Oscar Rivero, son of a Hialeah bus driver, charged onto Miami's affordable-housing scene four years ago with spectacular promises to build houses for poor families who have languished for years in crumbling and unsafe homes.
He amassed an elaborate web of properties, pledging 24 units on the banks of a canal north of Miami; 54 in a midrise in Little Havana; 42 on a tree-lined corner of South Miami.
That was just the beginning.
With his lofty plans and key connections to County Hall power brokers, Rivero quickly became a favored developer of local housing agencies, collecting nearly $3 million in public money.
A rising businessman and former aide to then-County Commissioner Alex Penelas, Rivero hobnobbed with political elites and snared coveted spots on public boards. While his business ventures seemed limitless, so did his personal life. He smoked fine cigars and drove luxury cars.
But the ultimate symbol of his newfound success is rising on a tree-shrouded street just beyond Coral Gables.
There, the boy raised in a concrete-block house in working-class Hialeah is building an 11,000-square-foot estate that includes a wine cellar, library, billiard room, elevator, pool, spa and fountain -- plus a grand foyer, three stories high, fixed with Mediterranean columns and a spiral staircase.
It is Oscar Rivero's dream house.
And it is the only thing he has managed to build in the past four years.
Today, the land where Rivero promised dozens of homes for the poor is still vacant, cordoned off by fences -- eyesores in already distressed neighborhoods. Rivero hasn't delivered a single house even though he's held on to millions of dollars in public money -- while buying personal properties and an office for more than $4.9 million.
In all, Rivero and his wife purchased five houses in the past two years in South Miami, plus the estate. One of Rivero's companies also bought a $1.2 million office building in Coral Gables where he would oversee his growing enterprises.
Now, Rivero is at the center of a scandal rocking county government and a community desperately in need of decent housing for the working poor.
Miami-Dade prosecutors are poring over his financial records to track how he spent the public dollars. Rivero is scrambling to come up with cash -- he's put up three houses for sale and is borrowing from banks and family members, records and interviews show.
So far, Rivero has returned $1.5 million, about half of what he owes.
But State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle says the return of money does not absolve Rivero and other developers if public funds were used fraudulently.
In a written statement, Rivero said his housing projects were blocked by obstacles that threaten many affordable housing developers, such as labor shortages and rising construction costs.
''What has happened in the last four weeks is heartbreaking to me,'' he said in a statement released by his lawyer, Lilly Ann Sanchez. "The years of hard work are being overshadowed by unfounded allegations questioning my integrity and intentions. . . .
"I love this community. I believe it's all our responsibility to provide affordable housing for the neediest among us and it was my full intention to do my part to the best of my abilities.''
But community leaders and housing advocates are incensed. At rallies organized after The Miami Herald's recent investigation revealed a cadre of developers have not repaid the Housing Agency for houses never built, protesters have held up pictures of Rivero as emblematic of all that's gone wrong in public housing.
''The harm is so deep,'' said lawyer Jorge Luis Lopez, who was chief of staff to Penelas when Rivero was an aide in the office. "Sometimes people believe they are above the law.''
"They're not -- and they need to be held accountable.''
CLASSIC MIAMI STORY
In many ways, Rivero's rise and fall is a classic Miami story of an ambitious developer who benefited from the loose controls of a chronically mismanaged government agency flush with cash and rife with cronyism.
He was born in 1970 in Hialeah, home to thousands of working-class Cuban exiles who settled in tiny homes and got jobs in garment shops, warehouses, bakeries and family-owned cafeterias.
Rivero's father drove a bus for Miami-Dade Transit. His mother worked for minimum wage behind a sewing machine in a factory.
Interviews with friends, business associates and former classmates paint a snapshot of a young man who desperately wanted a richer, larger, more exciting life.
As a teenager in the 1980s, he was exposed to the fevered street politics of Hialeah, a breeding ground for some of Miami's most powerful politicians. He worked on the campaigns of state Sen. Roberto Casas, and later Casas' young protégé, Penelas, on the Hialeah City Council.
After graduating from Hialeah High in 1987, he went on to Florida International University and joined Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, where he was introduced to Cuban Americans who came from wealthier places like Coral Gables and Kendall. Some of those frat brothers are his business and political associates today.
During his college years, Rivero landed a $550-a-week job as a junior aide to Penelas, then a county commissioner -- a connection that would serve him for years and introduce him to the key County Hall figures now involved with Rivero in the unfolding housing scandal.
