Image. To Hialeah Councilman Silvio Cardoso it is everything.
From his perfectly pressed designer suits to his shiny new Audi 5000S, the 32-year-old developer radiates success.
"Anybody who knows me, they're going to tell you, 'Silvio Cardoso has made a lot of money. But Silvio has never done anything illegal in his life. And he establishes a very high, very high code
of ethics.' And that's why people come back to me, not because I'm a council person," Cardoso says.
He describes himself as a professional, a tough businessman, a go-getter.
"There are probably very few people, I would say, in this county who know as much about development as I do."
But others say it his position on the Hialeah City Council, rather than his business expertise, that has made him such a valued friend to developers.
By mingling business with politics, Cardoso has amassed a small fortune -- and become the target of criticism and corruption allegations. "How do you come from a pauper to a millionaire in four years? That's what he was -- a pauper," said former Councilman Julio Martinez, who served with Cardoso a short time in 1981.
"He doesn't work. He just became a developer as soon as he got on the council. The only way you can make that kind of money is . . . by rezoning the hell out of Hialeah."
Some of that rezoning has benefited Cardoso, personally, and those he works for.
His early mentors, his closest associates and developers who have paid him more than $150,000 in real estate commissions continuously appear before him, seeking zoning changes that translate to big profits. Cardoso, in many cases, has been their strongest supporter on key votes.
Cardoso concedes that his seat on the council has helped him "open a lot of doors."
It also has helped him get some of his own projects approved.
"I let the planning and zoning board know . . . that I have an interest so they'll vote in favor and then I'll only need four votes on the council," Cardoso said. Without the zoning board's approval, it takes five of seven council votes to pass an ordinance.
But Cardoso insists he has done nothing improper.
"I think I follow higher standards than anybody else here on the council," he said. "It all boils down to intent. If the intent is there than it's wrong . . . I guarantee my intent is not there."
He added: "When I have a direct financial interest, I always declare it."
However, a review of his voting record reveals Cardoso has often failed to disclose his business relationships with applicants appearing before the council. Instead, he quietly walked out of several meetings during key votes.
He also has been accused of:
* Conspiring to take thousands of dollars in kickbacks from federal housing grants. Cardoso denied it and the Dade grand jury didn't find sufficient evidence to indict.
* Extorting $400 from a businessman who wanted approval to make an addition to his store. Former Councilman Julio Martinez said he delivered the cash.
Cardoso's response: "Four hundred bucks? I think anybody who pays anybody 400 bucks for anything should get the hell beat out of them. . . . And to me, it just makes me want to throw up. . . . I gave $2,500 to the United Way. Who would ask for $400?"
Cardoso denied the allegation and said Martinez holds a grudge against him.
* Trying to pressure the developers of Mango Hill, Hialeah's largest and most controversial housing project, into a land deal that would have paid him $13,500 in real estate commissions. "It's an absolute lie," Cardoso said.
In the past three years, Cardoso has made at least $95,000 in commissions -- sometimes without participating in the specific transaction -- from just one group of developers alone. Those same developers appeared before the council at least eight times last year, seeking zoning changes. Most of the time, Cardoso has voted for the items.
Besides hefty commissions, the developers also contributed $3,000 to Cardoso's re-election campaign 1 1/2 years ago. At Cardoso's direction, they dispensed several thousand dollars to some of Cardoso's political allies.
Asked if he controlled their purse strings, Cardoso said: "Yes, I'm not going to lie to you. Yes. If I think highly enough of an individual I will suggest that they give money."
Not all of the contributions have stayed in Hialeah. Last fall, the same developers gave Metro Mayor Steve Clark $1,000 for a fund-raiser put on by Cardoso.
Having generous friends has probably made Cardoso the most influential Hialeah politician after Mayor Raul Martinez. It also has given him the impetus to consider running for higher office.
After his success in raising $80,000 for his re-election bid in 1983, the silver-haired Cardoso said he is thinking about running for the state Senate after he completes his council term.
"The reason I raise so much money is because . . . those people are my friends. It's not because I can do something for them. Nobody else raises near that amount of money."
