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City officials bullied developers while cashing in on Mango Hill

Publicly, Hialeah city officials have done little but insult the owners of Mango Hill, the city'slargest and most controversial residential development.

They've bullied them, blocked their plans and described their project as a "piece of junk."

Privately, however, a majority of the council and at least two members of the city'splanning and zoning board tried to cash in on Mango Hill, buying and selling land as well as anglingfor million-dollar deals.

The developers of the West Hialeah subdivision say some of those same public officials triedto pressure them into selling land way below the market value and giving them commissions inexchange for their votes.

"Here they were saying we are a pimple on the face of Hialeah and yet they were trying tofind a way to make a buck there," said Philip Spiegelman, an official with Tridel Construction Inc.,the developers of Mango Hill.

The $200 million project built on 150 acres will include more than 1,500 low cost Spanish andCalifornia style townhouses and single family homes when it's finished.

The developers say they are prepared to complete the project, which started about 10 yearsago. But during the past two years, they have met with continuous opposition from the city council.

At the same time:

* Several council and zoning board members have bought at least50 lots in Mango Hill, selling them immediately for a quick profit or building inexpensive homes andthen selling them for a profit.

Others have brokered sales and received thousands of dollars in real estate commissions.

* Mango Hill Project Manager Spiegelman said Councilman Silvio Cardoso, acting as a broker,demanded Tridel sell one of his clients some lots in the southwest section of the project,intimating "his cooperation would be tied into the sale of those lots." Cardoso, who stood to gainabout $13,500 in commissions, denied he tried to pressure Tridel into selling the land. The land wassold to someone else.

* Spiegelman also alleged that zoning board member Vincent Leal tried to buy a 10-acre parcelappraised at $2.1 million for $1.4 million, saying "things would go smoothly if that contract wasmade." Leal refused to answer any questions from Herald reporters.

* Two council members were involved in a private dispute with the developers, who wereholding $25,000 of their money as a deposit, while the city was deciding whether to approve finalplans for the project.

The money was a down payment for a prime section of Mango Hill. But the deal never wentthrough because of a problem with the land's zoning. As a result, the developers kept the depositfor 2 1/2 years.

The developer said Mayor Raul Martinez brought up the question of the deposit while they werenegotiating over the final plans for Mango Hill. Martinez denies it.

Last month the developers agreed to return the money a few days after the city finallyapproved the plans.

The negotiated compromise ended two years of councilmembers' angry rejection of attempts to complete Mango Hill.

Their objections, they said, were based on the numerous complaints voiced by residents ofMango Hill in public meetings about poor drainage, lack of parking and insufficient street lighting.

Mango Hill officials said they think differently.

"The perception was thatwe wanted out of Hialeah and we'd take a short nickel to be on our way," Spiegelman said.

Elvio Del Zotto, one of three Canadian brothers who owns Tridel, said he was reluctant totalk about their relationship with city officials.

"We still have to live there," he said.

Interviews with councilmen and zoningboard members reveal at least six of them have been actively buying and selling property within theMango Hill development.

"They're entitled to carry on with their business," Tridel owner Del Zotto said, "as long asthey declare their interests."

City records show the question of possible conflicts of interest was brought up andimmediately quashed during a council meeting in April 1984 as Tridel attempted to get one version ofits final plan approved.

Patricia Silver, an attorney for Tridel, said: "It appears that there are some members whoare sitting on the council who have an interest in Mango Hill, either favorably or adversely. Itappears there may be some conflict of interest by some members of the council. I would request . . ."

Silvio Cardoso, council president at the time, interrupted Silversaying, "I would have to stop you at that particular time. I would have to stop you at thatparticular time."

He then gaveled her out of order.

Silver: "I want to be sure there is fulldisclosure."

Mayor Martinez told her to go to the state attorney's office with any allegations ofcorruption. He denied having any interest in Mango Hill.

Cardoso: "I would recommend if you have any complaints about that you go to the stateattorney. We are going to vote right now."

Cardoso then called for a vote and Tridel's request was rejected.

City officialsfirst became financially involved in Mango Hill in the spring of 1982 when Tridel began selling offsome of its property to private developers. The first few sales quickly accelerated into a businessboom.

"When it got to that point, when there were so many people . . . I thought it was soconflictive and just so many things going on that I said I don't want to know anything about it,"Cardoso said.

Mayor Martinez said he purposely has stayed away from any business involving Mango Hill.

"I choose not to get involved," Martinez said. "But that's my personal feeling."

Councilwoman Ruby Swezy brokered the first sale of six lots to developer Vincent Leal, who shortlyafterwards became a member of the city's planning and zoning board.

"Swezy kicked off the whole Leal sale," said Spiegelman, project manager of Mango Hill. "Sheapproached my predecessor and said that she could get a buyer for the lots. She brought in Leal andhe was the first to initiate (the purchase of land.)"

The lots, zoned for duplexes, were sold for $20,000 each.

Leal immediately boughtseveral more lots. But this time it was through Councilman Cardoso.

"Cardoso showed up and saw there was a market and started dealing with me," Spiegelman said.

Cardoso brokered the sale of numerous other lots, some to family members and friends. Hesaid he was paid $1,400 per sale or about $30,000.

Late in 1982, Cardoso presented a contract for the purchase of 18 lots for $270,000. Hisclient was Orestes Leal, Vincent's brother.

Tridel officials said they had already committed to sell the land to another group ofdevelopers.

