It was a triumphant night for Rene Rodriguez, nationally esteemed director of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, who pumped hands and posed for pictures at a packed celebration marking the county's 20-year push to build homes for the poor.
Standing alongside builders and politicians at a hotel on Biscayne Bay two years ago, Rodriguez praised the unique county tax created in 1983 to pay for the "dreams of homeownership" for thousands of families.
But while lauding the county's "surtax" fund - the first of its kind in Florida - he was quietly steering millions of dollars from the coveted program to a small circle of developers who have yet to produce the projects they promised.
All the while, Rodriguez was paving the way for a lucrative future of his own.
Just weeks after the party, he retired from government and set up shop as a consultant.
Over the next two years, he was paid tens of thousands of dollars from at least seven developers who had received construction money from the Housing Agency when Rodriguez was director - including Oscar Rivero, charged by the state attorney with using the agency's money to buy himself a South Miami house.
Now Rodriguez is at the heart of the most sweeping criminal investigation ever of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency.
The state attorney's office is combing through hundreds of documents to analyze Rodriguez's spending at the agency, his ties to developers and the money he was paid after he retired.
Some of the payments came from Citywide Development, which received a $1 million loan from the agency to build for the poor, but ended up selling some houses to real estate investors who flipped them for profit - a breach of county policy. Citywide acknowledges paying Rodriguez for more than a year, with installments as high as $5,000 a month.
Another payment for $50,000 came from Rivero, whose development companies received $1.7 million for projects never delivered. Rivero's attorney, Lilly Ann Sanchez, would not comment.
Rodriguez not only took money from builders but formed a development company in late 2004 with Nestor Plana - whose assisted-living firm was awarded the contract at the county's newest public housing complex. Plana said he paid Rodriguez "several thousand dollars a month" for more than a year to develop housing for the elderly, but no deals were ever struck.
It's not illegal for former county employees to do business with companies that have received government money and contracts - Rodriguez even sought a county ethics opinion that cleared the way for him to do the work.
But after years of questionable spending with Rodriguez at the helm of one of the nation's largest housing agencies, investigators want to determine whether Rodriguez and others manipulated the system for personal gain.
One piece of evidence: files from the hard drive of Rodriguez's home computer detailing some of his business transactions. His estranged wife, city of Miami housing director Barbara Gomez-Rodriguez, acknowledges she turned over the information.
Her lawyers, Jose Quiñon and Javier Perez-Abreu, say they want a complete list of Rodriguez's consulting clients and earnings. Several of the companies that paid Rodriguez received city of Miami housing dollars - deals that Gomez-Rodriguez now fears will be called into question.
"This has been a nightmare," she said.
Rodriguez, 54, has avoided the spotlight in recent months even as news stories, a grand jury investigation and government studies detailed widespread failures at the agency he left behind. The scandal has sparked countywide protests, the removal of seven employees and dozens of policy changes at the Housing Agency.
Rodriguez did not respond to requests for an interview, including two letters sent to his Miami Beach home. A call to his attorney was not returned.
The sudden fall of the former housing chief whose career spanned three decades in government has stunned local leaders.
"I don't really remember any negatives about this guy," said former County Manager Armando Vidal, who appointed Rodriguez to lead the agency in 1996. "That's why his behavior is so surprising."
Rodriguez got his start as a draftsman, preparing maps and inspecting property for the county's building and zoning department.
At the same time, he studied psychology at Florida International University and eventually earned a master's degree in public administration.
In 1977, he took a job at the Housing Agency, nicknamed little HUD, to help develop services for public housing residents. He earned solid reviews, but was one of hundreds of bureaucrats in a massive agency.
By the mid-1980s, however, Rodriguez began to cultivate connections in government that would allow him to tap the upper echelons of political power in Miami-Dade.
He got involved in the county's Federation of Hispanic Employees. It was a turbulent time, with Hispanic workers claiming discrimination and hiring disparities in a county that had undergone dramatic demographic changes.
Rodriguez moved to the forefront of the debate, which pitted county employees against then-County Manager Sergio Pereira, Dade County's first Hispanic manager.
'HE BETRAYED US'
In July 1987, the group appealed to the County Commission on behalf of Hispanic workers. But when Rodriguez took the podium, he unexpectedly supported Pereira.
"I've seen some major steps taken," he told the commission. "The administration warrants more credit."
The turnaround outraged members of the federation.
"He betrayed us," said Armando Morcate, a federation founder.
The speech marked the beginning of Rodriguez's rise in government. In fact, records show, he received his first big promotion after Pereira in 1988 formed a spinoff agency, called the Department of Special Housing Programs, to manage rent subsidies. Rodriguez was named director of administration and later deputy director.
"I didn't need a deputy director," said Mario Marti, a county veteran who ran the program. "We had the department moving very well, but Rodriguez wanted to go upward and upward."
When Marti retired in 1995, County Manager Vidal appointed Rodriguez interim director. He was largely considered a capable and creative administrator with an interest in developing assisted living programs for the elderly.
But those who knew him said Rodriguez could be brash and at times dismissive, touting his political connections, particularly Alex Penelas, who became Miami-Dade mayor in 1996 - the year that would change the course of public housing in Miami-Dade.
While Rodriguez moved up the ranks at Special Housing Programs, the county's other housing agency - the Department of Housing and Urban Development - was enjoying unprecedented success.
