Miami Beach sinking in a vast swamp of dishonesty

(MIAMI HERALD)   In places other than Miami Beach City Hall, human resource officers are not encouraged by certain notations in employee personnel files.

Petty larceny, for instance. Or arrests for cocaine possession. Two busts on coke charges are not considered career builders.

Neither are charges of DUI or battery on a spouse. None of these behaviors, outside Miami Beach, would be considered promising attributes for, say, someone vying for an integrity-testing job like city code compliance officer.

An arrest for tossing rocks at policemen. A history of profound credit problems. A history of restraining orders. A history of probation. A charge of hit-and-run. None of these entries in a personnel file quite translates to “trustworthy prospect.”

Same with an attack on two policemen who showed up to intervene at a rowdy party. Ask any human resource officer (outside Miami Beach), and they’d suggest considering another applicant.

Lying about an illegal gambling conviction would not be considered a smart career move. A code inspector who fakes inspections is not exactly what one hopes to find in an employee’s work record.

In most towns, if a human resource officer found all of these transgressions bundled inside the personnel files of the city’s code compliance and fire inspectors, they’d run through corridors of City Hall like an apocalyptic street preacher, warning that an awful scandal loomed.

The April 11 arrest of five code officers and two fire inspectors — charged with running an extortion racket — was plenty predictable, given that those very transgressions were, indeed, in the files of the inspectors the city let loose amid the temptations of South Beach.

The FBI charged the code officers with extorting $25,000 from an unnamed nightclub owner. In return, the racketeers didn’t bother with inspections or worry about the club’s unpaid tax bill.

Fire inspector Henry Bryant, in addition to soliciting bribes from undercover agents to grease the process for permits and fire inspections, also arranged a police escort to bring in two loads of what he thought was cocaine, according to the feds. Bryant, by the way, had been suspended back in 2007 for faking inspections.

The Herald’s David Smiley dredged up the personnel jackets on the arrested inspectors (read his story here), and it was as if the city had been running a work-release program for the Department of Corrections. The shoddy seven could probably mount a credible defense in court, arguing that after the city mixed so many miscreants together, corruption was inevitable, a kind of chemical reaction caused by a volatile concoction of obviously unreliable employees.

So, according to the FBI, a certain unnamed South Beach club owner gets a visit from code inspector Jose Alberto, who threatened to hit the nightclub with a $30,000 fine unless he was paid $3,000. That led to other city code extortionists coming through the cracks like cockroaches. Fire inspector Chai Footman promised to ward off unfavorable fire inspections in return for party favors — $3,633 in free food and drinks for Footman and his three female companions, according to the federal complaint.

“We are straight,” Alberto told the club manager, according to the feds. “As long as you ain’t no FBI.”

Except the FBI was listening. And learning that shaking down clubs was a South Beach tradition. The FBI complaint quoted fire inspector Henry Bryant bragging about past extortions. “I have worked with [Alberto] for about 12 years on every little gig that I had,” Bryant told an undercover agent. “I mean we kept a place open that had violated every [expletive] rule in the law — but the guy was paying us $4,000.”

One might think the folks at City Hall would have been a bit more diligent after three building department inspectors were busted in 2008 on charges that they solicited bribes from a Beach developer. Maybe, after that, it should have occurred to city officials to give their code inspectors’ personnel records an extra look. But maybe corruption is so ingrained in Miami Beach, no one thinks it’s worth the bother.

This latest bust follows allegations that Miami Beach had held up a $15 million reimbursement grant to the New World Symphony in an attempt to extort free tickets for city officials. And there’s an investigation of the former purchasing director over his questionable dealing with a potential bidder in the billion-dollar convention center project.

Last year, a Miami Beach cop, reckless with drink, went tearing down the beach on a police department ATV, no lights, with a woman he had just met at a bar clinging to his back. He crashed over two hapless civilians. The investigation of the brutal incident revealed Beach cops drinking on duty, roaming outside their assigned districts and on-duty supervisors gone home after working partial shifts, despite putting in for overtime. Faking overtime, it was discovered, was endemic to the department.

After the ATV incident, it looked as if Miami Beach had itself a police department gone out of control. Now it’s apparent that the problem’s much more expansive. Those cheating, partying cops were just a symptom of the pervasive rot at City Hall.


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