Miami-Dade County

Inspector General: Miami-Dade parking arm found ‘in complete disarray’

Lester Sola, director of the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department who until recently oversaw the county’s parking department
Lester Sola, director of the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department who until recently oversaw the county’s parking department el Nuevo Herald

Miami-Dade’s parking operation was so mismanaged that cash was stashed in drawers, deposits lingered and one employee was able to bring thousands of dollars home with him shortly after landing a job as an account clerk.

Those are the allegations laid out by the county’s Inspector General in an investigation revealed this week, which describes a Parking Management Office “in complete disarray” when county administrators discovered the alleged criminal conduct. “Deposits were not being made on a timely basis; cash and checks were found stashed in drawers throughout the office; and significant sums of money were missing,” said a statement from the IG’s office.

The clerk faces a theft charge, several others are on leave, and a press release promises more arrests to come.

“It’s going to be a while before we know the full amount” that’s missing, Inspector General Mary Cagle said Wednesday. “We’ve got all the records, and we’re going through them.”

A top county official said the misconduct came to light once Miami-Dade launched an automated system for county garages last year, ending the requirement that daily users of the parking garages pay cash in most garages. A week later, the county’s parking revenues had doubled.

Lester Sola, the senior administrator whose portfolio included parking until earlier this year, said the revenue surge prompted his staff to take a closer look at the operation. They soon discovered the financial chaos described in the Inspector General’s report, Sola said.

The discovery also offered some context to the parking operation’s foot-dragging when it came to welcoming credit-card sales.

“When I got to the department, I said, why are we handling only cash?” said Sola, who was head of the county’s Internal Services department from late 2011 until February, when he became director of the Water and Sewer department. “The five folks in parking operations constantly said: ‘This isn’t necessary.’”

Sola said five employees were suspended after the investigation, including the head of the office. Asked how financial misconduct could continue until an accidental discovery, Sola replied: “The incident was not discovered by accident. The fact that I forced the section to automate the garages brought to light the problem.”

Internal Service summoned investigators in January, and the probe that followed produced Tuesday’s arrest of 24-year-old Jose Valladares on a charge of third-degree grand theft. Police visited Valladares’s Miami apartment and found a collection of parking receipts totaling $6,088.

Valladares told investigators he brought home money and paperwork from the office. The money was supposed to be deposited in a bank; instead, police said Valladares spent most of it. Investigators said he was able to give back about $1,300. The stolen money stretched back to August, investigators said, the same month Valladares said he was promoted from lot attendant to account clerk.

An arm of Internal Services, the Parking Management Office runs county garages and surface lots used by employees and visitors to municipal offices. Budget documents show about $3.3 million in parking revenue expected to flow through the office this year, which employs a staff of 15 full-timers and eight part-time positions. Valladares, whose position is still listed as lot attendant, earned about $26,000 in 2014, according to the county’s payroll database.

Valladares could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Someone hung up the phone when a reporter called the home number listed on the arrest report from the county police force.

Cagle described Valladares’ arrest as the start of a larger action. The press release said the $6,000 he’s alleged to have taken “is just a fraction of the amount of money unaccounted for from the Parking Management Office.”

Internal Services manages county facilities and oversees its purchasing operation. In January, Sola was named director of county’s Water and Sewer department and Mayor Carlos Gimenez has yet to name a successor.