Some of Miami-Dade’s biggest players in transportation policy arrived in Armando Codina’s Coral Gables office last fall for a private session to discuss a new rail line to the western suburbs.
There was Esteban “Steve” Bovo, the Miami-Dade commissioner who chairs the Transportation committee and began championing an east-west rail in early 2015. Alice Bravo, Miami-Dade’s Transit director, attended, as did Javier Rodriguez, director of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, which runs Miami-Dade’s busiest east-west highway, the 836. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez made the trip to the prominent developer’s office, too.
I have one contract now. That’s it under Carlos Gimenez. You know how many contracts I had under Carlos Alvarez? And I didn’t even know Carlos Alvarez
For Bovo, the presence of an additional attendee at the Nov. 4 lunch meeting caught him off-guard: Ralph Garcia-Toledo, a government contractor, Gimenez friend, and finance chairman of the mayor’s 2016 reelection campaign.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“He was just present, I guess,” Bovo said of Garcia-Toledo. “I know he has a relationship with the mayor. I’m sure he was there also to listen, and maybe to advise the mayor about the feasibility of this getting done.”
A veteran of the county’s contracting system, Garcia-Toledo has excelled at both developing high-level connections and aligning himself with well-funded companies pursuing major county contracts. He and Codina both said the meeting was Garcia-Toledo’s idea. “Armando Codina and I are friends,” Garcia-Toledo said. “I helped him put together some of the folks.”
Garcia-Toledo’s self-generated session on the rail line involved some of the same county officials who could help decide whether his firm gets a chance to help build it. Four months later, Garcia-Toledo’s G-T Construction Group was part of a team submitting a bid to win a $20 million engineering contract for Miami-Dade’s future Transit projects — a scope of work that Bravo said would include the east-west rail line if it ever wins approval.
The optics are terrible. That’s what erodes public trust.
Former Miami-Dade commissioner Katy Sorenson
Garcia-Toledo’s dual roles in county procurement and county politics have placed him on sensitive ground this election season.
“The optics are terrible,” said Katy Sorenson, a former Miami-Dade commissioner who until recently ran a nonprofit at the University of Miami called the Good Government Initiative. “That’s what erodes public trust. It also puts county staff in an awkward position… Because they know [Garcia-Toledo] wears the campaign hat too, and they depend on the mayor for their jobs.”
As one of the mayor’s most prominent campaign officials, he has helped Gimenez raise nearly $4 million while billing $200 an hour on a county sewer contract that pays him in part to meet with administration officials. CH2M Hill, the engineering firm that tapped Garcia-Toledo as a subcontractor in that $139 million job, recently declared his company’s fee a trade secret exempt from state public-record laws.
The sensitivity over the financial details of Garcia-Toledo’s role as a Miami-Dade subcontractor comes as the affable veteran of Gimenez’s past campaigns pursues a string of lucrative jobs throughout the county bureaucracy and beyond.
Last year, the 54-year-old joined a team of firms pursuing a contract to convert county buses to compressed natural gas, a project expected to cost more than $20 million and awaiting further action by the Gimenez administration. On April 4, he met with the director of Miami International Airport about upcoming renovations to the county-owned airport’s central terminal.
And when a Norwegian alternative-energy company secured a private meeting with Gimenez to pitch its recycling technology for sewage waste last fall, Garcia-Toledo was there, too.
Gimenez, who is running in part on a good-government platform, points to Garcia-Toledo as an example of his ability to call balls and strikes in the procurement process without concern for political alliances.
There’s a level playing field. I let the process run its course.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez
In 2014, Garcia-Toledo’s G-T Construction Group ended up on the losing side of another county sewer contract after Gimenez overruled a selection committee’s recommendation amid allegations of flawed deliberations. That hard-fought battle saw CH2M Hill rival AECOM secure a $90 million contract overseeing the county’s compliance with court-ordered improvements to the sewer system.
“There’s a level playing field. I let the process run its course,” Gimenez said. Referring to Garcia-Toledo, Gimenez said: “What he does, he does. If he gets to be a sub for a major contract, that’s his business. But he and the contractor are going to have to win a contract on a level playing field.”
Raquel Regalado, the two-term school board member that polls show is Gimenez’s leading challenger, points to Garcia-Toledo as an example of what she sees as the mayor’s use of government contracts to reward allies.
