Published Dec. 21, 2008

Transit hires after tax hike included the well-connected
Aides and secretaries to current and former public officials found new jobs at the transit agency after voters backed a sales tax for transportation in 2002.
BY LARRY LEBOWITZ

They called it ``The Friends and Family Plan.''

The name, cribbed from a cellphone company's sales pitch, described the wave of patronage hires, reclassifications and promotions that crested over Miami-Dade Transit after voters ratified a new sales tax in 2002.

The new hires included aides and secretaries to ex-Mayor Alex Penelas, current and former Commissioners Barbara Carey-Shuler, Jimmy Morales, Betty Ferguson, José ''Pepe'' Diaz, Sally Heyman, Dennis Moss, Katy Sorensen and Natacha Seijas, and retired U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek.

They also included four distant cousins of former Transit Director Roosevelt Bradley.

Many of the aides who worked for Penelas and the former commissioners were moved into the transit agency under county personnel ''pipeline'' rules that give placement preference to workers whose jobs are being eliminated.

''A lot of those people -- I didn't know them personally,'' Bradley said. ``They were pipelined in because their jobs were gone and we had the openings. Some of them competed and were selected. Nothing wrong with that.''

Among the transit hires:

• Maurice Williams, self-proclaimed mastermind behind fuel farm thefts at Miami International Airport, hired as a rail track repair supervisor in 2003 despite a criminal past including a gun charge.

• Charles Wellons, a retired police detective and Meek aide, who admitted under oath that he was handed a bag filled with $3,000 in tainted cash by a prominent lobbyist during Miami's 1997 vote-fraud scandal. He was given immunity.

• Dwayne T. Holloway, son of former state representative and current Miami-Dade School Board member Wilbert ''Tee'' Holloway. A few months earlier, Dwayne Holloway lost his job as a Broward County corrections officer for smoking marijuana. He refused to comment.

• Yvette D. Curtis, a daughter of Commissioner Dorrin Rolle, hired to fill a personnel technician opening in the civil rights and labor relations office in July 2003. She now earns about $42,000 a year. Curtis declined to comment. Her father did not respond to messages.

Other hires included veteran county staffer Mayra Bustamante, who was placed in a high-ranking transit job in March 2003 after running into contract controversies at her previous post as an assistant aviation director.

Bustamante rose to deputy transit director over administration. When director Bradley was fired in 2007, he publicly tried to blame many of the agency's financial problems on Bustamante and said he repeatedly tried to fire her but was overruled by County Manager George Burgess.

Bradley's successor, Harpal Kapoor, ultimately forced Bustamante to retire in May, after 31 years with the county.

Bustamante could not be reached for comment.

Many of the hires -- including Beatriz Fullington, a security office supervisor who was led from County Hall in handcuffs on a prior grand theft warrant -- were funneled into the agency through a side-door contract with temporary hiring agencies.

Transit security supervisor Wellons was hired in 2004 after his previous employer, former Rep. Meek, retired.

''I went to Roosevelt Bradley personally; he told me how to line up the job'' with the temporary agency, Wellons said. ``I did what he said, and now I'm here.''

A retired Miami police detective before working for Meek, Wellons was given immunity from prosecution in the vote fraud scandal in 1998. He described how he was handed a plastic bag filled with $3,000 in cash by a prominent lobbyist Steve Marin. Marin denied it. Nobody was charged.

''My life is transparent,'' Wellons said. ``I value my integrity.''

SON PROMOTED

In October 2005, the transit agency promoted Carey-Shuler's son, Archibald Jr., from a system's programmer job to a higher-paying position as chief superintendent over rail traffic control.

Carey-Shuler resigned her commission seat in December 2005. Two months later, the agency reclassified all four chiefs, including Archibald Carey, to a higher-paying exempt status. The result: Between 2002 and 2007, his gross pay swelled 63 percent, from $70,761 to $115,427.

Carey was a respected 15-year transit employee with top computer skills who resigned in February, transit officials said. He could not be reached for comment.

Bradley said Carey earned the promotion and that the reclassification put all chief rail superintendents on the same level as chiefs in other divisions.

Four distant cousins of Bradley by marriage -- bus operator Candace Jaghai, bus maintenance control clerk Daryl Jaghai, bus maintenance technician Delroy Jaghai and clerk Shaari Jaghai -- were brought into the agency via the temporary contract and eventually placed in full-time jobs. They did not respond to requests for comment.

An assistant county attorney ruled in 2006 that Bradley had not violated county nepotism rules because the Jaghais were related by marriage.

Williams received immunity from prosecution in the fuel farm case as a whistleblower who helped investigators convict others.

In depositions, Williams admitted pocketing $300 a week in kickbacks from Antonio Junior, a County Hall lobbyist, for steering him a security contract. Junior pleaded guilty in the fuel farm case.

Williams also said he pocketed more than $50,000 in kickbacks from others who were convicted in the scandal.

The depositions detail an extensive criminal past that was never discovered during his 2003 hiring as a rail-track repair supervisor.

Williams admitted he had been purchasing ounce-sized quantities of cocaine in Miami and driving them in rental cars to his hometown, Troy, Ala. One of Williams' fuel-farm colleagues was murdered in a drug-deal-gone-sour.

BACKGROUND CHECKS

Williams was hired at a time when the county government was checking only Miami-Dade court and police records for background checks. Williams' arrests -- including a gun-menacing conviction -- occurred in Alabama.

The county now conducts more thorough statewide and national checks.

In a brief interview, Williams declined to comment, other than to say that he applied for the transit job after seeing an ad in the newspaper.

Miami Herald staff writer Rob Barry contributed to this report.