The agency had been on HUD's list of troubled programs since the mid-1980s for decrepit public housing. But director Greg Byrne - whose 1992 appointment was praised by tenants and county leaders - had helped reorganize. He introduced a maintenance program, acquired hundreds more housing units and launched countywide repairs.
But in 1996 just before Penelas became mayor, County Manager Vidal decided to merge the two housing programs, pitting Rodriguez and Byrne for the top job. In May, Vidal offered Byrne the job of deputy director, second in command.
It was widely known that Rodriguez was close to County Hall power brokers, including Penelas, Byrne said.
"They decided who they wanted to run it," he recalled, "and they didn't choose me."
Byrne quit. He's now at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C.
Political veterans remember Byrne as a proven housing administrator.
Then-Dade state attorney Janet Reno, who had sued the Housing Agency in 1987 to force repairs, noted the improvements under Byrne's leadership. "It seems somebody made a mistake in losing him," she recalled.
In May 1996, Rodriguez became director of what is now known as the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, in charge of more than 700 employees, a $270 million budget - and a vital surtax fund fueled by tens of millions of tax dollars.
THE NATIONAL STAGE
In charge of the massive agency, Rodriguez became a high-profile leader.
He got involved in the Washington, D.C.-based Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, testified about funding issues before Congress and gained recognition nationwide for the development of the first public housing assisted living facility, Helen Sawyer Plaza.
He earned stellar evaluations, receiving a bump in pay between 1999 and 2004 by more than 50 percent to $173,800, records show.
"He knew how to think outside the box," said former Assistant County Manager Barbara Jordan, now a county commissioner.
In 1987, Rodriguez had married Gomez-Rodriguez after they ran into each other in a divorce lawyer's office. They later bought two homes, a four-bedroom in Miami Lakes and a Miami Beach condo on Collins Avenue.
All the while, key Housing Agency programs were in shambles, records and interviews show.
Hundreds of public housing units stood wrecked and empty while thousands of families waited for a decent place to live. The new "infill housing" program - which gave developers cheap government land in exchange for homes for the poor - wasn't delivering. The widely touted HOPE VI program launched in 2000 to revitalize public housing in Liberty City suffered from repeated delays.
Behind the scenes, top administrators at the Housing Agency were growing worried: Again and again, Rodriguez made controversial calls involving the county's surtax program. Among them:
The moves occurred under the noses of county leaders, who for years failed to question the flow of dollars even though the Housing Agency violated basic protocol at least 10 times by paying developers before construction had started.
Rodriguez made other controversial calls, too, including naming Emma Duffie, wife of associate Alben Duffie, interim director of the agency's infill housing program.
Rodriguez's successor, Alphonso Brewster, made the promotion permanent in 2005 even though a search committee had ranked her eighth out of nine top contenders.
Brewster removed Emma Duffie this year, the program in disarray. She could not be reached for comment.
IN THE PRIVATE SECTOR
In April 2004, Rodriguez retired - drawing $114,000 from unused sick and vacation time, plus a $60,000-a-year pension.
After he left, he submitted a letter recommending longtime deputy Brewster for the top job - even while serving on the committee engaged in a national search for a new director. Meanwhile, Rodriguez started his own consulting company.
In some cases, he was hired by developers who have regularly delivered affordable housing. He received $20,000 over four months from Pinnacle Housing Group, for example, to work on a deal in Broward County. Pinnacle officials said Rodriguez brought 30 years of experience to the table.
"We thought he could be a good resource for us," said Pinnacle's David Deutch.
Other developers that hired Rodriguez, including the Cornerstone Group, Lewis Swezy and Salomon Yuken, also came through with county housing projects.
At the same time, however, Rodriguez gained work from developers who failed to produce the projects they promised, including Rivero and the MDHA Development Corp., which paid Rodriguez almost $40,000 over seven months after he resigned from the corporation's board.
At Citywide Development, Elena Diaz de Villegas said the company hired Rodriguez to help with complex housing deals but cut ties after more than a year with no deals forged.
In September, Rodriguez shuttered his company.
Meanwhile, as the criminal probe unfolds, the county manager's office has been tightening policies and building safeguards at the Housing Agency.
"[Rodriguez] got so much power," said Marti, the longtime housing administrator. "I don't know how the county allowed that to happen."
Rodriguez became known in county government in 1987 by supporting the then-county manager in a dispute with Hispanic workers.
Housing Agency staffers said it was widely known that Rodriguez was connected to County Hall power brokers, including the former Miami-Dade mayor.
Rivero, one of Rodriguez's golfing buddies, has been charged with using Housing Agency money to buy himself a house.
Duffie was a fellow board member at the nonprofit MDHA Development Corp. Under Rodriguez, the Housing Agency advanced the nonprofit millions for projects still not built.
Masvidal headed the development team for a new Housing Agency office that hasn't been built. Under Rodriguez, the agency gave the project $5 million.
Rodriguez's estranged wife, the City of Miami housing chief, wants a full accounting of consulting deals Rodriguez forged after he retired from the Housing Agency.
The Miami Herald's ongoing investigative series, `House of Lies,' found that in the past five years:
Miami Herald staff writers Larry Lebowitz, Luisa Yanez and Manny Garcia contributed to this report.