the Christian Family Coalition never asked me for anything in exchange for their endorsement.”

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