Using a white Lincoln Continental as his office, Vincent Leal can usually be found scouring the neighborhoods of Hialeah in search of house-for-sale bargains and cut-rate vacant lots.
He is a land speculator and his routine is seldom interrupted except on alternate Wednesdays when Leal, wearing gold chains and a day's growth of beard, arrives at Hialeah's City Hall.
There, perched behind a Formica dais, the stocky Leal joins the rest of Hialeah's Planning and Zoning Board. He dons his wire-rim glasses, toys with a pen, and listens to the unending arguments of developers, anxious homeowners and angry neighbors.
As a board member, Leal helps shape Dade's second largest city. His vote can determine the site of a shopping center and whether a new apartment complex will have four levels or 14. It can also double the value of an acre of land.
But there have been times when Leal has been more than an unbiased judge.
The Miami Herald's investigation into Hialeah city government found evidence that the 46-year-old developer and real estate speculator had a personal interest in five rezoning cases in which he voted.
Leal has played a prominent role in the tangled real estate deals that bind Hialeah politicians to developers and tie city officials to one another.
Three city council members and a fellow planning and zoning board member have had a hand in Leal's land transactions.
While his rise from refugee to developer might seem like an immigrant's success story, less flattering pages of Leal's past lie in police files from New York to Puerto Rico.
In the past 20 years, Leal has been arrested but never convicted for numerous offenses ranging from selling heroin to shooting his wife's ex-husband outside a Hialeah supermarket.
Leal, whom acquaintances describe as hot-tempered, would not talk to reporters about the arrests or his business dealings, beyond a brief telephone conversation.
"I don't want to talk to you," he said after receiving one list of questions. "I have a right to do business in Hialeah. After reading that disgusting letter . . . I don't have anything to say to you."
Interviews and records show:
* Leal voted to rezone property near McDonald Lake in Hialeah for larger apartments five months after he paid for water and sewer connections on the same land.
Shortly after the 1982 rezoning, Leal bought an apartment building on the site from his business partner. He sold it six months later for a $49,000 profit.
* Leal voted last September to protect the multifamily zoning on land that he intended to buy, according to the developer who owned the property in West Hialeah.
Developer Santiago Alvarez said Leal had already agreed to buy part of the land affected by the vote.
"If he didn't actually have contracts signed, he was pretty much set to buy," said Alvarez.
* Leal and ex-Planning and Zoning Board member Herman Echevarria voted to rezone two lots for duplexes in 1982 although they were involved in the purchase of the land at approximately the same time.
Echevarria, who has since resigned from the board, said he bought the land through Leal shortly after the rezoning. The zoning change enabled Echevarria to increase his profits by building two duplexes worth more than $200,000 where a single wood-frame house had stood before.
Echevarria denied any conflict of interest.
* Leal voted in a zoning case involving 10 acres of land that he was trying to buy for a bargain price.
Philip Spiegelman, an official for the 1,500-unit Mango Hill housing development, said Leal promised favorable zoning votes if he could purchase the 10 acres for $1.4 million. Spiegelman, who said the land was worth $2.1 million, refused to sell. Leal subsequently voted against the rezoning.
Leal also bought or controlled dozens of lots in the Mango Hill project while the developer was trying to gain final city approval of its plans. Three city council members and a member of the planning and zoning board were involved in those transactions with Leal.
* Leal voted in Hialeah's most controversial zoning case last year although he revealed he had an interest in the land, according to Councilman Paulino Nunez and a business associate of Leal's.
One set of city records identifies Leal as an owner of the property at Okeechobee Road and East Fourth Avenue.
Leal denied having a financial interest in the proposal to rezone residential land to accommodate a shopping center. The rezoning was vetoed at the last minute by Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez.
The landowner of record was Leal's 21-year-old brother-in- law who would have made $150,000 had the rezoning been successful. Records show that Leal helped his brother-in-law raise money to buy the property by giving him a free house.
Leal was appointed to the planning and zoning board in 1982 by former Councilman Jimmy Gunn although he was known as a developer who regularly requested controversial zoning changes.
During The Herald's investigation into Hialeah City Hall, Leal was asked to resign by Councilman and ex-business partner Silvio Cardoso, who said he made the request because "things were getting to be too conflictive."
"It's the highest position he's ever held," explained Cardoso. "It's a real honor to him."
Cardoso is one of several city officials who have had business dealings with Leal.
Soon after Cardoso became a councilman at age 26, Leal taught him the basics of home-building and made him a partner in several small projects.
Leal also sold land to Council President Andres Mejides for his first home-building attempt. Another council member, Ruby Swezy, brokers many of Leal's land purchases.
While Leal has built some homes and small apartment buildings, his forte is the quick turnover -- getting contracts for property and selling them to prospective developers at a profit.
"Leal's a wheeler-dealer," says Cardoso, who described Leal-built homes as "pieces of junk . . . the designs are terrible."
"He's very, very disorganized. I went on my own because he's such a disaster to do business with."
Leal's entry into Hialeah's bustling real estate market began after he moved to the Miami area in the early 1970s.
Government records showing Leal's movements and arrests indicate that after leaving Cuba he settled briefly in Miami before moving to New York in 1964.
While in New York, Leal was arrested twice, once on assault charges and once on a charge of bookmaking. The assault charges were dropped and he was acquitted on the bookmaking charge.
He then moved to Puerto Rico where, in 1971, he was arrested for selling heroin. The charge was dismissed. A memo in one government file quotes a federal narcotics agent as saying Leal was a full-time, paid confidential informant. The memo says Leal was arrested because he refused to pay Puerto Rican police for protection.
