Boston developer Dennis Stackhouse arrived in Miami-Dade County with a troubled financial history and a bold plan: to develop a $250 million biopharmaceutical park in one of the neediest neighborhoods in the country.
He had no financing to build buildings, no tenants to fill them, and no experience constructing the high-tech facilities required by pharmaceutical companies to test and manufacture drugs.
What he did have: an all-star lineup of lobbyists, lawyers, consultants and politicians who drummed up support -- and, in some cases, millions of public dollars -- for a biotech project in Liberty City that after four years consists of only a lot cleared for a parking garage.
His roster includes a powerful county commissioner, a former chairman of the state House Appropriations Committee, a board member of Jackson Memorial Hospital and the mother of a powerful U.S. congressman, herself a former congresswoman.
As the biotech park stalled and Stackhouse diverted more than $500,000 from a county poverty agency through double billing and dubious expenses, he spent hundreds of thousands on political insiders in Miami, Tallahassee and Washington, a Miami Herald investigation found.
Former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, who has a street named after her just blocks from the proposed park, received at least $40,000 from one of Stackhouse's companies, a leased Cadillac Escalade and a 2,600-square-foot office for her foundation, rent-free.
She was paid as her son, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, requested millions of federal dollars for the biotech project, congressional records show.
County Commissioner Dorrin Rolle, who represents Liberty City, received thousands for his campaign coffers and a $10,000 donation to the nonprofit social-service agency that pays him $177,000 a year.
Lobbyists, lawyers and consultants took in hundreds of thousands more.
Today, the Poinciana Biopharmaceutical Park is little more than a collection of vast empty lots on a swath of land where nearly 30 years ago politicians promised to heal the wounds of the worst race riot in Florida's history.
''Poinciana Park has failed the community for over 20 years. The biotech deal is not the answer,'' said Gihan Perera, the executive director of the Miami Workers Center in Liberty City. ``This valuable land must be used to serve the deep economic and housing needs of Liberty City residents.''
Kendrick Meek defended his involvement in the project, saying he grew up in the neighborhood and supported the project because he believed it would revive Liberty City.
He said "there is absolutely no connection" between his efforts to fund the project and his mother's involvement with Stackhouse.
''She's never asked me -- and I will be very clear -- to do any appropriations on behalf of the biotech park,'' he said.
Carrie Meek said she is a private citizen and was paid by Stackhouse as a consultant for the project.
She said she never lobbied her son on behalf of the developer or had any role in securing public money for the biotech park.
"I did not ever discuss the biotech park . . . with my son," she said. "I have been in public service for over 37 years and pride myself on the fact that I have maintained my reputation and integrity throughout my tenure."
Stackhouse also said Carrie Meek had nothing to do with her son's requests for federal dollars.
"It's totally unrelated," he said. "Trust me."
As a relative newcomer to Miami-Dade, Stackhouse benefited from an abundance of access and credibility as he moved to secure acres of public land and millions of tax dollars set aside to fight poverty.
Nothing helps explain his success more than his relationship with Carrie Meek, who spent a decade in Congress as one of Florida's first black lawmakers since Reconstruction.
Meek told The Miami Herald that her involvement in the biotech park began in 2003, when Stackhouse approached her to become a consultant. She said her agreement with Stackhouse lasted until mid-2004.
''I searched her out,'' Stackhouse said. ``In the inner city, depressed areas, perception is nine-tenths of the battle. She's like Mother Teresa.''
In March 2004, Carrie Meek lent her name to a nonprofit created by Stackhouse called the Carrie Meek Biopharmaceutical Institute.
Invoking the name of the former congresswoman from Liberty City lent Stackhouse's proposal instant credibility.
The institute was supposed to be a partnership between Miami Dade College and Florida A&M University, one that would train hundreds of workers and students to manufacture drugs in the biotech park.
But records and interviews show that the nonprofit exists only on paper, with Stackhouse as the sole officer.