His support by the voters is just as impressive. He came in first among eight candidates on the ballot in 1983, earning the position as council president for a year.
"I got 11,000 votes out there and . . . the majority of those people vote for me for one thing: because Silvio Cardoso helps people."
In 1981, Cardoso was investigated by the state attorney's office on allegations that he was part of a group conspiring to receive thousands of dollars in kickbacks from federal housing funds.
Hialeah Housing Authority board member Paulino Nunez said he met with Cardoso, the housing authority's attorney and two other board members at a secret meeting when Cardoso presented him with the scheme.
The attorney, Gavin O'Brien, refused to talk about the allegation. Both board members, Ron King and Claude Bird, said they were not at any such meeting nor were they offered any bribes.
"I don't know anything about that," Bird said.
"Nobody offered me any money," King said.
Nunez said he reported the secret meeting to the state attorney's office. They wired him to try to get the proposal on tape.
A transcript of the tape shows Cardoso and Nunez discussing the secret meeting.
"I don't know much about this, Silvio," said Nunez. "I still don't understand how the f--- you got sucked into the meeting."
"I don't know how I got sucked into that son of a bitch, either," said Cardoso.
Cardoso also discussed what he intended to tell a grand jury investigating the meeting.
"I'm going to deny whatever the hell . . . I'm going to say they're lying," Cardoso said, according to the transcript.
When questioned by investigators, Cardoso, who was represented by former State Attorney Richard Gerstein, said he did not remember attending any secret meeting.
The grand jury did not find sufficient evidence to indict.
"Whatever the investigation was, it turned out there was no truth to what he was saying," Cardoso said. "They interviewed me and they never found any cause (to prosecute)."
Cardoso dismisses the accusations as the cost of success.
"Any time you have somebody who makes money . . . you have people talk about it," he said.
A Cuban immigrant, Cardoso came to the United States at the age of four. As early as high school, Cardoso said he was building his image. He was a football star for the Hialeah High Thoroughbreds and then received a full 4-year scholarship to University of Miami.
A running back and receiver, he was most valuable player in a game against Florida State University in 1970.
He began his business career selling cars at a small Dodge dealership and later went to work as a real estate salesman for Pedro Realty.
But it wasn't until after he became a councilman that he made his connections with the development trade.
His first partner, Vincent Leal, now a zoning board member, had appeared before the council numerous times with controversial proposals to build duplexes and small residential developments.
"I wanted to get into development so I went to Leal," he said. "Leal showed me what a tie beam was and a footing. He taught me building. He introduced me to some people at Continental Bank. He helped me get a loan for my first project."
Cardoso bought two single-family lots from Leal off Red Road in North Hialeah in July 1980. He built two modest stucco houses on the property, sold them and made $45,000.
Within a few weeks of the purchase, he voted on a plan for a subdivision Leal was developing on the other side of Red Road near West 76th Street. On the final council vote, he made the motion to approve it. Two months later, he bought three lots in that same subdivision.
"Anybody who knows me . . . knows the way I represent myself and knows that there is no conflict there because I wouldn't permit a conflict there," Cardoso said.
In 1981, Cardoso went out on his own. He incorporated as Cardoso Enterprises. But he continued to do business with Leal on occasion.
He also became involved with another real estate broker, Julian Vazquez, whom he also met through the council. It was Vazquez who introduced him to developers Domingo Pando and Juan Menendez.
The pair of developers would turn out to be two of Cardoso's most profitable customers -- and frequent visitors to the council chambers.
Cardoso insists he has not promised Pando and Menendez any zoning changes. He said: "If it is subject to zoning I won't sell them the property."
But in the summer of 1981, records show, Cardoso sold them a 15-acre parcel. The sale was contingent on the property being rezoned for condominiums.
Cardoso had hoped to purchase the lots himself, he said. He had put down a $10,000 deposit but then was unable to raise enough funds to go through with the deal.
"He would have lost his $10,000 so he assigned the contract to us," said Menendez. "We didn't pay him anything extra, just the $10,000. Of course, he got a commission on the sale."
Cardoso split the commission with Vazquez and his father- in-law, who also is a real estate agent. He received $18,000.
