Homestead - South Dade

How to win a (bowling) alley fight, Homestead style

Mitchell Mitchell’s car-financing contract.
Mitchell Mitchell’s car-financing contract.

When the operator of Dadeland Dodge needed some political muscle to get a deal on 4.6 acres of taxpayer-owned property pushed through the Homestead City Council, he found a staunch ally in Jimmie L. Williams III.

Williams, a bespectacled councilman and church pastor who sports trademark bow ties and — records suggest — may not live in the city he represents, became a fierce advocate of Jay Rivchin’s proposal to build a Hyundai dealership on the site of a forlorn, long-shuttered bowling alley on U.S. 1. He worked tirelessly from the dais — and, it turns out, secretly behind the scenes — to ensure the public land sale went through without a hitch.

Williams fended off council colleagues who wanted to hold out for a higher price for the property — a spooky, boarded-up building replete with skittering rats, multicolored shoes and ghostly bowling balls on rusty racks. He pushed for eliminating taxpayer protections, including a provision that would penalize the dealer $250 a day if he didn't meet construction deadlines. Quietly, using his city-issued mobile device, Williams engaged Rivchin in more than 400 interactions (18 hours of talk-time), including one in which the car dealer pressed Williams to get the reluctant city manager to hurry things up.

Once, they even conferred while the council was still in session. Williams excused himself from the meeting, saying he needed to go watch the TV show Empire, a comment that drew chuckles from the audience. Instead, he phoned Rivchin, who had been in the audience. They talked for 10 minutes, according to public records obtained by the Herald.

When it was over — the saga ended with a a 5-2 vote confirming the Hyundai deal for $2.3 million — Williams quickly resumed talks with Rivchin, only this time they involved his god-daughter’s desire to acquire a car. That deal was consummated days later.

Williams, 36, says he did nothing wrong, just introduced a young woman looking to buy a car to someone who sells them.

It is the latest primer on the political mores of Homestead, a place where elected officials meddle in administrative affairs, where the previous mayor is appealing his corruption conviction and where a recent city manager was jettisoned for repeatedly visiting a bondage-themed website on his city-owned laptop. The colorful tapestry dates back decades. Homestead’s storied past includes election night fistfights between rival political factions, bribery allegations involving a cable TV mogul, and a sitting vice mayor who was caught helping to import tons of marijuana.

The property purchase is back on Homestead’s agenda Thursday, with Rivchin seeking additional concessions having to do with permits and the construction timetable.

Dealer on the line

It was 9:31 p.m., less than one week after the council’s final vote to approve the sale. According to detailed phone records obtained by the Herald through a public records request, Williams placed a phone call to his 26-year-old god-daughter, Michelle Mitchell. A minute into that call — and well after Dadeland Dodge was closed to regular customers — Rivchin dialed up Williams and the two calls were merged. Mitchell disengaged 17 minutes into the discussion, but Rivchin and Williams stayed connected another 20 minutes.

Williams and Rivchin both recall being on the phone with Mitchell but say they can’t remember what exactly was discussed.

The following day, at 6:26 p.m., Williams and Mitchell engaged in some one-on-one car talk. with Williams sending Mitchell a photo from Rivchin of a black, four-door Chrysler 200, model year 2013. “I like the car can I go and see it in person,” she wrote.

At 6:37 p.m. she emailed Williams asking “how much.”

At 9:08 the next morning, Mitchell typed, with regard to the Chrysler: “Like this car more than the dodge dart.”

And so she bought it.

Florida statute 112.13 states: “No public official . . . shall corruptly use or attempt to use his or her official position or any property or resource which may be within his or her trust, or perform his or her official duties, to secure a special privilege, benefit, or exemption for himself, herself, or others.”

The city charter, Section 5.03 (10) says the city manager “exclusively represents the City for purposes of negotiating economic development contracts, as well as other contracts; with assistance of the city attorney.”

Rivchin contends that his constant communication with Williams had to do with him trying to learn more about Homestead and its personality. He added that Williams helped him navigate the specs of buying city-owned property.

“He did a lot for me,” Rivchin said.

City of bowling

The bowling alley has been a municipal headache and eyesore for years. Built in 1991, it was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew one year later. It reopened and served Homestead bowlers for many years before closing. The city bought it, and was determined to find a developer who would reopen it as a bowling alley, because — council members said — Homestead residents love bowling. Every potential deal fizzled.

Amid these efforts, a politically connected former mayor, Steve Shiver, sought to sell the city’s Community Development Agency a collection of blighted dwellings known collectively as the “shotgun property” for approximately $1.95 million. The CRA board, consisting of city council members, acquiesced, even though they didn’t have the money. They borrowed it from the city.

To pay off the loan, the city planned to sell the bowling alley and give the profits to the CRA — so the CRA, which collects taxes to foster development in a depressed section of the city, could pay back the city. It is the equivalent of giving your friend who owes you money a wad of cash so he can pay you back and then calling it even.

Williams says he did get heavily involved in talks to sell to Rivchin because the site is in his district and he is eager to see jobs created.

“The [bowling-alley-turned-car-dealership] was a good thing for the city, so I pushed for it,” he said. “Michelle purchased her own vehicle and paid full price for it.”

“There was absolutely no special treatment,” he said.

Mitchell did not respond to requests to provide a sales invoice, but earlier had sent a text message to the Herald with a photo of a finance sheet indicating a $2,000 down payment and a balance of $16,182, to be paid off at 3.95 percent interest over six years.

