April 23, 2016

FBI tapes provide evidence of corruption in Opa-locka: 'This city is run like the mob'

By Michael Sallah and @jayhweaver

Just after sunset, Commissioner Luis Santiago pulled up to the gates of the sprawling storage lot in Opa-locka and motioned for Frank Zambrana to step inside the black, city-leased Ford Expedition.

The two had met privately before, but this time it was different.

With a handgun on the console, Santiago reached over to his passenger and frisked him for any recording devices.

“He told me that he was not going to take any chances,” Zambrana said.

With no one else in sight, Zambrana said he took out $500, counted it, then passed it to the 55-year-old politician in yet another secret payment to ensure Zambrana would get a license to open his heavy equipment business in 2013.

It wasn’t the last payment he would have to make for a license that cost just $150.

In the past three years, the father of five paid tens of thousands of dollars to Santiago and a host of other prominent city officials in what exposed an organized network that turned the levers of government into a cash generator for themselves and others, the Miami Herald has learned.

After months of making under-the-table payments for a business license, Zambrana turned to the FBI.

In one of the most compelling public corruption cases in Miami-Dade in years, Zambrana taped secret meetings while he paid cash bribes to public officials in City Hall, at remote parking lots and even in a popular night spot, according to confidential sources.

Zambrana is among the lead figures in a grand jury investigation that could result in the indictment of at least a dozen people, including Santiago and City Manager David Chiverton, on racketeering charges, according to sources who spoke to the Herald on the condition of anonymity.

“I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was that bad,” said Steven Barrett, a former vice mayor who once sued the city over questionable billing practices for water and sewer services. “This city is run like the mob.”

More here.

April 21, 2016

Florida governor says he's unfamiliar with FPL power lines ruling

@PatriciaMazzei

Florida Gov. Rick Scott got a question in Hollywood on Thursday about Wednesday's momentous ruling against Florida Power & Light over its Miami power lines project.

"I haven't seen it," the governor said.

An appeals court found Scott and the Florida Cabinet failed to consider the city of Miami's development regulations in backing FPL's plan.

Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine hasn't ruled out bid for governor

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Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine says he is focused on his city position but hasn't ruled out running as a Democrat for governor in 2018.

"I haven't ruled out becoming president of a cruise line either," he quipped in an interview with the Miami Herald today.

U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee, announced this morning that she won't seek re-election and is seriously considering running for governor. Republican Gov. Rick Scott is term limited.

Levine said he hasn't talked to Graham or any of the other potential Democratic candidates including state Sen. Jeremy Ring of Margate or Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

Levine, a millionaire businessman who was elected to his second two-year term in Miami Beach, has raised his political profile in recent months. He's flown to primary states and appeared on cable news shows to stump for Hilary Clinton, and he recently traveled to Cuba with a group of university students -- a trip that attracted controversy in South Florida after he said he was open to hosting a Cuban consulate in the Beach. And he is one of the more visible politicians speaking out about the need to tackle climate change -- a serious and expensive problem for his coastal community.

Levine's mayoral term expires in 2017. He hasn't yet said whether he will run for re-election as mayor.

"I haven't ruled that out," he said.

-- With Joey Flechas

Marco Rubio celebrates brother's induction into Miami High's hall of fame

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@PatriciaMazzei

Miami Senior High School welcomed new members to its hall of fame last weekend -- including one Mario Rubio, a football standout and the older brother of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

The younger Rubio attended the ceremony Saturday. He wore a name tag that read, "Marco." His older brother, a Vietnam vet who lives in Jacksonville, joined Rubio on the presidential campaign trail beginning late last year.

Here are some snapshots of the night, by photographer Matias J. Ocner:

Continue reading "Marco Rubio celebrates brother's induction into Miami High's hall of fame" »

April 20, 2016

A GOP battle royale in South Dade: Lynda Bell vs. David Rivera

@PatriciaMazzei

Setting up a South Florida Republican battle royale, former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Lynda Bell plans to run for a Florida House of Representatives seat -- against former U.S. Rep. David Rivera.

