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Hialeah politicians profit from land deals

Using a white Lincoln Continental as his office, Vincent Leal can usually be found scouring theneighborhoods of Hialeah in search of house-for-sale bargains and cut-rate vacant lots.

He is a land speculator and his routine is seldom interrupted except on alternate Wednesdays whenLeal, wearing gold chains and a day's growth of beard, arrives at Hialeah's City Hall.

There, perched behind a Formica dais, the stocky Leal joins the rest of Hialeah's Planningand Zoning Board. He dons his wire-rim glasses, toys with a pen, and listens to the unendingarguments of developers, anxious homeowners and angry neighbors.

As a board member, Leal helps shape Dade's second largest city. His vote can determine thesite of a shopping center and whether a new apartment complex will have four levels or 14. It canalso double the value of an acre of land.

But there have been times when Leal has been more than an unbiased judge.

TheMiami Herald's investigation into Hialeah city government found evidence that the 46-year-olddeveloper and real estate speculator had a personal interest in five rezoning cases in which hevoted.

Leal has played a prominent role in the tangled real estate deals that bind Hialeahpoliticians to developers and tie city officials to one another.

Three city council members and a fellow planning and zoning board member have had a hand inLeal's land transactions.

While his rise from refugee to developer might seem like an immigrant's success story, lessflattering pages of Leal's past lie in police files from New York to Puerto Rico.

In the past 20 years, Leal has been arrested but never convicted for numerous offensesranging from selling heroin to shooting his wife's ex-husband outside a Hialeah supermarket.

Leal, whom acquaintances describe as hot-tempered, would not talk to reporters about thearrests or his business dealings, beyond a brief telephone conversation.

"I don't want to talk to you," he said after receiving one list of questions. "I have a rightto do business in Hialeah. After reading that disgusting letter . . . I don't have anything to sayto you."

Interviews and records show:

* Leal voted to rezone property near McDonald Lakein Hialeah for larger apartments five months after he paid for water and sewer connections on thesame land.

Shortly after the 1982 rezoning, Leal bought an apartment building on the site from hisbusiness partner. He sold it six months later for a $49,000 profit.

* Leal voted last September to protect the multifamily zoning on land that he intended tobuy, according to the developer who owned the property in West Hialeah.

Developer Santiago Alvarez said Leal had already agreed to buypart of the land affected by the vote.

"If he didn't actually have contracts signed, he was pretty much set to buy," said Alvarez.

* Leal and ex-Planning and Zoning Board member Herman Echevarria voted to rezone twolots for duplexes in 1982 although they were involved in the purchase of the land at approximatelythe same time.

Echevarria, who has since resigned from the board, said he bought the land through Lealshortly after the rezoning. The zoning change enabled Echevarria to increase his profits by buildingtwo duplexes worth more than $200,000 where a single wood-frame house had stood before.

Echevarria denied any conflict of interest.

* Leal voted in a zoning caseinvolving 10 acres of land that he was trying to buy for a bargain price.

Philip Spiegelman, an official for the 1,500-unit Mango Hill housing development, said Lealpromised favorable zoning votes if he could purchase the 10 acres for $1.4 million. Spiegelman, whosaid the land was worth $2.1 million, refused to sell. Leal subsequently voted against the rezoning.

Leal also bought or controlled dozens of lots in the Mango Hill project while thedeveloper was trying to gain final city approval of its plans. Three city council members and amember of the planning and zoning board were involved in those transactions with Leal.

* Leal voted in Hialeah's most controversial zoning case last year although he revealed hehad an interest in the land, according to Councilman Paulino Nunez and a business associate ofLeal's.

One set of city records identifies Leal as an owner of the property at Okeechobee Road andEast Fourth Avenue.

Leal denied having a financial interest in the proposal to rezone residential land toaccommodate a shopping center. The rezoning was vetoed at the last minute by Hialeah Mayor RaulMartinez.

The landowner of record was Leal's 21-year-old brother-in- law who would have made $150,000had the rezoning been successful. Records show that Leal helped his brother-in-law raise money tobuy the property by giving him a free house.

Leal was appointed to the planning and zoning board in 1982 by former Councilman Jimmy Gunnalthough he was known as a developer who regularly requested controversial zoning changes.

During The Herald's investigation into Hialeah City Hall, Leal was asked to resign byCouncilman and ex-business partner Silvio Cardoso, who said he made the request because "things weregetting to be too conflictive."

Leal refused.

"It's the highest position he's everheld," explained Cardoso. "It's a real honor to him."

Cardoso is one of several city officials who have had business dealings with Leal.

Soon after Cardoso became a councilman at age 26, Leal taught him the basics of home-building andmade him a partner in several small projects.

Leal also sold land to Council President Andres Mejides for his first home-building attempt.Another council member, Ruby Swezy, brokers many of Leal's land purchases.

While Leal has built some homes and small apartment buildings, his forte is the quickturnover -- getting contracts for property and selling them to prospective developers at a profit.

"Leal's a wheeler-dealer," says Cardoso, who described Leal-built homes as "pieces of junk .. . the designs are terrible."

"He's very, very disorganized. I went on my own because he's such a disaster to do businesswith."

Leal's entry into Hialeah's bustling real estate market began after he moved to the Miamiarea in the early 1970s.

Government records showing Leal's movements and arrests indicate that after leaving Cuba hesettled briefly in Miami before moving to New York in 1964.

While in New York, Leal was arrested twice, once on assault charges and once on a charge ofbookmaking. The assault charges were dropped and he was acquitted on the bookmaking charge.

He then moved to Puerto Rico where, in 1971, he was arrested for selling heroin. The chargewas dismissed. A memo in one government file quotes a federal narcotics agent as saying Leal was afull-time, paid confidential informant. The memo says Leal was arrested because he refused to payPuerto Rican police for protection.