The [bowling-alley-turned-car-dealership] was a good thing for the city, so I pushed for it. Michelle purchased her own vehicle and paid full price for it.

City Councilman Jimmie L. Williams III

Mitchell — who recently left her job as a clerk with the county to work in a charter school — said Williams had nothing to do with the purchase other than introducing her to Rivchin.

“I was just saying that I wanted to buy a new car.” Mitchell said. “ Jimmie said: ‘OK, well you should just try different places.’ so I went to a Kia dealership, to Dodge and I looked online as well. I’ve been wanting one for a very long time. I work hard. I believe I deserve a car.”

Assuming the numbers in the finance sheet are valid, she got a lousy deal. The same vehicle with similar mileage (19,540) costs anywhere from $12,000 to $15,000, according to Kelly Blue Book and CarMax, as well as other local sale sites. The same car with less mileage costs anywhere from $11,000 to $16,000.

The relationship “raises all sorts of questions,” said Bob Jarvis, a government law professor at Nova Southeastern University.

“If he really was doing everything the right way, he would have disclosed his constant communication with the car dealer. He would have told his god-daughter to go somewhere else. We understand that politicians have no control over their family members, but he should have told her he can’t be involved,” Jarvis said

Jarvis added: “The fact that he’s involved and that she buys a car two weeks after the deal closes is very troubling.”

A tale of 2 addresses

Williams is a fixture on Homestead’s governing body despite considerable evidence suggesting he doesn’t live in the city or anywhere near it. He was first elected to the council in 2009 as an ally of Steve Bateman, the Homestead mayor who was convicted last year of illegal compensation and illegal lobbying after a series of stories in the Herald and on CBS4 about his links to a string of health clinics needing favors from the city.

On his 2013 qualifying papers during the last election cycle, Williams swore that he had lived in Homestead, at 504 NW Third Ave., for the previous 12 months.

According to Section 2.04 of the city charter, “Only electors of the city who have resided continuously and have been registered voters in the City for at least one year immediately preceding the date of such filing and at the same time of qualifying and election shall be eligible to hold the office of council member.”

A slew of public records cast doubt on Williams’ Homestead residency.

Williams, a former pastor at Greater New Mount Zion AME Church in Homestead, lost that position but landed a similar job at St. James AME Church in Miami in 2011. The new job came with a major perk — a “parsonage” at 17325 NW 18th Ave. in Miami Gardens, some 45 miles north of Homestead, that features a circular driveway, some adorning palm trees out front and a swimming pool in the rear. It offers a sharp contrast to the small, hardscrabble unit in northwest Homestead he reported to be his residence.

Williams said he doesn’t live in the parsonage. But a February 2013 police report involving an attempted robbery says he does. So does a November 2013 report about a short-circuit fire.

The same is true of a Miami Gardens police report dated June 11, 2014, written after a burglary at the house. Again, he’s listed as the resident.

Miami-Dade County family court documents show that in April 2013 Williams stated under oath that he had been separated from his wife for four months, starting in January 2013, and that their son was living with her — and her alone — at the Homestead address. His own domicile is listed as 17325 NW 18th Ave., Miami Gardens.

In an interview, Williams said the record is wrong and that while he and his ex-wife “separated” in the marital sense they did not actually live separately because they could not afford two homes. They continued to live together in Homestead, he said, although she has since moved out of the area.

On Monday, the Herald spoke with five neighbors of the Miami Gardens home, all of whom said Williams comes and goes every day, and parks his car in the garage.

“I see him quite often,” said Darrell Jones. “He mostly stays to himself but he parks his gray BMW in the garage every day.”

Gwen and Al Walker, next-door neighbors, said they help Williams maintain his front lawn.

“Oh, he lives there,” Gwen Walker said. “That's his house.”

As a reporter talked to the residents, Williams — at the wheel of a BMW, a ball cap perched on his head — circled the neighborhood repeatedly for hours.

Her husband: “As a matter of fact, every now and then I cut his grass.”

Two other neighbors, requesting anonymity, agreed Williams lives there.

As a reporter talked to the residents, Williams — at the wheel of a BMW, a ball cap perched on his head — circled the neighborhood repeatedly for hours, parking at nearby stop signs and passing by the front of the house, but he did not pull into the driveway.

Earlier that morning, when asked about the parsonage, Williams told the Herald:

“That is not my home. That's not my residence.”

Bitten by Snapper’s

This is not the first time that Williams has faced ethical questions.

In 2011, he was investigated by the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics after being set up in a business by Wayne Rosen, a Homestead developer and the city’s longtime political kingmaker who has contributed heavily to many council members’ political campaigns.

Rosen issued a $250,000 promissory note in 2011 to finance a fish restaurant at 850 Ives Dairy Rd. in northwest Miami-Dade. Snapper’s Fast Food was managed by Williams. He and his then-wife were listed as the “sole officers.” Williams held a 37.5 percent stake in the venture, although he invested no money.

The restaurant went bust by the end of the year. Williams said he still owes Rosen $46,875, although Rosen said he doesn’t feel Williams owes him anything. Ultimately the ethics case was closed.

The close-out memo reads: “While surely it may seem inappropriate for Williams to ask a prominent and politically active local businessman to finance a joint venture at a time when the same businessman has pending matters that could forseeably come before the City Council . . . it could not be shown that Williams in any way sought to exploit his official position on behalf of his benefactor, Rosen.”