Bell, who announced her candidacy late Tuesday at a meeting of the Old Cutler Republican Women's Club, told the Miami Herald on Wednesday that she looked at two open House seats in South Dade before settling on District 118, which includes neighborhoods she represented in her four-year term on the commission

"I'm not here to beat up on David Rivera, but I know I served 10 years in office, and I feel like I have a lot to offer," said Bell, who previously served as Homestead mayor. "I've accomplished very, very much."

Bell doesn't live in the district, which extends from West Miami-Dade to Richmond Heights, but said she'd move there by Election Day, as required by law. She thought about running in neighboring District 114 -- also not her home district -- but said she didn't want to challenge one of the Republicans already running, John Couriel, whom she called "a really great guy."

Neither of her choices was ideal: Both districts are heavily Hispanic, especially among likely Republican primary voters. Bell's long-shot bid might be based on the idea that other Hispanic Republicans could split the vote to her benefit, given her name recognition, but winning probably won't be easy.

More here.

April 19, 2016

Florida Supreme Court suspends Miami-Dade judge who appeared drunk on bench

via @ChuckRabin

The Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday suspended a Miami-Dade judge who had been removed from the bench three weeks ago after appearing drunk on the bench — an incident that came on the heels of an expletive-laced outburst at a restaurant.

In a one-paragraph statement, the state high court said County Judge Jacqueline Schwartz has until May 9 to respond to the decision and argue her case against the ruling. She will continue to be paid during the suspension.

Chief Judge Bertila Soto pulled Schwartz from the bench of her Miami-Dade courtroom on March 28 after Schwartz appeared to be drunk. She has been on paid medical leave since.

Ten days prior to that incident, the judge created a ruckus at a Coconut Grove restaurant.Schwartz was at the Ergon Greek Deli and Cuisine on Grand Avenue on March 18 when she got upset at a waiter and berated him for refusing to serve her more alcohol. State investigators who recommended the suspension to the Supreme Court said Schwartz yelled at the waiter, “you’re a f---ing idiot, you don’t know who I am.”

Police were called. When they showed up, the judge called them “pigs,” an investigation by the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission claimed. Investigators also said Schwartz was spilling wine and slurring. The commission did its own investigation and interviewed the officer who confronted Schwartz.

More here.

April 18, 2016

It's Miami-Dade vs. Hendry in aftermath of GOP delegate selection

 @PatriciaMazzei

The scuttlebutt among Miami Republicans after the GOP selected local delegates for July's presidential convention centered around a single congressional district: What had happened in Florida's 25th?

The district spans four counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, Collier and Hendry. But only one of its three delegates, state Rep. Carlos Trujillo, hails from Miami-Dade, home to the bulk of the district's population. The other two, Steve Nesbit and Margie Nelson, come from Hendry -- which means the county with only 2 percent of district voters took 67 percent of its delegates, said Miami-Dade state committeewoman Liliana Ros, who sat on Saturday's selection board.

"Obviously Hendry was smarter than the rest of us," she said Monday.

She suggested the three counties outside Dade had joined forces to ensure representation among the delegates -- an opinion shared privately by a number of local Republicans. 

"The bottom line is, the Broward people turned their back on us, and the Collier people also, and that's what happened," she said. "They talked it over, and they divided up the pie."

Delegates for each district are chosen by the three GOP leaders -- chairman, committeeman and committeewoman -- for each county. Because FL-25 covers four counties, all 12 county Republicans had a hand in the selection.

But they didn't collude to limit Dade's influence, said Republicans from Broward, Collier and Hendry.

Continue reading "It's Miami-Dade vs. Hendry in aftermath of GOP delegate selection" »

Miami-Dade judge appeared drunk on bench, dropped F-bomb on waiter, judicial report says

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via @DavidOvalle305

A Miami-Dade judge faces possible suspension after launching a profanity-laced tirade in a restaurant and appearing so drunk in her own courtroom that she was yanked from the bench.

“You are a f---ing idiot, you don’t know who I am,” County Judge Jacqueline Schwartz yelled at a waiter at a Miami Greek restaurant after she was refused more alcohol, according to a state investigative report released on Monday. It also quotes the judge calling police officers “pigs” when they were were summoned to the restaurant on March 18.

