“When I examine and consider all the flourishing republics in the world today, believe me, nothing comes to mind except the conspiracy of the rich, who seek their own advantage under the name and title of the republic.” Utopia, Thomas More
FIGHTING CORRUPTION IN MIAMI BEACH
by David Arthur Walters
November 19, 2014
MIAMI BEACH—The human race is originally corrupt or impure and perpetually falls short of the divine ideal of equal justice for all, which is to each his own. Politics is disappointing because it is about the distribution of the almighty power religiously worshipped. By nature each would have more than the others in the war of all against all. The mighty and the lucky have more than the weak and unlucky, and much of the gain of some over the rest is considered unfairly or ill gotten. Political office has naturally been exploited for private gain from time immemorial. People do not like corruption in others yet are blind to their own corruption, therefore it is commonplace in the struggle for power for popular politicians to run against Corruption to gain power, yet for corruption never to be curbed. Sever one head of the Hydra and two takes its place as the race goes forth and multiplies.
Of course all the politicians craving official power in the City of Miami Beach excepting the incumbents were running against Corruption this November in the scandalous wake of a few F.B.I. arrests of corrupt officials. There shall always be a few arrests from time to time, but this time was marked by the uprising of a faux opposition and then a palace revolution posing as a populist movement.
Jorge Gonzalez, the longstanding city manager, who was convinced he could retain his position for as long as he liked it, was involuntarily retired by the opportunists. He was given good recommendations by the reactionaries along with a few hundred thousand dollars severance so he could go up and manage the rapidly developing city of Bal Harbour a few months later.
Several candidates were selected by a recruitment firm to replace him, but they were ignored and Jimmy Morales, a politician, was shoed in for the job instead of a business manager. Now the fascistic ideal of city government under the current system, which was politically contrived to fight Corruption, is that cities should be run like businesses. But never mind the theoretical distinction. The reactionary commissioners have ignored his recommendations on big issues, and people have high expectations once again instead of cynicism, so he must be on the right track. However, Jorge Gonzalez told me that the new administration has done nothing specific to rid the city of corruption, and that plans to fight Corruption are “just talk.”
Wealthy businessman Philip ‘King’ Levine is the political figurehead for the so-called populist charge. He put up $2 million of his own money to buy the mayor’s job, with the blessing of his grateful friend, former President Clinton, who is setting up local alliances for Hillary’s run for the presidency. The mayor’s job pays $10,000 a year and provides no executive authority under the city’s weak-mayor, strong-city-manager, part-time commission form of government, but it suits the would-be sovereign ego that enjoys presiding over back-biting peers on royal councils. The King’s Counsel did all he could to stifle free speech during the campaign, slapping journalists with strategic lawsuits to shut them up, wherefore journalists expect tyranny as usual once Philip is crowned.
Philip Levine’s opponent was Commissioner Michael Góngora. He was advised to run against Corruption to garnish votes, but he ran on his long experience on the commission instead of against Corruption, for to run against Corruption may have been deemed an admission of the very corruption the Levinites were glad to heap upon his shoulders, including even two ancient drunk driving charges, one being reduced to reckless driving. Scapegoating the city manager would not do, for city manager’s serve at the leisure of the city commission. So Estimado Góngora will return to the oblivion of practicing law for one of Florida’s most prestigious firms.
When we speak of corruption we refer not only criminal corruption for which an official may be imprisoned, but of moral corruption as well, including crimes against society that have been legalized for the benefit of the rich and powerful who own the legislative means. If the moral integrity of the society is in the public’s best interest, if the interest of the community is higher than that of any individual, then any deviation from that interest is corruption. Those whose interests are different from or even opposite to the public interest have an interest in deceiving and oppressing the public, and in using political power to accomplish their selfish ends.
Politicians may be governed by the quid pro quo. Officials may exploit their offices for their own personal gain in terms of wealth or for self-aggrandizement. They may endeavor to retain office and emoluments no matter how negligently they conduct its business. They may abuse their positions to the advantage of family, friends, and favorites,
One way to fight government corruption in all its forms is to expose those forms to a jealous public. A jealous public will clamor for relief from exploitation and repression when wrongdoing is made obvious. And then something might be done, even in South Florida. At least a few heads may roll. And the machine may be tinkered with a little bit.
Now transparency in Florida is fostered by the state’s Sunshine Law, but the law is limited by the ignorance or moral corruption of its enforcers. In any case, there shall always be places in the back where the Sun does not shine, therefore information asymmetries shall occur.
Still, there are some specific things that can and should be brought into broad daylight. For example, after allegations were made that untold millions of dollars of permit fees and fines were being forgone by the city’s commission, the city’s building department, the city attorney’s office, and the special master court, I proposed that all writedowns and writeoffs of fees and fines be “warranted” and actually written down, or accounted for and regularly reported so that the amounts, reasons, and persons authorizing the reductions would be known to the public.
Furthermore, I proposed that the special master court proceedings be video recorded and televised so the public could hold the magistrates accountable for undue harshness or leniency.
That transparency would reduce the likelihood of negligence and criminal corruption on the part of commissioners, building officials, city attorneys, and magistrates. City commissioners would not acknowledge and comment on my proposal. The city attorney’s office advised the interim city manager that my proposal to follow generally accepted accounting principles for the impactful discounts and waivers was “moronic.”
Florida has an inspector general system for bringing negligence and misconduct to light. Although an inspector general cannot prosecute anyone for their misdeeds, the press may trumpet his findings and all hell may break loose if those discoveries are damning, as recently happened in Broward County.