"We did not do the deal," Spiegelman recalled. "Silvio got annoyed and intimated he wantedthem very badly and his cooperation would be tied into the sale of those lots. . . . I felt I had topreserve good will there but I had the other group and couldn't get them to turn away."

Cardoso denies he pressured Spiegelman. Instead, he said, it was Spiegelman who tried tocheat him. He said he presented his contract first. Spiegelman had agreed to his price, but thenreneged when he received a higher offer.

Spiegelman said he "had to do some kicking around" but later found another group of lots tosell to Leal. He said Cardoso came back and demanded a commission on the sale.

"I remember conversations in which I was saying why? Why did Cardoso think he was entitled tothe commission?" Spiegelman said. "Leal said, 'Don't worry about Silvio. I'll take care of him.'

"I had the distinct impression Leal gave Cardoso some money just to shut him up."

Cardoso said Leal paid him nothing and denied that he used his vote to try to extract a commissionfrom Tridel. "It's an absolute lie," he said.

Leal refused to discuss that transaction or any of his other business deals.

ButTridel officials say Leal ended up signing contracts for about 50 lots. Many he developed and soldfor a sizable profit.

Records for nine houses show that Leal sold them for $225,578 more than what he paid for theland and construction. That profit margin does not include the cost of site preparation.

In some cases, Leal sold contracts for homesites to other builders for quick money. Two ofthe lots he sold to fellow zoning board member Herman Echevarria, one of Mango Hill's staunchopponents.

"My personal opinion is that Mango Hill should never have been approved from the beginning,"Echevarria once said at a zoning meeting. " . . . I'm not voting for any changes in that area."

However, property deeds show Echevarria purchased land in Mango Hill.

Recordsshow that Echevarria, who resigned from the zoning board in the midst of The Herald's investigation,bought two lots through Leal. Rather than develop them, said Echevarria, he sold them back to Lealthree months later when the sale of Mango Hill homes lagged.

Council President Andres Mejides also invested in Mango Hill.

Mejides, who hasconsistently voted against any proposed rezonings and variances in Mango Hill, conceded that homes"were selling well in the area so I took advantage."

He said he bought one lot for $20,000. He subsequently built a small home on the lot and soldit off. He said he made only a small profit.

Several city officials also made offers on bigger, more expensive parcels of Mango Hill.

"Everyone got greedy," Spiegelman said.

One of the most sought after pieces ofproperty in Mango Hill was a 1 1/2-acre site facing W. 12th Avenue, a heavily traveled commercialstrip.

Leal's business partner, Mario E. Garcia, signed a contract with Tridel to purchase the landfor $456,000, according to his broker, Councilwoman Ruby Swezy, and Spiegelman.

But Garcia was unable to come up with the required $25,000deposit so Swezy decided to take over the contract with Salvatore D'Angelo, now a councilman. Eachput up $12,500 for the deposit.

The deal never went through.

A zoning dispute developed between Tridel and thetwo prospective buyers. Tridel took the position the contract was in default and kept the deposit asliquidated damages.

For 2 1/2 years, Tridel officials and D'Angelo and Swezy argued back and forth. During thatsame time, Tridel presented several plans for the final phase of Mango Hill. All were rejected.

Then last fall, Del Zotto, Tridel's president, began negotiating with the mayor to try tocome up with a compromise for the completion of the development.

During their discussions, Del Zotto said Martinez brought up the issue of the deposit.

"He told me D'Angelo was concerned about getting his deposit back. That was a problemD'Angelo had," Del Zotto said. "I told Martinez that was not an issue. I was not prepared to talkabout it. I refused to discuss it during my presentation."

Martinez denies he mentioned the money.

"The first time that he and I met, partof the rules was that there were two different issues and I was not there to discuss (the deposit) .. . That was not part of any of the conversation. . . . I wasn't going to get in the middle of whowas right and who was not right."

Council members, however, say Martinez had a more active role.

D'Angelo, who works for Martinez's real estate office, said the mayor "was trying toplay a middleman position," essentially telling the developer, "Why don't you give (D'Angelo) thedeposit back."

Within days after Tridel's plans were finally approved by the council, Swezy said, "D'Angelocalled and told me that Raul had been working with (the developers) and said they'd give the depositback to us."

Another prime section of Mango Hill also was sought after by two other city officials --Cardoso and Leal. The 10-acre parcel is the last large undeveloped piece in Mango Hill.

Cardoso offered a million dollars for it. Leal proposed $1.4 million. The developers say itis worth $2.1 million.

Cardoso said he made his offer shortly before Tridel applied for their recent series ofproposed zoning changes.

"Thereafter I was visited by Leal," Spiegelman said. "He met with me and said I'll give you acontract for $1.4 million. He went on to say things would go smoothly if that contract was made. 'Wecould assure you of approval.' The implication was that Leal was not speaking just for himself."

Tridel officials rejected both offers.

"We didn't want anything to do with it,"Spiegelman said. "They figured they'd . . . put us on our knees and create an incentive to sell outfor the short dollar. But this wasn't a fire sale."

Spiegelman said that after the rejection, Cardoso was "openly antagonistic" and made hisopposition to Mango Hill widely known.

In fact, for the next two years, every request that was made by Mango Hill was overwhelminglydenied.

It wasn't until after Tridel owners began negotiating with Mayor Martinez that their planswere approved.

On the last vote, Cardoso told Del Zotto, Tridel's president, "You are terrible developers.Your reputation is very bad."

Then he voted to approve their proposal.