Here’s an age-old question: Is Miami actually more corrupt than other cities, or do Florida’s fantastic public-records laws just let people find out more about their elected officials? We’re still not sure about that one. But 2018 wound up being yet another year in which Magic City politics drove us to drink and plunged us into abject, bottomless despair: Awful, rich people succeeded, local elected officials committed crimes, horrible deals got rammed through city governments, and barely anyone faced real consequences. An alleged Miami Beach scam artist even runs the Department of Justice now.
Here’s a primer on the stories that have the New Times staff, once again, soaked in bourbon and screaming every night into our pillows before we fall asleep. At least some of these stories are sort of funny. Otherwise, here’s to another year of therapy in 2019!
It takes a special sort of asshole to pin a bunch of crimes on an innocent 16-year-old kid just for being black. But former Biscayne Park Police Chief Raimundo Atesiano now admits he’s exactly that sort of asshole: Federal prosecutors announced today that Atesiano pleaded guilty to framing a Biscayne Park teenager, known as “T.D.” in court records, for a series of burglaries he did not commit. Prosecutors say Atesiano “on three separate occasions” instructed his employees to frame innocent black suspects.
“The right to be free from false arrests is fundamental to our Constitution and system of justice,” Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore said this afternoon in a media release. “Law enforcement officers who abuse their authority and deny any individual this right will be held accountable. As the Chief of Police, Defendant Atesiano was trusted by his community to lead their police officers by example; he has failed his community and the officers of Biscayne Park.”
Earlier this year, the feds unsealed a blockbuster case against Atesiano and three of his former subordinates. The FBI said Atesiano had instructed employees in his tiny, 11-person police department to pin burglaries on black residents with criminal records in order to pretend his department had a 100 percent clearance rate for home thefts.
To that end, Atesiano’s department arrested T.D. on claims he had robbed a string of four homes in April and May 2013. Atesiano later bragged to his city council that he was working to solve every single robbery in town. But outside law-enforcement experts say a “100 percent” clearance rate for thefts is unheard of in police work and basically impossible to achieve.
The Miami Herald in July then uncovered even more damning details in the case: A Biscayne Park cop told internal investigators that Atesiano had told his employees to pin crimes on black people in general.
“If they have burglaries that are open cases that are not solved yet, if you see anybody black walking through our streets and they have somewhat of a record, arrest them so we can pin them for all the burglaries,” Atesiano told his police force, according to one cop, Anthony De La Torre.
North Miami Beach Mayor George Vallejo pleaded guilty in April to a raft of campaign-finance violations, including diverting at least $5,000 in campaign money to shell corporations he and his family used to pay off personal expenses. Vallejo, age 51, stepped down as mayor and received three months of house arrest plus probation.
But in a previously unreported deposition obtained by New Times, Vallejo admitted to perhaps an even greater ethical violation: He said in a sworn statement that, for virtually the entirety of his time in office, his wife was quietly employed by the infamous, Trump-tied Dezer family, who are among the city’s most prominent developers. Vallejo told attorneys in an April 5 interview that he and his wife created two shell companies, including one LLC headquartered in Wyoming, to hide the payments from the public. While his wife was taking publicly undisclosed payments from the Dezers, Vallejo voted on issues related to Dezer properties.
“I wanted something that not everybody could sit there and look [it] up… and be all up in our business,” Vallejo told investigators probing the Wyoming LLC.
North Miami City Clerk Michael Etienne might have just committed the most wholesome theft of public money in American history. Sure, people steal a few thousand dollars in taxpayer cash all the time — but instead of using that money to cover something heinous, like dog-track gambling debts, Etienne legit stole some money to stare at Abraham Lincoln’s giant head and think about integrity for a while. Irony is dead.
And, no, “Mount Rushmore” isn’t a cleverly named pro-Trump strip club in Hialeah. According to the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics & Public Trust, Etienne blew more than $2,000 to flounce around South Dakota like he was Cary Grant in North by Northwest. The commission said today that Etienne paid the city back, plus $1,000 to the ethics commission to cover his punishment and the panel’s investigative costs. The case is yet another hilarious story in Miami-Dade’s history of zany ethics complaints, including the time Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez got caught loan-sharking and paid his ethics fine in pennies and nickels.
Etienne was elected city clerk in 2011. According to a copy of his ethics commission complaint, he used city money to attend two conferences in 2016. He received about $570 in cash to attend a January 2016 conference in Long Beach, California. Ethics investigators eventually confirmed he deposited the money in his personal checking account but never attended the conference.
Etienne then requested money to attend the International Institute of Municipal Clerks’ annual conference in Omaha, Nebraska — perhaps the least enticing-sounding conference in this solar system — in May 2016.
But Etienne’s travel itinerary was a snaking web of confusing stops. He said he planned to fly from Fort Lauderdale to Denver, then drive a rental car seven hours from Denver to Omaha, then drive from Omaha to a hotel in Indiana, and then make a final stop in Chicago (also seven hours from Omaha), where he’d drop off the rental car and fly home to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. In total, that bizarre trip cost an estimated $2,084, including $252 for flights and $820 for the rental car.
Ethics investigators noted that other city officials from nearby towns who attended the same conference were able to pay much less by simply flying straight to Omaha. A city clerk in North Lauderdale paid just $428 for a direct round-trip flight. Something was up.
Investigators soon turned up a clue: Etienne had used his personal debit card to pay for a one-night stay at Rodeway Inn in Rapid City, South Dakota, on May 21 for $46.54. Turns out Etienne used his city-paid rental car to make a diversion to the presidential monument. That’s definitely not the public corruption crime of the century, but it’s an extremely funny way to blow public funds.
When investigators from the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics & Public Trust asked Stephen Miró, a former aide to Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo, whether the politician was using city resources to “selectively” attack Bill Fuller, the owner of Little Havana’s Ball & Chain, as vengeance for his support of Carollo’s opponent, Miró did not pull punches.
“In my opinion, yes,” Miró told the ethics commission.
Miró also said Carollo “bragged” about personally following Ball & Chain employees at night. And after Fuller filed a complaint against Carollo, Miró said the commissioner pressured him to lie to the ethics board.
“Joe wanted me to say there were anonymous complaints [against Fuller] and there were none,” Miró said. He added that Carollo tried to “coerce [him] into saying something that was totally not true.”
Miró’s statements are among an avalanche of damning details in a new report from the ethics commission’s investigation into Carollo’s alleged political vendetta against Fuller. Much of the testimony in the 38-page report paints Carollo as a vengeful, paranoid figure willing to accuse his enemies of nearly anything to smear them. The report is just the latest eye-opening chapter in the former Miami mayor’s long-standing history as the Magic City’s most outlandish politician.
Today President Donald Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions and announced his chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, would become acting attorney general. Whitaker is a former U.S. attorney in Iowa, but he was also involved in a Miami-based invention-marketing company the Federal Trade Commission shut down last year after calling it a scam.
Whitaker not only sat on the board of World Patent Marketing but also once sent a threatening email to a former customer who had complained after he spent thousands of dollars and did not receive the promised services. Court records obtained by New Times for a 2017 feature about the fraudulent company show that in an August 2015 email to a disgruntled customer, Whitaker touted his background as a former federal attorney and suggested that filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and “smearing” the company online could result in “serious civil and criminal consequences.”