In Hialeah, Leal was charged in 1971 with reckless and careless driving and leaving the sceneof an accident. He pleaded guilty and paid a $106 fine.

Five years ago, Leal was arrested and charged with aggravated battery after he shot hiswife's former husband in the leg during an altercation in a supermarket parking lot. The charge wasdismissed after Leal, who claimed he was defending himself, completed a domestic interventionprogram.

Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez said that three years ago Leal was caught tearing down Martinez'scampaign signs. The mayor said he chose not to press charges against Leal.

Although Leal lives in one of the largest homes in Hialeah's expensive Deer Parkneighborhood, ex-partner Cardoso disputes Leal's image as a wealthy, high-living real estatespeculator.

'Doesn't have a dollar'

"People think he's got millions, but he doesn't have adollar," Cardoso said. He added, though, that Leal would give his last dollar to a friend.

Leal seemed generous in some of his dealings with other city officials since he was appointedto the planning and zoning board.

When Echevarria made his early forays into home building, Leal introduced him to his bankingcontacts. One transaction with Leal made Echevarria a tidy, unexplained profit, records show.

That deal began a year ago when Leal sold Echevarria two lots for $40,000 in the Mango Hilldevelopment. Three months later, after Echevarria had spent $10,000 for improvements, Leal boughtthem back for $100,000, records show. Echevarria apparently made $50,000 on the sale.

Said Leal: "So I bought them back. He made $3,000, $4,000. That's all. What's $1,000? There'snothing there."

Said Echevarria: "I think I made a little money on it. I had a lot of expenses. I didn't makemoney because I had put so much into it."

Echevarria and Leal did not respond to reporters' repeated attempts for a more detailedexplanation of the land sale.

Echevarria, 29, who plans to run for the Hialeah City Council this year, resigned from thecity Planning and Zoning Board during The Herald's investigation.

Cardoso said he asked for Echevarria's resignation because of situations that were"conflictive." Echevarria, who is president of the Hialeah Latin Chamber of Commerce, said hestepped down to spend more time working on his business and the chamber.

Leal would not discuss his business transactions with reporters, but records and interviewsrevealed these additional details about four of the rezoning cases in which he was involved:

* The rezoning of the property for which Leal had paid for water and sewer hookups fivemonths earlier was actually an after-the-fact zoning change. It made legal two apartment buildingsalready under construction.

Before the November 1982 rezoning, only six-unit apartments were allowed on the property. ButLeal's partner, Mario E. Garcia, had already started construction on two eight-unit buildings on theland near West 76th Street and 12th Avenue, city files show.

During the rezoning, no mention was made of the illegal buildings already half-finished,records indicate.

The extra units meant a higher sale price for Garcia and Leal.

After Leal boughtone of the apartment buildings from Garcia for $226,000, he resold it for $275,000. In comparison,two six-unit apartment buildings built next door at the same time sold for $237,000 each, $38,000less than Leal's.

* The property in West Hialeah was already zoned forapartments when developer Alvarez appeared before the Planning and Zoning Board in Septemberrequesting variances.

In return for the variances, Alvarez agreed to have the property "down-zoned" to a newcategory that limited development to single-family homes.

Leal tried unsuccessfully to block a vote on the new, more restrictive zoning category.

In addition to Alvarez, who said Leal had agreed to purchase several lots from him, twocity sources said they overheard a chagrined Leal complain about the down-zoning after the meeting.

The sources, who agreed to interviews on the condition that they not be identified, said Lealindicated that he intended to buy several lots from Alvarez.

* Leal and Echevarria voted to rezone two lots for duplexes in January 1983. Six weeksearlier, a firm owned by Leal's brother had put a $1,000 deposit on the land. Six weeks after thevote, the property was deeded from the original owner to Echevarria.

Echevarria said he purchased the land through Leal.

In an interview, Echevarriafirst said he arranged with Leal to buy the land as early as two months before the deed was signed.That time interval would indicate Echevarria intended to buy the land when he voted for therezoning.

During the same interview, Echevarria altered his estimate, saying the deed-signing occurredjust "a few days" after he decided to buy the property rather than several weeks.

Echevarria denied any conflict of interest and says he doesn't remember the rezoning case.

Buying the property based upon its original, single-family zoning increased Echevarria'sprofit margin when he built two duplexes. He sold one for $115,000 at a profit of about $50,000,records indicate. Echevarria still owns the second duplex.

* The controversial attempt to rezone property at Okeechobee Road and East Fourth Avenue fromsingle-family homes to accommodate a small shopping center caused a vociferous protest by neighbors.

Councilman Nunez said that soon after the rezoning was vetoed by Mayor Martinez, heencountered an angry Leal at City Hall.

"He made a comment, 'Oh, now at the next election I'll remember who voted against my things,'" said Nunez. "He was referring to the veto. The mayor had vetoed 'his things.' "

One of Leal's many business associates, who had no part in the transaction, agreed to aninterview only if guaranteed anonymity. He said, "Leal bought that land. He talked about what he'sgoing to do with it, that he could get the rezoning. He said he knew he'd get it."

Documents show that Leal's 21-year-old brother-in-law, Jose Gallego, bought the land for$150,000. Gallego's uncle said he would have bought the property from his nephew for $300,000 had itbeen rezoned.

The house Leal gave his brother-in-law at no charge was used as collateral for a loan topurchase the land.

In the space on the deed that indicates what Gallego paid for the house, there are are onlythree words: "Love and affection."

"I had no financial interest in it," said Leal. "He (Jose Gallego) went out and got his ownloan. Of course, I'm going to help him. I'd help my brother, my sister. I help everybody I can. I'dhelp an old man walk across the street."