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Paella-gate: How the tasty dish led to a criminal campaign investigation in Miami.

Miami-Dade County Commission candidate Alex Diaz de la Portilla visited with senior citizens from the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Center as he campaigned for their vote on May 11, 2018.
Miami-Dade County Commission candidate Alex Diaz de la Portilla visited with senior citizens from the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Center as he campaigned for their vote on May 11, 2018. cmguerrero@miamiherald.com

Criminal investigators in Miami are hot on the trail of paella.

Over the past three weeks, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office has been sniffing out the story behind thousands of dollars in food and drinks purchased by Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo from a Little Havana restaurant. Carollo paid for the food from an office discretionary-events account and his staff hand-delivered the food last month to senior centers on the eve of a special election.

There's no mystery behind what happened to the hundreds of pounds of yellow rice, pork, plantains and corn. No doubt, the enormous helpings of arroz campesino were delicious.

But prosecutors want to know if Carollo purchased the food and drinks from Paella y Pa Ti with public money as part of a delectable scheme to covertly cater campaign events for Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a former state senator who was running at the time for county commission. If Carollo did, it would be a violation of state laws that prevent elected officials from using public money to finance political campaigns — and a problem both for the commissioner and the candidate.

"There's not a shred of truth to it," said Diaz de la Portilla, who came in third out of four candidates in the May 22 election.

An only-in-Miami caper mixing traditional Cuban cuisine, campaigning and conspiracy, "paella-gate" began as Carollo's office hosted events at comedores in Little Havana ahead of the general election in Miami-Dade County's fifth commission district. The probe has led to a political food fight, and rumors that it was someone in Carollo's own office who dished on him.

Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the state attorney's office, declined to comment, citing an office policy of neither confirming nor denying the existence of ongoing investigations.

But Carollo's office records — requested two weeks ago and provided to the Miami Herald on Monday — show he spent $3,702.72 on 525 servings of "Farmer's paella," salad, drinks, plates and utensils to cater gatherings planned the following week over three consecutive days at Myers Senior Center, Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Center and Metropolitan Senior Center.

The three facilities are located in Carollo's city district and also in the county district sought unsuccessfully by Diaz de la Portilla. They are regular stomping grounds for candidates and elected officials — and places where it would be criminal for a Miami politician to show up without, at the very least, some pastelitos.

So on May 16, Carollo's office visited Myers Senior Center with enough food to feed 75 people. Diaz de la Portilla was there too in slacks and a dress shirt, accompanied by at least one campaign worker.

The following day, Carollo and his office visited the Little Havana Activities Center with 250 servings. This time, when Carollo arrived, he says Diaz de la Portilla was already there scooping healthy helpings of arroz onto styrofoam plates.

"I did not ask Alex to come," Carollo said Wednesday.

Diaz de la Portilla says the appearances were not coordinated. But his unannounced presence made Betty Ruano, director of operations and human resources at the Little Havana center, a little uncomfortable.

Carollo was on the calendar to visit that day, as is required by the center's policy, she said. But "Alex Diaz de la Portilla was not."

Ruano complained to Carollo, who says he asked Diaz de la Portilla not to come to any more of his events.

State law prohibits candidates from using the "services" of public officials and employees during working hours, and bans elected officials from using their positions to influence elections. Both would be first-degree misdemeanors.

But Carollo, who relied on Diaz de la Portilla in his own election six months earlier and endorsed him in the race, maintains that he did nothing wrong. During an interview in his City Hall conference room, Carollo laid out emails and fliers produced by his staff for several bi-monthly senior events planned since April. He said he had not spoken to investigators.

He certainly made no secret of the senior events. He posted pictures to Instagram, including one with Diaz de la Portilla shaking a man’s hand next to Carollo, as the city commissioner hands a woman a plate packed with rice, salad and bread.

"I've got nothing to hide," said Carollo, who suspects the whole imbroglio was baked from scratch by the campaign of Zoraida Barreiro.

Carollo, a former Miami mayor recently re-elected to office after 16 years away from political power, believes Barreiro was worried that Diaz de la Portilla was going to be her opponent in a likely run-off election for county commission.

That threat disappeared faster than a plate of croquetas at a party when Eileen Higgins garnered the most votes and made the runoff against Barreiro.

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Miami-Dade Commission candidate Zoraida Barreiro shares a laugh with supporters at the Unidad Miami Beach senior center on Collins Avenue on Wednesday, May 9, 2018. C.M. GUERRERO cmguerrero@miamiherald.com

But both Carollo and Diaz de la Portilla believe Ruano is close with Barreiro, whose home healthcare company has a contract for referrals with the center. Barreiro's husband, Bruno Barreiro, who resigned from the District 5 commission seat to run for Congress, sponsored a proposal to award the center $3 million in bond money to build a new facility several years ago.

"What? Who said that?" said Zoraida Barreiro when asked about her relationship with Ruano. "I haven't heard anything about this."

Barreiro said her company, Fatima Home Care, does have a contract with the Little Havana center to provide home care for clients. But she said her company serves only eight people through the contract.

"I don't think there's anything special about us" at the center, she said.

Whispers abound at City Hall, though, that Carollo's own staff may have tipped off investigators. This week, he fired Steven Miro, an aide and private investigator who worked on his campaign for city commission last year.

Reached by phone Wednesday night, Miro told the Miami Herald he was only told his services were no longer needed Monday afternoon before being escorted out of City Hall. He would not comment directly on whether he spoke to state attorney's investigators, but he did take a shot at his former boss.

"When you label yourself as 'anti-corruption,'" Miro said, "you should look in the mirror and you can see where the corruption starts."

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