“We the taxpayers in Miami-Dade are going to end up paying for Ralph Garcia-Toledo one way or the other,” Regalado said. She said Garcia-Toledo’s county contract “has nothing to do with merit, has nothing to do with his skill set. It’s cronyism.”
Both Garcia-Toledo and Gimenez reject the accusation by pointing to G-T Construction’s success in landing government work long before Gimenez became mayor in 2011. The firm won a contract to install seats at the county’s Crandon Park tennis center in 2003, provided services for the North Terminal renovation at Miami International Airport that began in 2007, and worked on the construction contract for the county-owned Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts that was awarded in 2000.
“Remember, I’ve been getting county contracts since Steve Clark was mayor,” Garcia-Toledo said of the man who led Miami-Dade government from the 1970s to the early 1990s. “I have one contract now. That’s it under Carlos Gimenez.”
Garcia-Toledo was born in Miami Beach to prominent Cuban exiles: father Ralph a successful exporter of sports equipment to Latin America, his late mother Luisa a former political prisoner and activist who went on to serve in a United Nations post and have a county park named after her. After graduating from Miami-Dade College, Garcia-Toledo got his first taste of politics when Texaco wanted a local face in Miami.
“My role was to get involved in the community,” he recalled. “Back then the oil companies were low profile. Then they got this loud Cuban.”
We the taxpayers in Miami-Dade are going to end up paying for Ralph Garcia-Toledo one way or the other.
Mayoral challenger Raquel Regalado
Garcia-Toledo’s first government contract was installing a running track in Miami’s Curtis Park in the early 1990s, the first in a string of public-sector assignments. His profile rose higher when Gimenez scored an upset win for mayor in 2011, an underfunded campaign where Garcia-Toledo served as the candidate’s unpaid driver. He became Gimenez’s finance chair in 2012, and now he’s reprising that role in what’s expected to be the most successful fundraising effort in the history of Miami-Dade politics.
Until recently, Garcia-Toledo was married to a prominent lobbyist and lawyer: Vicky Leiva of Bilzin Sumberg, and they were frequent hosts of fundraisers at their Coral Gables home. When CH2M Hill pursued its 2014 contract with Miami-Dade, she was registered to represent the company and he was not.
In 2014, commissioners accepted Gimenez’s recommendation and hired CH2M Hill to oversee planning a $3.3 billion reworking of the sewer system to sharply reduce the amount of treated wastewater the county pumps into the Atlantic Ocean. Garcia-Toledo’s G-T Construction was listed as one of 17 subcontractors on the CH2M Hill contract, which is funded by revenue from county water bills.
Despite its name, G-T Construction has not been involved in building anything for CH2M Hill. Garcia-Toledo does not hold a general-contractor’s license, though the firm holds one through a contractor that Garcia-Toledo said does not work for the company. Garcia-Toledo said it has been years since the firm needed a building permit for a project.
Instead, Garcia-Toledo provides “construction management” services that allow his firm to help a larger company coordinate the complexities of a major contract. “You have to plan all this,” he said. Once “you know exactly where I’m going to put that pipe, and how to go about it, and manage everybody who is going to be doing that work — that is what we’re doing right now.”
Dozens of G-T Construction invoices and time sheets CH2M Hill provided to Miami-Dade at the Miami Herald’s request highlight the significant dollars that can await even a tiny firm on a county contract.
Through April, G-T Construction has billed $672,000 for work that began in late 2014. Roughly $430,000 of that was billed as overhead — the added cost Miami-Dade lets contractors tack onto bills for employees’ work to cover both operating expenses and profit.
That should mean a significant windfall for G-T Construction, which Garcia-Toledo said maintains a warehouse but no office or staff beyond those assigned to a contract. Its invoices to CH2M Hill list a return address of a UPS store on Coral Way near Coconut Grove.
Garcia-Toledo and four of G-T Construction’s five employees on the Ocean Outfall project work at CH2M Hill’s Coral Gables office, while a fifth is assigned to a county facility, he said. The majority of the billed hours stem from clerical work, with G-T Construction employees handling filing and administrative tasks for CH2M Hill.
When commissioners approved the original Ocean Outfall contract in 2014, CH2M Hill provided documentation on each of the 17 subcontractors and what work they would be performing. Garcia-Toledo’s job classification was listed as “public outreach liaison” and he bills roughly $200 an hour for his services, including overhead.
