Published: Oct. 2, 2007 Miami-Dade Empowerment Trust
Political insiders got poverty funds
Money intended for job creation in Miami-Dade County's poorest neighborhoods was used for loans to politically connected people and their companies.

It was the week before Christmas, and William Perry III needed a miracle.

A collection agency threatened to take the one-time lobbyist's Miami Shores home in a foreclosure suit to recoup an overdue $100,000 business loan. A critical court hearing on Dec. 17, 2002, was set to decide the case.

The day before the hearing, help arrived in the form of the Miami-Dade Empowerment Trust.

The poverty agency jumped into the lawsuit, offering to pay $98,000 to take over the loan, which had been overdue for at least three years, the collection agency said in court papers.

The move spared Perry's house, and it saved him some money: When the trust finally drafted a loan agreement with Perry - about 15 months after the courthouse rescue - the agency also gave Perry a $5,000 rebate, records show.

A restaurant owner who sits on the Miami-Dade Tourist Development Council, Perry is one of several political insiders whose businesses received public dollars from the Empowerment Trust, a nonprofit founded to help create jobs in Miami-Dade County's poorest neighborhoods.

They include Homestead's mayor, a former college president, the head of the state's wildlife commission, and a lobbyist who is the sister of a county commissioner. Combined, their companies received nearly $1 million in low-interest loans from the poverty agency.

These deals illustrate the breakdowns in oversight that have pervaded the trust for years: The trust failed to collect an application for one loan, and then allowed that loan to go unpaid for years, records show. In another case, trust officials forgot to file a mortgage as collateral.

Some of these deals benefited companies that weren't even in the empowerment zone neighborhoods that the trust is supposed to help.

MONEY AND POWER

Many of these loans can be traced to a little-known county fund and the trust's former president, Bryan Finnie, who was given wide discretion over who received money, records show.

Beginning in 2002 - and continuing for more than two years - Finnie was allowed to manage a county-backed loan pool without approval from the trust's board.

At the time he ran the trust, Finnie also played a dual role as head of the county's Office of Community and Economic Development.

While wearing the two hats, Finnie handed out business loans with little scrutiny from the trust or from County Hall.

In 2002, Perry was one of the first to be helped.

Four years earlier, the former lobbyist borrowed $100,000 for his shuttle-service company, WRP Transportation, from a county loan pool. But by January 1999, he stopped making payments, according to court records.

In 2002, the county turned the loan over to another nonprofit, which in turn sent the loan to a collection agency. The bill collectors then went to court to seize Perry's house, collateral for the 1998 loan.

In the meantime, county officials turned the loan fund over to the Empowerment Trust, to be managed by Finnie.

Just one day before a judge was going to rule on the bill collectors' claim against Perry, the trust stepped in, using the same county loan pool to pay off the collection agency. In short, Finnie approved a new loan to cover Perry's loan from the same pot.

Perry said he didn't ask for the trust's help. He said he was living up to a payment plan at the time of the lawsuit - although a lawyer for the collection agency said in court papers that there was no such agreement.

Perry called the 2002 loan a "restructuring," and said he believed that his company's loan was transferred to the trust along with the others from the county loan fund.

But when the same collection agency went to court on another loan from the same county fund - only eight days after the bill collectors sued Perry - the trust did not step in, records show.

Finnie later agreed to lift the mortgage on Perry's four-bedroom house - giving the trust less security than the county's original loan - and forgive $5,000 from Perry's new debt. According to a trust memo, Perry deserved the rebate because he "unnecessarily'' paid legal fees in the lawsuit - although the trust wasn't involved in the suit. Perry said he owes only about $20,000 on the new loan today.

OTHER CONNECTIONS

Perry, a one-time candidate for county mayor, has other ties to the Empowerment Trust.

His wife is part of a business team that received a $500,000 loan from the poverty agency in 2003 to open a Chili's restaurant in Bayside Marketplace.

The loan is backed by another company that includes Perry and Dewey Knight III, a former campaign manager for County Commissioner Dorrin Rolle. County commissioners also approved the deal.

Perry called the company a "shining success story'' that hired dozens of employees from the empowerment zone neighborhood. County records show that the company has 88 workers - although the trust claims on its website that the company has 120 workers.