Penelas declined to comment.
In 1993, Rivero left Miami to finish law school at Florida State University, returning in 1995 to take a job at the powerhouse firm Adorno & Zeder.
''Oscar was bright . . . and really wanted to be involved in the community,'' said lawyer-lobbyist George Knox, one of Rivero's mentors at the firm.
Rivero was never far from County Hall: In 1996, he led a group of 45 twenty-somethings who launched IMPACT Miami, a coalition of young professionals from a cross-section of Miami's cultures and races. The group held a splashy kickoff attended by Penelas and other county luminaries on the steps of the downtown courthouse.
''There was nothing for us unless you joined an establishment group like the Chamber of Commerce, where you're just another little voice or a segmented ethnic group like the Latin Builders,'' Rivero, then 26, said at the time.
"Divisions aren't getting us anywhere. I hate to say it, but our elders have messed it up. We're coming together now for the betterment of the whole community.''
MAKING A NAME
Affable and energetic, Rivero began making a name for himself in political circles, applying for gubernatorial appointments and contributing to candidates for offices ranging from obscure Statehouse seats to the U.S. Senate.
In 2000, Rivero himself landed in public office, becoming a board member at the Miami Parking Authority, run by longtime friend Art Noriega. The job for the first time gave Rivero the power to approve multimillion-dollar government contracts.
As chairman, he would vote for contracts for business partner Alben Duffie's development company and a security firm that employs County Commission Chairman Joe Martinez as executive director, The Miami Herald found.
In the summer of 2001, Gov. Jeb Bush selected Rivero to join then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in the back of the Versailles restaurant in Little Havana to dine with a small group that included legislators, lobbyists and activists to hash out issues affecting the Cuban community.
This year, he even was appointed to Miami's prestigious Orange Bowl Committee.
''[Rivero] was a young kid who played politics,'' said former Hialeah City Councilman Evelio Medina. "He grew up in the system, basically building relationships and ties with different people. He created his destiny that way.''
Emboldened by his new connections, Rivero, who had opened his own law firm, began laying the foundation for what was to become his new career. He had long represented developers in affordable housing; now he was becoming one.
''I am keenly aware of the need for such housing,'' he wrote in a 1999 application seeking a spot on an affordable housing study commission in Tallahassee. "In addition, I am interested in furthering such development and ensuring [projects] are developed in the proper manner.''
He never got the job.
In 2001, at age 31, Rivero formed his own development company. He also landed a spot on the county's Housing Finance Authority, which provides tax-exempt bonds for affordable housing. His sponsor: newly elected County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa.
''They told me he was an attorney, a respected person,'' said Sosa, who said she cannot recall who recommended Rivero.
Immediately, Rivero drew controversy.
He began pushing to fund Ward Towers, an elderly housing complex being developed by the Miami-Dade Housing Agency and the nonprofit MDHA Development Corp., created a year earlier by county commissioners.
At the time, Housing Finance Authority Executive Director Patricia Braynon said she was puzzled at Rivero's insistence to release the cash. The Housing Agency hadn't even supplied cost schedules, appraisals and other crucial paperwork -- all required before money is doled out.
What she didn't know at the time was that two of Rivero's associates were on the receiving end of the deal, Braynon said.
One was Rene Rodriguez, who had been appointed to lead the Housing Agency in 1996 under Penelas, then the county's influential mayor and Rivero's former boss. Rodriguez was not only the director of the Housing Agency, but president of the county-funded Development Corp.
Rivero's other tie to the deal: Duffie, a longtime county employee and board member of the Development Corp.
Ward Towers was a proposed $16 million project, with millions earmarked for architects, consultants and general contractor Delant Construction. When completed, the Development Corp. was slated to receive a $1 million developer's fee.
''Oscar Rivero was the only one fighting for this,'' Braynon said. "The board kept saying that this was not our process.''
Eventually, the Housing Agency provided the necessary paperwork and Ward Towers received $8 million in bonds.
A year after he joined the Housing Finance Authority, Rivero left to become a member of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, appointed by Bush.
''That was the last I heard of him,'' Braynon said.
But it wasn't the last time Rivero, Rodriguez and Duffie would strike controversial housing deals.
In fact, with Rodriguez at the helm of the Housing Agency, Rivero quickly became a player at a department brimming with tens of millions of dollars from Miami-Dade's affordable housing construction fund.