This was after the council had voted to rezone the property for multifamily use. City records show Cardoso was temporarily absent both times the item came up for a vote.
"It might have been I was in the bathroom; otherwise, I would have had no reason to get up and leave," he said when asked why he was absent.
He later said: "I got up out of there because I had sold them the piece and I just didn't want to vote on it at that time. I didn't have any interest in the thing. But I didn't want to vote on it."
In fact, Cardoso had a lot to lose if the rezoning had not been approved. He would not have gotten the $18,000 commission nor his $10,000 deposit.
Cardoso said he had been told by the city attorneys that if he did not vote on the item, there would be no conflict.
"I don't remember ever saying that," said City Attorney William Wetzel. "I have always maintained that if you have a conflict you should announce the conflict and remove yourself from the room at the time of the vote."
Cardoso never declared his interest in that rezoning, nor in half a dozen other cases where he was temporarily absent for votes.
At least six other times, Cardoso has voted on rezoning requests made by Pando and Menendez -- often just a few months after receiving large real estate commissions.
* In February 1982, Cardoso was paid $20,000 for brokering the sale of 10 acres. Two months later, he made the motion and voted to approve the rezoning of the property to multifamily.
* In November 1983, Cardoso received more than $13,000 for the sale of another 10 acres. Three months later, Pando and Menendez were before the council requesting a rezoning for the property. It was denied by a 6-to-1 vote. Cardoso was the only councilman to vote against the denial.
* In May 1984, he received a commission of $13,500 for the sale of six acres. Nearly three months later, the developers were before the council applying for a rezoning to allow condominiums.
Vazquez, whom Cardoso lists as an employer on financial statements, represented the owners at the council meeting. When a group of residents began to complain of the proposed change, Cardoso himself spoke in favor of it. He subsequently voted to approve it. Without his vote, the change would not have gone through.
Florida statutes state that there is a conflict if a public officer's vote benefits "any person by whom he is retained."
Cardoso said he can't help such situations because he does so much work in the city.
"I don't know how to avoid that," he said. "The only way you can avoid it is to leave the city . . . which I'm probably going to do. Not because of this (Herald) report or anything but because of those implications. . . . Because there are so many things tied to the city."
Cardoso's business relationship with his employer Vazquez also is unusual.
Though nearly half of Cardoso's commissions come from developers Pando and Menendez, Cardoso often is not involved in the negotiations or paperwork. On many of the deals, he refers questions to Vazquez.
"They are Julian Vazquez's clients," he said.
Yet he says he automatically receives a cut in the commission of any sale west of the Palmetto Expressway, Hialeah's booming development section, because he has previously done a lot of research into that area.
"Everything we do (in that area), we divide in the middle whether I find the buyer or he finds the buyer," Cardoso said. "We just have a unique arrangement."
"No. No. No. Nothing is automatic," he said. "We don't have any kind of deal that is automatic. Silvio doesn't get any action in my commission when he does nothing."
Aside from real estate commissions, Cardoso said he has made a lot of money on the properties he has developed himself.
His biggest project has been Las Hadas, a 32-unit condominium complex in West Hialeah. Cardoso bought the property from Fenton Ewing, the exclusive broker for one of Hialeah's biggest landowners. He then subdivided it and built the project.
"The big money I made, I made at Las Hadas. That particular piece I put every penny I had into it. I bought a $700,000 piece of property with $50,000 down and I went out and started peddling the property."
Cardoso recently bought a half-million-dollar chunk of land in North Hialeah, subdivided it into 42 lots and is now selling off the lots.
"He did pretty well for someone who came in with holes in his shoes," said former Councilwoman Joanne Coleman.
Cardoso attributes that success to his own initiative, rather than his council position.
"I've worked very hard for this town and I've maintained my reputation, not just as a councilman but from the beginning. Categorizing me with the rest of the council is a mistake. The rest of the council was not five-foot-seven, 175 pounds and received a full athletic scholarship to a major institution. The majority of the council did not run for the council when they were 26 years old."
In fact, Cardoso criticizes his fellow councilmen for continuously voting where special interests are involved.
"I'm totally disgusted with it . . . to the point that I might not even vote on the zoning matters."