There is no building. There are no students. And the institute hasn't trained a single worker since it was created three years ago.
In June 2005, Carrie Meek showed up at the park's lavish groundbreaking ceremony.
''It's no secret,'' Meek said at the event. ``The primary problem that has plagued our Liberty City community for generations is the absence of available jobs and educational opportunities.''
Since then, however, nothing has been built, and the park is months behind schedule.
Despite the delays, Meek said she hadn't talked with Stackhouse in detail about the project since the groundbreaking.
''I am not involved in the day-to-day, week-to-week work,'' she said.
Then, in April, Stackhouse approached her about traveling to Tallahassee to meet with Gov. Charlie Crist and rally support for a $20 million state grant for the park, she said.
During the meeting, Meek was direct: ``Governor, we'd like to ask you today whether or not we can count on your support for this project.''
Crist promised to review the deal and visit Liberty City but declined to support the funding at the time.
Although Meek does not appear as a consultant on any document related to the project, bank records obtained by The Miami Herald show that a Stackhouse company paid her at least $40,000 between February and December 2004.
''I briefly served as a paid consultant for Dennis Stackhouse, advising him on community needs and issues, community-based groups and problems,'' she said.
For the past two years, she has had the free use of a luxury car registered to one of Stackhouse's companies, records show.
Meek said the car is part of ''an in-kind contribution'' to her nonprofit, the Carrie Meek Foundation.
Stackhouse, however, said she needed the car to work on the biotech park.
Records obtained by The Miami Herald show that he tried to pay for Meek's car lease with project money from a private loan he received using county land as collateral. But when he submitted the $3,998 car bill, the lender refused to reimburse him for the expense.
That prompted an exchange between Stackhouse's assistant vice president of administration and the loan officer for the Boston investment firm, according to e-mails obtained by The Miami Herald.
''This car is used by Congresswoman Meek, she is part of the BIOPHARMACEUTICAL INSTITUTE as a tenant and liaison with Jackson Memorial, [Florida A&M] & [Miami Dade College]. Why would this not be covered under Public Relations?'' the bookkeeper wrote in a July 2006 e-mail.
The loan officer provided a curt response: ``I know what it's for -- I can't justify paying for her car!''
Canceled checks show that Stackhouse used the biotech park's bank account to make at least some of the lease payments.
Other than the private loan, the only source of funding for Poinciana is a $3 million interest-free loan from the Miami-Dade Empowerment Trust, a county-funded nonprofit poverty agency that is overseeing the biotech park.
Stackhouse acknowledged that he used project funds to pay for the car, saying, ``This was a Poinciana [Biopharmaceutical Park] expense.''
Besides money and cars, a Stackhouse company also provided the Carrie Meek Foundation with free rent on a 2,600-square-foot office in his building in Opa-locka, according to rent rolls obtained by The Miami Herald and interviews with Meek and Stackhouse.
While Carrie Meek received tens of thousands of dollars and a free car from the developer, her son moved to secure millions of federal dollars for the park.
In 2004, Kendrick Meek obtained a $72,750 earmark in the federal budget to fund the park -- six months before the county signed a formal deal with Stackhouse.
The congressman helped get a $1 million labor grant for Miami Dade College in June 2005 to ''train 800 technicians and related workers for the [Poinciana] Biopharmaceutical Park,'' according to a press release from the congressman's office.
Then, in April 2006, he requested $4 million in federal funds for Stackhouse's project, according to appropriations requests obtained by The Miami Herald.
Meek failed to obtain the funds last year, but documents submitted by Stackhouse to the county since then show that Meek has requested money again this year.
Meek said that the requests were handled by his staff and that his mother held no sway in the efforts to get federal money for the park.
''There's a lot going on in this office,'' he said. ``It's a staff-driven process.''
In Miami-Dade, Meek chaired a county anti-poverty task force that in 2004 loaned a Stackhouse company $2.2 million for the building it owns in Opa-locka -- where the Carrie Meek Foundation receives free office space.