The investigation for the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission on Monday recommended that Schwartz be suspended. Ultimately, the Florida Supreme Court will decide what, if any, punishment she deserves.

Her lawyer, Jeffrey Feiler, told the commission this month that she was not drunk but under the influence of a new prescription medication.

Schwartz has been on “paid medical leave” since she was sent home from the bench on March 28.

It’s the second time that a state judicial oversight board has questioned Schwartz’s behavior and salty language.

In December, the Florida Supreme Court scolded Schwartz after she told a store owner to “go f--- yourself” during a heated re-election campaign in June 2014. She was angry over an oversized campaign sign posted at the story for her opponent. She was suspended for 30 days and had to pay a $10,000 fine.

More here.

Photo credit: Roberto Koltun, el Nuevo Herald

Proponents of Cuba engagement to launch Miami Spanish-language radio program

Obama US Cuba

@PatriciaMazzei

Opening a new front in their political push for closer U.S.-Cuba ties, proponents of Cuba engagement are taking to the medium that for decades has voiced the most strident opposition to their cause: Miami's Spanish-language radio.

The hour-long paid program will debut Tuesday on WQBA-AM (1140), a local station owned by media giant Univision. For its inaugural show, CUBAHORA -- a play on words that translates to "Cuba Now" or "Cuba Hour" -- will feature an interview with former U.S. Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban-American Republican who favors normalized relations with the island. Though the program is paid advertising, Tuesday's interviewers will be WQBA anchor José Alfonso Almora, a trusted voice among listeners.

Lengthy paid programming is not unusual on Spanish-language radio, especially during election season, when candidates or their Hispanic surrogates seek to reach older Cuban-American voters who reliably cast ballots (the programs include a disclaimer). But a weekly slot to push the pro-engagement position might still surprise listeners used to anchors with a more hardline editorial bent. Notably, the program won't air on the higher-rated -- and more conservative -- Radio Mambí, WQBA's sister station and Univision's local Spanish-language flagship. (WQBA was once so focused on its Cuban-exile listeners it called itself "La Cubanísima," which loosely translates to "the very Cuban.")

The program is paid for by Cuba Now, a nonprofit group that advocates among other things for lifting the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Its executive director, Ric Herrero, will provide commentary alongside Almora.

Continue reading "Proponents of Cuba engagement to launch Miami Spanish-language radio program" »

Former Miami U.S. attorney had asked Justice Department to investigate Carnival cruise to Cuba

@PatriciaMazzei

Before Carnival Corp. announced Monday it would postpone its upcoming cruise to Cuba if Cuban-born Americans couldn't buy tickets, it faced political pressure from all sides -- including, as it turns out, from a one-time Miami federal prosecutor.

Former U.S. Attorney Bob Martinez had asked the Justice Department last week to investigate whether Carnival's trip would violate civil-rights protections. He had tried to book passage on the cruise and was told he couldn't because he was born in Cuba.

"I thought that was pretty outrageous," he said. "It kind of just hits you, like, 'Whoa, what do you mean I can't? I'm a U.S. citizen."

The cruise company had originally planned to set sail even if the Cuban government continued to prohibit Cuban-born Americans from traveling to the island by sea. It now intends to postpone the May 1 voyage if Cuba doesn't lift its decree before then.

"Smart," Martinez said Monday.

Last Thursday, he wrote Attorney General Loretta Lynch. He's yet to get a response but said he knows his letter got read by some DOJ folks.

"That the U.S. civil rights laws prohibit national origin discrimination should not be surprising to anyone, least of all to a major U.S. business, such as Carnival, with its operational headquarters based in Miami, Florida. And yet, that is exactly what Carnival is doing," he wrote. "Shamelessly, Carnival tries to absolve itself from its illegal conduct by pointing its finger at the Cuban Government and blaming it for its discriminatory laws. But, it is Carnival that is playing the role of the Cuban Government police, doing its dirty work by enforcing the Cuban Government's discriminatory laws. Carnival is willing to play that role for business reasons."

In a statement Monday, Carnival CEO Arnold Donald said he expects Cuba to change its regulations.

"We want everyone to be able to go to Cuba with us," he said.

Read Martinez's letter: Letter