“We’ve lifted a rock, and turned on the lights”
With days to go before a crucial City Commission meeting at which will be raised the controversy of the recent corruption arrests of seven city employees and a likely vote on the future of the city manager who oversees them, Mayor Matti Bower and City Manager Jorge Gonzalez launched a 3-stop series of “Mayor on the Move” Q-&-As with the public this week, meeting citizens – first, at the Miami Beach Golf Clubhouse on Monday evening, then at the Normandy Golf Clubhouse on Wednesday morning, and finally at Rebecca Towers this afternoon – and explaining their plan of action to fix city government, restore public trust, and address attendees’ concerns about the scandal.
Here is some of what the two said on the matter that Bower calls “the mess”:
BOWER: “I AM THE SPOKESPERSON, I HAVE TO SHOW MY FACE”
On May 9, at 5:00, one of the commissioners has asked for something to be put on the agenda and we’re going to deal with it at 5:00.”
“The city manager, myself and some of the commissioners have been working to see how we can come up with a plan [for] what else could we do for this not to happen.
“I don’t think, personally, that a lot of these things will stop that because that’s a deal between two people, or a leader in a group that is following the leader, and what happened is somebody…turned them in and it took the FBI six or eight months to investigate… wiretaps and all kinds of things.
“When [the city manager] feels that there’s something wrong, we turn it over to whoever he thinks is the person in charge. He has called the state attorney. He investigates and fires if he has to fire and then turns things over to the state attorney.
“Some of the commissioners want to know why they haven’t had input, or why it has happened this way. I am the mayor and the spokesperson; I have to show my face. This is the job I asked for, so I’m the one who who has to be up front, talking to all of you. When it’s good it’s very pleasant; when it’s bad it’s very unpleasant. But I still do it, it’s my job. I have wanted staff to come up with something because we need to make the citizenry feel better about government, feel better about things.
GONZALEZ: “A LONG TIME TO REPAIR”
“Certain things have occurred that are simply inexcusable. The actions that seven of our employees undertook was a betrayal of this organization, this community, of our employees, of me and of the commission, and each and everyone here. Some of those individuals you all knew – one of those individuals was a proactive, forward-thinking, and aggressive code officer who seemingly was resolving a lot of concerns and problems in this community.
“Unfortunately, he also was doing other things, things that just are not acceptable and cannot be tolerated. He approached one too many or he approached this person in the wrong way. However it is that it occurred, that gentleman [the alleged extortion victim] talked to the FBI and informed them of what was going on. They pursued an investigation [of] which I’m not happy with the outcome. I hope that the eventual outcome is that these individuals are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. They have done something to this organization that is going to take a long time to repair.
“The vast majority of our employees are solid, honest, good, hard-working people who come in and do their jobs. A lot of them you all know and a lot of them you work with. To have what happened taint the entirety of the organization is something that we’re going to spend a lot of time trying to repair.
“A CLOUD OVER US”
“[It's] not the first time that we’ve unfortunately had circumstances where people have been doing the wrong things. I personally have had the occasion more than once to discover problems either brought to me or ones that we discovered ourselves. After some investigation we – everytime – took it to our police department and the state attorney’s office and pursued vigorously the investigation and the prosecution.
“A couple of occasions, our state attorney indicated that she did not have ample resources in her budget to provide for the investigation and I said, ‘we’ll provide it ourselves,’ and we detached officers to work with her under her supervision and she led investigations that yielded the results [relating to] our building department [scandal] a few years back.
“[It's] a cloud over us. But to do nothing and to simply sweep it under the rug or avoid it, or in some way ignore it, is also not acceptable. Just a few months ago, I discovered that our procurement director was engaged in some things – I don’t know if it was even criminal. I’ll let the state attorney and police department determine [that] but it was certainly behavior that I felt our procurement director shouldn’t be engaged in, and I immediately terminated him.
“I could have ended it there and said, ‘well, he’s no longer with the city and were moving on,’ but instead I did call the police chief and said, ‘you need to look at this, you need to tell me if this is criminal,’ and I brought the state attorney’s office in and they’re doing what they’re doing. That’s what our job is to do. That’s what my job is to do, what I expect our employees to do, which is if you see wrongdoing anywhere, at any time, you have a duty to report it.
“Those kinds of things become that much more challenging to root out. There is something collusional going on. What’s going on [is] behind closed doors that nobody can clearly see.
“WE DON’T KNOW FOR SURE HOW EXTENSIVE IT IS”
“I urge everybody, if they’ve ever felt that they have been directly approached in a similar manner, to report it. Report it to somebody. Report it to me, report it to the city attorney, report it to the Commission, the mayor, the FBI, state attorney’s office, the inspector general – report it to someone because that’s the only way that we’ll be able to really and truly get to the bottom of all of this.
“While I hope, assume, and expect that these are isolated instances, we don’t know for sure at this point. We really don’t know for sure how isolated or how extensive it is. What we do know is that the FBI continues to investigate this matter and we are cooperating fully with [them] in any manner they request and any information they want – anytime they want to meet with us, anytime they want to ask any questions of any staff or me, the chief, whomever.
“I’ve given instruction to make sure that we cooperate fully and that they have whatever they need to not only complete this investigation but, if there’s more going on, that they have any resource necessary to get to the bottom of it. Because now is when there’s an opportunity to see what else is out there. We’ve lifted a rock, turned on the lights. We see what we see and we don’t like what we see, and now it’s time to clean it up and figure out how far and how wide it goes.
ON REPORTS THAT “HOODLUMS WORK IN THE CODE DEPARTMENT”
“There’s been some stories written about the backgrounds of these individuals that were involved. What you read in the [Miami Herald] wasn’t entirely complete and accurate. The article implies that we have a bunch of hoodlums working in the code department. The truth of the matter is that only one of those seven individuals was ever convicted of any crime and in this country we still are innocent until proven guilty.
“Only one person was convicted of a crime. That conviction dates to 1978. That individual was convicted of a crime – [a] game of chance, playing dice or something – when he was much younger. Somewhere along the way, [he] was hired by the city in the early 1990s. No one who was in charge then is around now, so I can’t ask them what they were thinking when that selection was made.
But notwithstanding that, over the course of several years afterward, that same individual was terminated by the city because he hadn’t disclosed the previous conviction and, because of collective bargaining agreements, [he], through his union, was brought back as a conclusion of an arbitration matter. So, the city took action, terminated [him] and, through an arbitration matter, had to bring that person back.
“That’s the only person that was convicted. Others had been arrested, prosecution was dropped, records were expunged – most of those dating back to the early ’90s as well. [Ex-code compliance administrator Jose] Alberto had several arrests dating back to when he was 17 and 18 years old in the early ’90s. None of them were convictions. Whoever was HR director or in charge of hiring at that time decided that that record was insufficient to prevent him from being hired as an employee of the parks department. Over the years, due to performance, he was moved over to Code and then worked his way through Code. Never been prosecuted. Had a substance abuse issue, apparently, had worked through things like that, and was trying to put his life back together.
“I think you all know him. I’m not going to defend him. I’m not going to suggest that he is anything other than who he is, and what he did he will have to live with. But the paper painted a much worse picture than what the files really indicated. And, like [him], all of [the others] were identified as having had some background that was untoward, but if you look at the record then you’ll find that it’s not what [is alleged]. Look at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and their rights and responsibilities. They tell us that, by and large, it’s very difficult to take one’s background and prevent them from being hired.
“We’re making sure that things like this – if we can’t prevent them completely, at least we can put measures in place that may deter it from happening in the future and make it that much more difficult and certainly make it that much less likely to occur.”