Kendrick Meek said that he could not recall details of the loan from the Urban Revitalization Task Force and that he never played a large role in the organization. Records from task force meetings show that Meek didn't vote on the loan and was not present when the loan was approved.
For more than a year, Stackhouse has failed to make payments on the loan and now his company owes the county more than $140,000, records show.
In 2005, the same task force awarded a different Stackhouse company another $3 million loan, this one for the Poinciana Biopharmaceutical Park in Liberty City.
The task-force chairman at the time: Anthony Williams, Kendrick Meek's former chief of staff and now executive director of the Carrie Meek Foundation.
Because Stackhouse has failed to deliver a single building for the park, he hasn't drawn down that money. But the developer is still required to make interest payments.
To date, his company owes the county nearly $70,000 in late payments.
Between the two loans, Stackhouse's companies now owe Miami-Dade County more than $200,000.
Inside County Hall, no one has been more vocal in pushing Stackhouse's troubled project than County Commissioner Dorrin Rolle, whose district includes the biopharmaceutical park.
Rolle was the driving force behind the county's decision to purchase a $23 million parking garage for the park, although Stackhouse acknowledges that he has no financing to pay for the buildings to go with it.
Rolle even asked to move the deal through the commission a month early, records show. ''The purpose of this request is to fast-track . . . this project that substantially benefits District 2 and Miami-Dade Community as a whole,'' Rolle wrote to commission Chairman Bruno Barreiro in January.
Along the way, Stackhouse, nine of his companies and three employees contributed $8,000 to the commissioner's 2006 reelection campaign, according to records and interviews.
In May 2006, seven months before Rolle urged fellow commissioners to support the parking garage, Stackhouse used another $10,000 in project funds to make a donation to the nonprofit agency headed by Rolle, the James E. Scott Community Association.
''We've been trying to develop Poinciana since I was knee-high to a grasshopper,'' Rolle later told his fellow commissioners.
Rolle did not respond to repeated calls and an e-mail seeking comment.
Stackhouse also spent more than $100,000 meant for the biopharmaceutical park on lobbyists in Tallahassee and Washington -- even as the project fell months behind schedule.
When seeking a $20 million appropriation in the state budget during last year's legislative session, for example, he paid thousands to the Tallahassee office of lobbying powerhouse Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney. He didn't get the money but was back again this year, pushing for the $20 million.
This time, he had five lobbyists promoting the biotech park -- including the former chairman of the state House Appropriations Committee, Republican Joe Negron of Stuart.
Five months before applying for the money in January, Stackhouse used $10,000 in project funds to contribute to the Florida Republican Party, according to campaign finance reports.
State Rep. Adam Hasner, a Republican from Palm Beach, and Sen. Mark Haridopolis, a Republican from Melbourne, agreed to sponsor Stackhouse's application, even though neither lawmaker represents the county that would benefit from the project. They couldn't be reached for comment.
The Legislature did not approve the request, so Stackhouse applied for a $20 million state grant and asked Meek in May to urge the governor to support it. The application is pending.
According to project records, no firm has made more money lobbying, consulting and lawyering for the biotech park than the Miami law firm Akerman Senterfitt.
Records from the Stackhouse company developing the park show that the law firm has received more than $250,000 in project funds during the past four years.
As many as a half-dozen Akerman lawyers have lobbied state and local leaders, handled lawsuits against the developer, and even fought a records request by the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission, which was investigating an Opa-locka city commissioner whose nonprofit received free rent in Stackhouse's building while the commissioner voted to give his company tax breaks.
In all, Stackhouse companies received commitments for nearly $30 million in public money from county leaders since he began to push the biotech park in 2003.
That includes $23 million the County Commission approved to purchase a parking garage that the developer says will be built in the next two years -- even though the garage is already months behind schedule and there is no money to put up buildings to go with it.
''This little project that couldn't has turned doubters into believers,'' Commissioner Rolle said after the vote.