City of Corruption

By David Abel  |  The Christian Science Monitor  |  12/3/1999

MIAMI -- Dead men vote. Commissioners pocket bribes. Legislators launder. And lobbyists award kickbacks.

This isn't New York's bygone Tammany Hall or Chicago's infamous patronage machine. Welcome to a burgeoning, pastel-hued city at America's tippy toe -- Miami.

Long home to pirates, mobsters and well-dressed drug dealers, this sultry city has seen its image for flashy recklessness sink into the pit of old style corruption.

In the past year, a Miami city manager and city commissioner have gone to prison for obstruction of justice and bribery. Two Miami-Dade County commissioners have been forced to step down. A mayoral election was thrown out because of rampant voter fraud. The Port of Miami director is under investigation for allegedly embezzling more than $1 million. And the head of the Miami legislative delegation in Tallahassee will soon be tried on charges of money laundering and doling out kickbacks.

"Nobody has a crystal ball, but I think it would be hard to find someone who thinks that this problem is close to being over," says Joe Centorino, chief of the public corruption division of the Miami-Dade County state attorney's office. "I don't think we'll know how well we rooted out the corruption until another generation."

In the past five years, criminal charges have been filed against more than 260 public officials, with more than 60 percent convicted, according to the state attorney's office. And Centorino, who heads a team of nine lawyers devoted to routing corruption, says dozens of ongoing investigations will soon add to the mess. South Florida has been among the 10 leaders in federal prosecutions since the mid 1980s, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Many here say Miami is the victim of runaway growth, where public institutions haven't kept pace with the demand for services and the sort of accountability most residents expect. The metropolitan area of Miami-Dade County, to which the city of Miami belongs, has boomed in the past three decades to more than two million people and a budget of $4.2 billion.

With one of the world's largest airports and most active seaports, an increasing demand for government services like sewage lines and new roads, and low salaries of only $6,000 a year paid to county and city commissioners, Miami is ripe for corruption.

"What's happening in Miami happened to New York, Chicago and San Francisco when they entered periods of enormous growth and opportunity," says Ken Goodman, co-director of the programs in business, governmental and professional ethics at the University of Miami. "Miami's now a major global business center. It's an extraordinary time of change."

The brisk pace of change and the accompanying vice nearly short-circuited the city. A kickback scandal uncovered in 1996 led to the discovery of a $68 million deficit. Miami reached such dire straits that former Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed the state's first oversight board and threatened to takeover the city if its commissioners didn't approve a credible bailout plan.

Still, the power struggles continued and investigators revealed more corruption. Mayor Xavier Suarez stepped down in March after a court forced his removal in the wake of a voter-fraud scandal. The ex-mayor, however, continues to fight. He launched recently a campaign to change the city's charter, hoping to force a new election.

Adding to Miami's woes, City Commissioner Humberto Hernandez Jr. in August was convicted in state court of helping to cover up the electoral fraud, in which dead people cast ballots. Chiles later removed him from office.

To stanch the corruption, civic leaders last year began organizing. Now, there's a county office called the Commission On ethics and Public Trust, frequent anti-corruption conferences held throughout the county and later this year Florida's recently retired Supreme Court chief justice will head up an independent watchdog group called the Alliance for Ethical Government.

"The climate here has been unduly accepting, and we want to become hostile to this sort of unethical behavior," says Edward T. Foote, president of the University of Miami and co-chairman of the Alliance. "We have had more of our fair share of public corruption in recent years. It needs to stop."

Fotte says organizations like the Alliance for Ethical Government will propose ways to change how the city and county do business, refine rules on lobbying and bidding, and consider revamping the city government. Currently, Miami has an executive mayor system, which gives the mayor veto power but not much real authority. Commissioners can override a mayor's veto and the city manager makes all personnel and budget decisions.

Like Foote, Don Slesnick, the vice chairman for ethics in business and government for the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, hopes increased awareness and further efforts to curb corruption will boost Miami's lagging confidence and maybe earn the city a higher bond rating than its current junk status -- the lowest credit rating Wall Street allows for borrowing money.

"It may get a little worse before it gets better," Slesnick says. "We're going to uncover some more things that are distasteful. But people are now finally saying enough is enough."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.  Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Christian Science Monitor