The Chili's partnership also received another $225,000 loan managed by the trust - a debt that, while on the trust's watch, was five months overdue through July, records show.

The $225,000 came from the Bayside Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes minority-owned businesses at the waterfront mall in downtown Miami. Perry is a trustee of the foundation, and its president is T. Willard Fair - also chairman of the Empowerment Trust's board.

The foundation also gave Chili's a grant of $75,000 for "technical assistance," records show.

Perry said he did not vote on the foundation money for Chili's. He said a request for an extension on the loan has not yet been decided.

Fair declined to be interviewed for this report.

In 2003, the trust put up a $400,000 low-interest loan to help another start-up restaurant in Miami Gardens - a business co-owned by Homestead Mayor Roscoe Warren.

Warren is an "ex-officio'' member of the trust who selects some board members. Warren and his partner, former Florida Memorial University President Willie C. Robinson, used the money to build a new Denny's restaurant near Dolphin Stadium.

Warren said he has only a 10 percent stake in the company and said Robinson handled negotiations with the trust. He said he did not think the loan posed a conflict because he doesn't have a vote on the board.

The contract was risky for the trust: If Warren and Robinson's company defaulted, the trust couldn't try to collect until a $1.2 million private loan on the property was paid off first.

Indeed, the company did default on the loan last November, records show, before the partners finally sold the restaurant and paid off all but $75,000 of the trust loan.

EX-LOBBYIST'S LOAN

The trust put itself in another risky position in a loan to former County Hall lobbyist Rodney Barreto.

The longtime chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said he went to the trust in 2003 for a loan for his export company in the Wynwood empowerment zone.

The purpose of the $280,000 loan was to renovate a "bum-infested'' building and expand his business, he said. The trust deal allowed Barreto to get a lower interest rate on the loan.

But records show that the trust bungled a crucial part of the deal: The agency failed to place a mortgage on Barreto's property, as originally outlined in the loan documents. Barreto paid off the trust loan after selling the building last year.

"I was probably a great success story," Barreto said. "It created jobs, we fixed up the building. I did a good thing."

Like the loan to Perry, the deals with Barreto, Warren and Robinson were never approved by the trust's board. Because they came from the separate county loan portfolio, they were approved only by Finnie and the trust's chief financial officer, Rodney Carey.

By virtue of a 2002 vote, the trust board agreed to allow its staff to manage this fund without board approval.

Since then, trust officials have approved nearly $3.3 million in business loans from this fund with almost no oversight. Through July, 38 percent of these loans were overdue, records show.

Technically, these loans were approved by the county's Office of Community and Economic Development - the agency headed by Finnie at the same time he ran the trust.

County Manager George Burgess called Finnie's arrangement "very odd" and said it was instituted before he took over as the county's top administrator in June 2003. Finnie left both the trust and the community development office in July 2005 to work for a development company.

Finnie did not respond to interview requests.

The county plans to take back control of this loan fund from the trust, Burgess said last week.

POLITICAL TIES

One of the actions the trust board approved was a $200,000 loan in 2001 to lobbyist Sandy Walker - a deal that ended with Walker's arrest on a fraud charge.

Walker's political ties run deep: A former aide to County Commissioner Dennis Moss, Walker is also the sister of Barbara Jordan, a county commissioner and former assistant county manager.

As a county staffer, Jordan helped oversee the Empowerment Trust as it was getting started, although there is no indication that she played a role in her sister's loan.

Walker and a partner used the trust loan to buy an Overtown apartment building - but the planned renovations never happened.

The trust's loan was generous: Walker's company didn't have to make any payments for three years, and the trust chose not to secure the property with a mortgage, although it had the right to do so.

Still, Walker's company fell behind on the payments, records show - until last year, when Walker was arrested on charges of defrauding the agency.

Prosecutors said Walker had misled the trust by providing tax returns to the agency that failed to disclose her income as a County Hall lobbyist.

Walker is awaiting trial. She has pleaded not guilty, although her attorney, Ben Kuehne, has conceded the tax returns were "inaccurate."

Kuehne said Walker received the loan "on the merits'' and said Walker is now renovating the building.

In December, Walker paid off the trust loan with a check for $211,117.91.