It’s not known how much G-T Construction will ultimately earn from Miami-Dade’s Ocean Outfall program. A lawyer for the firm that hired the company for the county contract declared G-T Construction’s fee a trade secret.
Despite the “public outreach” assignment, Garcia-Toledo’s firm has no website, Facebook page or any other digital presence that might assist Garcia-Toledo in reaching the public online.
Garcia-Toledo said he keeps a low profile for his company in part to avoid media attention. “This is what I don’t like, what we’re doing right now,” he said. “You’re here doing a story on it… I do business based on relationships. Face to face.”
In a July 1 email, CH2M Hill program manager Evelio Agustin said Garcia-Toledo’s title in the 2014 contract package was a “typographical error.” The job title was typed on a memo that G-T Construction submitted under the state’s “Truth-In Negotiation Certification of Wage Rates” rules that outline how much workers on government contracts will be paid.
Agustin pointed to a document in the original CH2M Hill package that accurately describes Garcia-Toledo’s job: a one-page organizational table of the various subcontractors that lists Garcia-Toledo being assigned “administrative support.”
His contract with CH2M Hill does assign Garcia-Toledo a role in the Ocean Outfall’s “public and stakeholder outreach” program. But rather than reaching out to the general public, a big part of his job is to stay in touch with county officials.
The contract requires him to “assist with internal County communication/briefings,” meet with Water and Sewer officials and “with Miami Dade leadership on program progress and issues.” Visitor logs at Water and Sewer show Garcia-Toledo is a frequent presence there, signing in about a dozen times this year, usually to meet with department director Lester Sola or his deputies.
“If you’re a big conglomerate out of Denver, and you partner with Ralph Garcia-Toledo’s company,” Garcia-Toledo said. “you would want him to go to all the local meetings, and participate. I’m the local guy. It just makes sense.”
It’s not known how much G-T Construction will ultimately earn from the Ocean Outfall program. Its contract with CH2M Hill, provided to the Miami Herald through a public-records request, shows the company pledged G-T Construction a portion of its $139 million fee. But G-T’s share was redacted on the contract, with a company lawyer declaring it proprietary information. Similar information is already a matter of public record for nine of CH2M Hill’s subcontractors.
Garcia-Toledo’s pursuit of county business highlights some of the difficulties of tracking Miami-Dade’s powerful government-relations industry. Despite his enviable access to Miami-Dade government, the only company Garcia-Toledo registers to lobby for is his own. That bars him from representing any of the contractors that eventually hire him, even as he mingles with the officials who preside over the contracting process.
In August of 2015, Garcia-Toledo registered to lobby officials at the MDX, Miami-Dade’s toll authority, for an upcoming engineering contract that CH2M Hill was pursuing. The procurement process officially began in October, a month before Garcia-Toledo found himself in Codina’s office with Rodriguez, head of the MDX. Garcia-Toledo said he was surprised Codina hadn’t invited Rodriguez to a private transportation summit the developer had organized earlier in the year, so he suggested a follow-up session with the toll authority chief.
In a statement, Codina said he was under the impression that Garcia-Toledo represented MDX in setting up the meeting, and that Rodriguez used the session to explain how a rail line might run on the side of 836 but that various obstacles stood in the way of the project.
An MDX spokesman said that since the engineering contract was not discussed at the Codina meeting, there was no issue with Garcia-Toledo and Rodriguez being together for the session. On Friday, in the CH2M Hill conference room he uses as an office, Garcia-Toledo said it was wrong to think Gimenez was his entree to county affairs, citing relationships with county commissioners and beyond.
“Armando Codina didn’t get to know the mayor until I introduced him at my house,” he said. “The guy with all the connections is yours truly.”
Last fall, Cambi, an alternative-energy company out of Norway, was running into resistance from county staffers and consultants over the solid-waste technology it wanted to Miami-Dade to buy. To press its case, Cambi had hired lobbyist Alex Heckler. Heckler said Garcia-Toledo was tapped for the effort as a future subcontractor to help with building out the recycling facilities. “He does great stuff,” Heckler said. “He’s a construction management guy. He’s very good at that.”
Garcia-Toledo didn’t register to lobby for Cambi, but he was there for a private briefing the company held with Gimenez on Oct. 2 at Water and Sewer headquarters. Visitor records show he joined Heckler and Cambi managing director Paul Christy for the afternoon audience with the mayor.
“I was just there listening to all of the back and forth,” Garcia-Toledo said. “I was really there to listen to the pitch.”