City of Miami Beach activists clamored for an inspection in the wake of the most recent F.B.I. arrests. Officials took the urging to heart and contacted the inspector general for Miami-Dade County, who declined to serve the City of Miami Beach for lack of resources. It was brought to the attention of Commissioner Góngora that the city provides the county with some of its resources; does not the city deserve inspector general services in return? Apparently not, he said, but he would have his assistant look into it. Everyone knows that when he says he will have her look into it, that that is most likely the end of the discussion.
Another matter that Góngora referred to his assistant was a proposal that the city establish a whistleblower process available to public employees, independent of the chain of command. Florida has a whistleblower law that allows for an alternative to the costly filing of whistleblower complaints in circuit court. County employees may file their complaints with the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust. The City of Miami Beach has not bought into that alternative; therefore, whistleblowers are stuck with the chain of command or with hiring a lawyer to file in circuit court. The chain of command, the city attorney office, and human resources department may circle the wagons to protect their own power clique. We did not hear back from Góngora or his assistant on our proposal for an alternative.
We repeatedly asked Góngora to support the formation of an Internal Affairs Corruption Unit. He did not respond. The Miami Beach Police Department offered its Internal Affairs department’s services to investigate and report on alleged misconduct of all city officials, not just police department personnel. Gary Shimminger, who had headed IA for Miami, was hired to command IA for Miami Beach, and John Buhrmaster, a legendary Miami homicide detective, was hired to assist him. They, along with the new assistant chief of police, Mark Overton, formerly police chief of Hialeah, were gung ho on the Internal Affairs Public Corruption Unit concept. Alas, Shimminger collapsed and died of a heart attack while exercising. The city commission had not provided funds for the expansion. The great idea was just that, a great idea, a pipe dream. The new IA commander was unaware of it.
IA does have a single public corruption officer, assigned to the FBI. State law enforcement officers also task with the FBI. Those resources are straining under corruption running rampant in several South Florida cities. The City of Miami Beach has no watchdog of its own with teeth, so it must await its turn again, knowing that the arm of the federal government may be slow but it is very long indeed. In the interim, local officials are lulled into a false sense of security in respect to criminal corruption. As for moral corruption, negligence and the like, officials are rarely held accountable. In court, they and their city may enjoy sovereign immunity from liability for damages due to gross negligence, as if they were royalty of old, because, it is said, they need immunity to risk taking action. So they may do nothing at all with impunity.
Of course police are always suspected of corruption. Are laws going unenforced? Cops must be taking bribes. What other explanation could there be? Well, maybe the police force is underfunded, or ineptly managed. Since the police department and its chief gets the brunt of the blame whenever disorder seems to prevail, why not hold the police department accountable to the complainants by having them elect their own police commissioner? They would then have the police executives they deserve. The police commissioner would appoint chiefs, set overall policies and strategies, and sit on the city commission as well.
I submitted a proposal for the election of police commissioners to all the city commissioners and to the city manager and city attorney. I pleaded for comments, but I did not receive a single response.
Góngora did agree that one of my proposals should be presented to the public as a referendum, but not until after the election. I proposed changing the city constitution to a strong-mayor system. As it stands, the most powerful person in city government is the city manager, and he is not directly accountable to the people. He is beholden only to sets of part-time commissioners with various interests. Control of the commission over time can be retained by representatives for the vested interests whose interests in the main to not coincide with those of the general public. Faux opposition may occur from time to time to rotate the spoils, with business continuing as usual. This form of government is a formula for perpetual corruption criminal and ethical.
The last city manager did some great things for the city, but he grew exceedingly arrogant and tyrannical, and he failed to adequately oversee the departmental fiefdoms. He was well paid, but was he a crook? I have my doubts. He once felt so secure that he said he would be city manager as long as he liked, but the most recent arrest scandal was used by the faux opposition to force him to retire after fourteen years. He was scapegoated, but the goat was not driven into the desert to die: he took what might be an even more lucrative job as the manager of another city.
Whom does should the most powerful city official work for? Tom Pendergast, Kansas City’s famous political boss, really liked the weak-mayor, strong-city-manager system when it was installed in his Heart of America, because he had the council in his pocket and the city manager was his man, and a damn good manager at that notwithstanding the corruption. Boss Pendergast supplied the booze, and the men and cement for the public works, so even he is admired by many to this day. But the most powerful city official should work for all the people, and he should be chosen by the people so they can deserve him. If he does not perform to their liking, he can be recalled, or replaced by someone else at the next election.
I believe the city attorney should be elected as well, and the city charter changed to redefine the city attorney’s duties so that he or she shall be more proactive or aggressive in making sure that the city and its officials abide by the law, instead of waiting to be asked for advice.
Of course there are many other specific things that could be done to curb corruption. Private watchdogs should be encouraged and even commissioned instead of denigrated, and given some responsibility to monitor aspects of government they are most interested in. A high City of Miami Beach official has defined “watchdog” as “an unemployed criminal who wastes his whole life urinating in public hallways and stalking officials.” Doral’s city manager is more laconic: his watchdog is simply a “delinquent.” That attitude must change.
Police department and code compliance records should be online, at the fingertips of anyone who is curious or cares to investigate. Building department officials who approve permits should be frequently rotated. No elected official should serve more than a total of eight years in all offices held.
Now, then, we did not hear many specific recommendations from the campaigners who ran against Corruption. Forgive me for my cynicism, and please understand that I prophesize because I do not want my predictions to come true. I expect little or nothing specific will be done about corruption after the election. What we will have is business as usual, at least until the FBI pounces again. Has that been ordained by a god? That depends on what the god is. Right now the gospel is, “Money talks, bullshit walks.”