In 2002, Rivero created a company called Riverside Homes of South Florida and promised to build 24 houses along a canal in a poor neighborhood in the shadow of Interstate 95.
He told the Housing Agency in his application for the money, "Riverside Homes is ready to proceed NOW!''
The first check: $500,000, dated Sept. 25, 2002. Records show Rodriguez ordered the payment even though the move violated Housing Agency policy, which prohibits advances to developers who have not started construction. At least two Housing Agency administrators say they objected, but Rodriguez wouldn't budge. Rodriguez and Rivero had been golfing buddies.
''The circles are very tight there, in government,'' said Lopez, Penelas' former chief of staff. "There's a line that often gets crossed.''
Money continued to flow to Riverside Homes, with the Housing Agency sending three more payments for a total of $360,000, including the most recent allotment of $96,000 in December.
That money came just months after a Housing Agency staffer warned that no work had begun on Riverside Homes -- three years after the first $500,000 was paid.
''The project has not started,'' the Housing Agency's Alberto Diaz wrote. "Work stopped after land clearing.''
Despite the setbacks with Riverside, another one of Rivero's companies -- this one called Rivers Development Group -- received $816,000 from the Housing Agency for the proposed 54-unit Las Rosas Apartments in Little Havana.
Again, the money was paid before construction started. Again, the project never materialized.
In Rivero's four-year run with the Housing Agency, which continued even after Rodriguez resigned in mid-2004, he pitched at least five more projects and was approved for $4.9 million, records show. But the projects went nowhere, contracts were canceled, and the money was never spent.
Overall, however, Rivero's companies collected almost $1.7 million for Riverside Homes and Las Rosas -- both now dead.
While Rivero was wheeling and dealing, he was living in a Brickell Avenue condo, attending political bashes and teeing off at charity golf tournaments. In 2003, he met Yvette Aleman, an engineer from a prominent Cuban-American family. They married a year later and bought the land for their 11,000-square-foot estate.
At the same time, Rivero was broadening his business base, turning to three new agencies for affordable housing money. One of them was the city of Miami, which paid $530,000 in 2005 for the Las Rosas project.
''It was a promising, feasible project,'' said Barbara Gomez-Rodriguez, who runs Miami's Department of Community Development. She is married to Rene Rodriguez from the county Housing Agency. They are now divorcing.
Rivero also tapped the county's Office of Community and Economic Development and was awarded a total of $750,000 in 2003 and 2004 for Riverside Homes.
Finally, Rivero turned to the MDHA Development Corp., founded by Rene Rodriguez, with Duffie as a longtime board member.
Rivero and Duffie had worked and invested together in earlier ventures, partnering in at least two development projects at Metrorail stations, The Miami Herald found.
Rivero convinced the Development Corp. to contribute $750,000 for a 46-unit project called Sunset Pointe Apartments in South Miami.
As the dollars poured in for his affordable housing ventures, Rivero and his wife bought six houses between 2004 and 2006, including the estate property, records show.
$7M IN MORTGAGES
In all, they racked up more than $7 million in mortgages, credit lines and construction loans on the six properties. In late December, Rivero and a partner also purchased the $1.2 million office condo in Coral Gables.
But his affordable housing projects were unraveling -- delayed by zoning, permitting and other issues, Rivero maintained.
The Housing Agency began demanding its money back. So did the city of Miami, which learned four months after Rivero received the $530,000 that he no longer could build the elderly rental complex because of rising construction costs.
Finally, his failed projects were detailed in July by The Miami Herald, sparking a public outcry.
The county Office of Community and Economic Development canceled its $750,000 award to Riverside Homes with no money paid. Meanwhile, prosecutors subpoenaed Rivero's bank and land records to trace the money.
Rivero's attorney said he took out a personal bank loan to build the estate.
Scrambling for cash in recent weeks, Rivero put three houses up for sale and struck a deal to sell the land for the proposed Sunset Pointe Apartments. He upped his mortgage on another condo property by $412,000.
On a recent afternoon, just days before Rivero started returning the public's money, he came to the door of his new office when reporters visited.
He said he didn't want to talk about his problems, insisting he wouldn't be portrayed fairly by the media, but would be able to defend himself against legal challenges.
Behind him was a modernist painting hanging in the foyer of a man dressed in a sharp tuxedo, smoking a cigar.
Next to it: the well-known picture of a woman in white robes -- holding the scales of justice.