In Hialeah, Leal was charged in 1971 with reckless and careless driving and leaving the scene of an accident. He pleaded guilty and paid a $106 fine.
Five years ago, Leal was arrested and charged with aggravated battery after he shot his wife's former husband in the leg during an altercation in a supermarket parking lot. The charge was dismissed after Leal, who claimed he was defending himself, completed a domestic intervention program.
Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez said that three years ago Leal was caught tearing down Martinez's campaign signs. The mayor said he chose not to press charges against Leal.
Although Leal lives in one of the largest homes in Hialeah's expensive Deer Park neighborhood, ex-partner Cardoso disputes Leal's image as a wealthy, high-living real estate speculator.
'Doesn't have a dollar'
"People think he's got millions, but he doesn't have a dollar," Cardoso said. He added, though, that Leal would give his last dollar to a friend.
Leal seemed generous in some of his dealings with other city officials since he was appointed to the planning and zoning board.
When Echevarria made his early forays into home building, Leal introduced him to his banking contacts. One transaction with Leal made Echevarria a tidy, unexplained profit, records show.
That deal began a year ago when Leal sold Echevarria two lots for $40,000 in the Mango Hill development. Three months later, after Echevarria had spent $10,000 for improvements, Leal bought them back for $100,000, records show. Echevarria apparently made $50,000 on the sale.
Said Leal: "So I bought them back. He made $3,000, $4,000. That's all. What's $1,000? There's nothing there."
Said Echevarria: "I think I made a little money on it. I had a lot of expenses. I didn't make money because I had put so much into it."
Echevarria and Leal did not respond to reporters' repeated attempts for a more detailed explanation of the land sale.
Echevarria, 29, who plans to run for the Hialeah City Council this year, resigned from the city Planning and Zoning Board during The Herald's investigation.
Cardoso said he asked for Echevarria's resignation because of situations that were "conflictive." Echevarria, who is president of the Hialeah Latin Chamber of Commerce, said he stepped down to spend more time working on his business and the chamber.
Leal would not discuss his business transactions with reporters, but records and interviews revealed these additional details about four of the rezoning cases in which he was involved:
* The rezoning of the property for which Leal had paid for water and sewer hookups five months earlier was actually an after-the-fact zoning change. It made legal two apartment buildings already under construction.
Before the November 1982 rezoning, only six-unit apartments were allowed on the property. But Leal's partner, Mario E. Garcia, had already started construction on two eight-unit buildings on the land near West 76th Street and 12th Avenue, city files show.
During the rezoning, no mention was made of the illegal buildings already half-finished, records indicate.
The extra units meant a higher sale price for Garcia and Leal.
After Leal bought one of the apartment buildings from Garcia for $226,000, he resold it for $275,000. In comparison, two six-unit apartment buildings built next door at the same time sold for $237,000 each, $38,000 less than Leal's.
* The property in West Hialeah was already zoned for apartments when developer Alvarez appeared before the Planning and Zoning Board in September requesting variances.
In return for the variances, Alvarez agreed to have the property "down-zoned" to a new category that limited development to single-family homes.
Leal tried unsuccessfully to block a vote on the new, more restrictive zoning category.
In addition to Alvarez, who said Leal had agreed to purchase several lots from him, two city sources said they overheard a chagrined Leal complain about the down-zoning after the meeting.
The sources, who agreed to interviews on the condition that they not be identified, said Leal indicated that he intended to buy several lots from Alvarez.
* Leal and Echevarria voted to rezone two lots for duplexes in January 1983. Six weeks earlier, a firm owned by Leal's brother had put a $1,000 deposit on the land. Six weeks after the vote, the property was deeded from the original owner to Echevarria.
Echevarria said he purchased the land through Leal.
In an interview, Echevarria first said he arranged with Leal to buy the land as early as two months before the deed was signed. That time interval would indicate Echevarria intended to buy the land when he voted for the rezoning.
During the same interview, Echevarria altered his estimate, saying the deed-signing occurred just "a few days" after he decided to buy the property rather than several weeks.
Echevarria denied any conflict of interest and says he doesn't remember the rezoning case.
Buying the property based upon its original, single-family zoning increased Echevarria's profit margin when he built two duplexes. He sold one for $115,000 at a profit of about $50,000, records indicate. Echevarria still owns the second duplex.
* The controversial attempt to rezone property at Okeechobee Road and East Fourth Avenue from single-family homes to accommodate a small shopping center caused a vociferous protest by neighbors.
Councilman Nunez said that soon after the rezoning was vetoed by Mayor Martinez, he encountered an angry Leal at City Hall.
"He made a comment, 'Oh, now at the next election I'll remember who voted against my things,' " said Nunez. "He was referring to the veto. The mayor had vetoed 'his things.' "
One of Leal's many business associates, who had no part in the transaction, agreed to an interview only if guaranteed anonymity. He said, "Leal bought that land. He talked about what he's going to do with it, that he could get the rezoning. He said he knew he'd get it."
Documents show that Leal's 21-year-old brother-in-law, Jose Gallego, bought the land for $150,000. Gallego's uncle said he would have bought the property from his nephew for $300,000 had it been rezoned.
The house Leal gave his brother-in-law at no charge was used as collateral for a loan to purchase the land.
In the space on the deed that indicates what Gallego paid for the house, there are are only three words: "Love and affection."
"I had no financial interest in it," said Leal. "He (Jose Gallego) went out and got his own loan. Of course, I'm going to help him. I'd help my brother, my sister. I help everybody I can. I'd help an old man walk across the street."