Fred Grimm

Hialeah restaurant owner discovers he can’t grease the system with cash

The owner of Hialeah’s Rancho Okeechobee is charged with trying to bribe a Miami-Dade County Commissioner.
The owner of Hialeah’s Rancho Okeechobee is charged with trying to bribe a Miami-Dade County Commissioner.

The owner of Rancho Okeechobee, naive to the ways of County Hall, apparently tried to grease the system without observing the legal niceties.

A seeker of favors can’t just deliver an envelope stuffed with cash to a county commissioner’s office, even with this appreciative note: “I just want to say thank you very much for your time, help and support and understand Sir, that you have a friend in Rancho Okeechobee.”

Friendship of the kind dispensed by politicians must be purchased through a third party. Buy influence through a lobbyist or a PAC or some pol’s reelection campaign, that’s OK. Try it without the middleman, try it with a sack of money, then life gets complicated.

“To openly walk into a government office with an envelope with cash is really bold,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said last week, after Elezear Gadea was charged with bribery.

Investigators said Gadea, 47, had visited the office of Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz in March, complaining to the commissioner’s staff that county code compliance inspectors were making his life difficult. Apparently they were hindering plans to turn Rancho Okeechobee, his Hialeah restaurant, into a late night party joint.

Gadea tried to thank the commissioner in advance with $700 in cash. But this is not at all how things are done. So Miami-Dade police were alerted. An undercover officer, posing as one of the commissioner’s assistants and wired for the occasion, met with the restaurant owner. According to the arrest warrant, Gadea slipped the officer $2,000 with the understanding that the commissioner would get county code enforcement off his back. If not, he said he would “need the money back.” (Demanding a money-back guarantee from an elected official ought to have been enough to get him indicted on charges of wishful thinking.)

Gadea could be forgiven (probably not by prosecutors) for thinking his unsubtle method was hardly more than a microcosm of how big businesses — the major vendors, developers, professional sports franchises and the like — buy influence with city and county governments. It’s just that a small-time player like Gadea can’t afford to hire a lobbyist and make a splashy campaign contribution.

We can all help clear up this misunderstanding for chumps like Gadea. A citizens’ action group called An Accountable Miami-Dade is leading a petition drive for an initiative on the November ballot designed to keep the big boys and their lobbyists from committing what, to an ordinary citizen, looks a hell of a lot like legalized bribery.

The initiative would ban county government’s major vendors and contractors and their lobbyists from making political contributions to county commissioners and would limit all campaign contribution to $250. Chief organizer Christian Ulvert told me Monday that he’s confident An Accountable Miami-Dade will collect the 50,200 signatures needed by the August deadline. “People are excited,” he said. “We’re tapping into the national mood for reforming government.”

Besides, the Gadea case demonstrates the need for clarity; that stuffing envelopes with cash isn’t the only sleazy way to buy political favors.