Police taxi Miami-Dade politicians, and public pays tab
(MIAMI HERALD) Several Miami-Dade commissioners use county police to chauffeur them around South Florida.
Despite pocketing an $800 monthly car allowance, several Miami-Dade commissioners use sworn police officers to chauffeur them in county cars — costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands a year in overtime and raising concerns about personal abuse of public money.
Commissioner Jose ”Pepe” Diaz was ferried at least 144 times in 2007 and 2008 by Kevin Greenwood, one of the commission’s sergeants-at-arms who provide security at meetings and, of late, have essentially become personal drivers for a handful of commissioners.
Greenwood’s service frequently stretched beyond his normal eight-hour shift, according to his signed logs, earning him overtime on at least 125 trips. Some nights, he put in exceptionally long hours, dropping the commissioner off at midnight or later at least 15 times.
Being Commissioner Diaz’s personal chauffeur helped drive Greenwood’s $85,050 base salary to $142,240 last year.
Another officer, Paul Hernandez, drove Diaz to the celebrity-packed grand opening of the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach last fall, a fellow commissioner said. Hernandez logged 27 hours of overtime over that weekend with Diaz.
In an e-mail Friday, Diaz declined to discuss the Fontainebleau weekend but wrote that he used the sergeants-at-arms to carry out his duties.
”As you know, the responsibilities of a County Commissioner extend far beyond meetings at the Stephen P. Clark Center,” Diaz wrote. “I have used sergeants-at-arms when necessary to ensure my safety and security.”
While Diaz appears to be the most frequent user of the service, he is certainly not alone. Commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Audrey Edmonson and Barbara Jordan are among the others, according to a Miami Herald review of the officers’ activity logs.
The practice has tripled the number of police officers working for the commission since 2002, and increased their cost to taxpayers from $211,000 to $743,845 in 2008, payroll records show.
The number of commissioners, 13, did not change during that time frame.
Driving the politicians has turned the generally ceremonial job of a sergeant-at-arms — they spend much of their time asking visitors to remain quiet and take their seats during commission meetings — into one of the most lucrative assignments on the county police force.
Newly elected commission Chairman Dennis Moss, who drives himself to County Hall and to almost all public functions, sent a memo to the board on March 25, laying out strict new rules for how the commission security staff shall be used.
”Sergeants-at-arms are not personal chauffeurs and are not specifically assigned to any commissioner,” Moss wrote.
He explicitly prohibited his colleagues from using them to run personal errands, accompany them out of town, or “provide personal transportation for family members in situations that have no relevance to a county event.”
Moss added that his office will review all requests for overtime and will approve them only when necessary.
The armed, plainclothes chauffeurs are part of a growing list of trappings that county commissioners have bestowed on themselves in recent years, including an expanding pot of taxpayer money they distribute with few rules and little oversight to voters in their districts. The current total exceeds $700,000 a commissioner per year.
While their listed salary is low — $6,000 a year — commissioners pocket more than $50,000 annually from an accumulation of other perks, including a $24,000 expense account, a $10,000 executive bonus and the car allowance, which totals $9,600 a year.
At a time when essential county services are threatened by declining tax revenues, some on the dais think it’s unseemly for their colleagues to be driven around town.
Commissioner Carlos Gimenez, whose name rarely appears in the logs, noted that each commissioner already gets the car stipend from taxpayers to lease a car. ”You’re supposed to use that car for county business,” Gimenez said.
Commissioner Sally Heyman, whose name shows up on one officer’s logs 53 times, said she relied on the driver while it was unsafe to operate a car because she was taking muscle relaxants and pain medication prior to surgery.
”I think the memo Dennis sent was responsible and prudent,” Heyman said. “It’s time to reevaluate the use of the officers for other county purposes.”
None of the officers approached by The Miami Herald would comment, saying they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The newspaper reviewed their handwritten daily logs, which show the time they came to work, the time they left and which commissioners they chauffeured.
Rene Cortinas Lopez drove then-Chairman Barreiro 100 times in 2007 and 2008, records show. He also frequently drove Diaz and Edmonson. Lopez got the biggest overtime pay bump of the group in 2008, lifting his annual pay from $79,410 to $141,107, a 78 percent increase.
Barreiro said he asked for rides when he went to meetings in faraway places like North Broward and Palm Beach counties, or when he had to make several stops on the same day.
”That was very good usage” of the officers’ time, Barreiro said. “You have to attend two or three events and give a proclamation, or give a certificate.”
Jorge Brito drove commissioners on 190 occasions in 2008, and 144 of those trips pushed him into overtime. Commissioners Joe Martinez, Natacha Seijas, Diaz, Edmonson and Heyman were all frequent passengers. Brito’s base salary went from $84,690 to $136,353.
Seijas also had health concerns that prevented her from driving during some of that time, said commission spokeswoman Griselle Marino.
Owen Ferguson, who joined the sergeant-at-arms staff last year, drove Jordan 54 times from late June to mid-December, half of those while on overtime.
”I’m not doubting what you may have there,” Jordan said on Friday. “Had I known that the overtime was an issue, certainly I would not have continued the sergeants-at-arms.”
She added that being driven by others afforded her time to make phone calls and check e-mail, work she now does from home.
Michael Roan, another sergeant-at-arms, drove Edmonson 89 times from March 2007 to December 2008, working overtime on 52 of those occasions.
”If that’s the truth, then print it,” Edmonson said. Reached on her cellphone, she said she was at a meeting in Washington, D.C., and did not have time to answer any other questions.
Edmonson is not accompanied by any of the sergeants-at-arms on this trip, spokeswoman Marino said. But the records show they have flown to the nation’s capital with commissioners in the past, collecting overtime practically around the clock.
All told, seven sergeants-at-arms have collected $630,000 in overtime since 2006, largely from chauffeuring commissioners. More than $250,000 of that came in 2008.
In an interview Monday, Moss declined to cite specific abuses, or explain in detail his reasons for putting the brakes on the service. ”It was just important to set up some rules,” he said. “Now everybody can conduct themselves accordingly.”
After consulting with county attorneys, Moss released to The Miami Herald the daily logs for most of 2007 and 2008, but he divulged no details on how the sergeants have been used since he took over as chairman in January.
”At the moment, there are no records being kept,” said Roan, whom Moss appointed as lead sergeant-at-arms.
SYSTEM FOR RECORDS
The record-keeping system began in February 2007 after the MDPD Internal Affairs investigators asked then-Chairman Barreiro where Roan had been on two specific dates in 2006, according to correspondence obtained by The Miami Herald on Saturday.
Neither Roan nor Moss responded to requests for comment Saturday.
If Moss follows through on his threat to curtail the car service, no commissioner would be impacted more than Diaz, who regularly leaves his county-leased Cadillac Escalade at home in favor of a ”dignitary vehicle,” as the sergeants-at-arms’ cars are called.
Take the weekend of the Fontainebleau opening, Nov. 14, 2008. After clocking in to work at 8:30 a.m. that Friday, Hernandez drove Diaz to the Miami Beach gala. He clocked out at 3 a.m.
The next morning, Hernandez drove the commissioner from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. On Sunday, he spent 12 more hours chauffering the commissioner, records show.
At 1 ½ times his hourly wage — the standard overtime rate — Miami-Dade citizens would have paid Hernandez more than $1,500 that weekend.
Although Diaz declined to address questions about the weekend, Barreiro confirmed that his colleague went to the Fontainebleau accompanied by Hernandez.
Barreiro knows because he, too, had a sergeant-at-arms drive him to the party. But Barreiro wasn’t with his driver the whole weekend.
“He took me home that night and that was it, I think.”