In Hialeah, money meant to feed poor kids pays for Las Vegas trip for city officials

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez Photo: CBSMiami

Two years ago, Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez signed off on spending $7,621 from a $10,000 corporate grant for feeding poor children. Instead, the money went to pay for airline tickets and posh hotel accommodations for himself, his chief of staff, a police detective and four  other city employees to attend a parks and recreation conference in Las Vegas.

News of Mayor Hernandez’s curious city spending surfaced in documents filed in a recently closed joint public corruption investigation by Miami-Dade’s State Attorney’s Office and Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.

Another strange finding: Hernandez never traveled to Las Vegas to attend the annual conference of the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) from Sept. 13-17, 2015, and his whereabouts for seven days remain a mystery.

Hernandez was the investigation’s focus, but he won’t face criminal charges. A close-out memo written by Assistant State Attorney Trent Reichling and obtained by Florida Bulldog concluded that the Sept. 13-19 trip – ending two days after the conference closed – was official city business authorized by a trio of high-ranking Hialeah bureaucrats. Further, authorities found no documentation that the grant provider, the National Recreation and Park Association, had prohibited the use of its corporate grants on travel expenses.

“The evidence contradicts any allegation that Mayor Hernandez intended to misappropriate NRPA funds for his personal benefit,” Reichling wrote. “Therefore, there is no evidence of criminal conduct that would substantiate the filing of charges.”

The June 26 close-out memo wasn’t made public until Aug. 31, along with an investigative report by the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission, which worked in conjunction with the state attorney’s public corruption task force.

Allies rewarded?

For Hernandez critics like former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, the report and the memo indicate Hernandez rewarded two of his closest allies, chief of staff Arnaldo Alonso and Det. Felix Delgado with an all-expenses paid vacation while he disappeared from his official duties for seven days.

Arnaldo Alonso, the Hialeah mayor’s chief of staff

“In the 24 years I ran the city, if I would have just imagined doing something like this, I would have been indicted,” said Martinez. “Now, you can get away with anything.” Martinez was convicted federally in 1991 for extortion and racketeering, but after a new trial in 1996 was acquitted of extortion. The jury deadlocked on five other counts, and prosecutors subsequently dropped the case.

Martinez lambasted the ethics commission and the state attorney’s office for conducting what he said was a poor investigation. “The state attorney and local investigative agencies have decided that Hialeah is like Chinatown,” Martinez said, referencing the 1974 film about a corrupt scheme involving the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “They go in, but don’t really investigate anything.”

Specifically, Martinez pointed to witness statements, including testimony by Alonso and Delgado, that he contends shows they were less than forthcoming about where the mayor was during the week of the Las Vegas conference. “It is shameful of the ethics commission and the state attorney for allowing people to lie and doing nothing,” Martinez said, also noting that investigators apparently made no attempt to interview Mayor Hernandez.

Alonso did not respond to three phone messages requesting an interview. Messages left for Hernandez and Delgado, who works as a liaison between the mayor’s office and the police department, were not returned.

Ed Griffith, spokesman for Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, declined to specifically address Martinez’s criticisms, but noted that a prosecutor cannot ethically file criminal charges unless there is sufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“This matter was reviewed in great detail,” Griffith said. “The conclusion of our close-out memo best indicates the reasoning involved in determining that a criminal charge could not be filed.”

Perjury prosecutions ‘very rare’

Miami-Dade Ethics Commission executive director Joe Centorino, a former chief of the state attorney’s public corruption unit, defended his agency’s work.

“I think the inconsistent statements by the chief of staff are pretty well laid out in our report,” Centorino said. “Yet prosecutions for perjury are very rare because it is difficult to prove. Of course, the decision to pursue it as a criminal matter is made by the state attorney.”

Joe Centorino

The inquiry into the Las Vegas trip began March 1, 2016 when NRPA chief financial officer Anna Amselle told an ethics investigator that the conference concluded on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, and could not account for why the Hialeah delegation stayed an extra two days. She also said “nobody on the internal staff actually saw the mayor” and that the city’s NRPA grants, which are funded by corporate sponsors like Walmart, were intended solely for feeding children at Hialeah parks.

Moreover, Amselle said travel expenses to the annual conference would be an “inconsistent use” of grant funds, the investigative report states. “We would have never agreed that this is an allowable use of these funds,” she added. The Hialeah contingent stayed at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where the room rate was $219.52 per night.

On May 11, 2016, Hialeah parks and recreation director Joseph Dziedzic, one of the four other employees who went to Las Vegas, told investigators that Hernandez was expected to attend the NRPA conference because the department was “up for a big award,” but that the mayor canceled his participation in the trip prior to leaving. Dziedzic did not know why and that he was also unaware of any prohibition against using NRPA funds for travel expenses to the annual conferences, according to the investigative report.

Misspent money

Indeed, investigators discovered the city had misspent an additional $11,114 in NRPA funds to cover employees’ travel expenses for the organization’s conferences in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Another $3,541 in grant money for hungry kids was spent on two desktop scanners, an L-shaped workstation, three desks, six folding carts and a healthy-eating presentation at Milander Park.

A month after speaking to Dziedzic, investigators questioned Glenn Rice, an ex-Hialeah cop who was one of Hernandez’s most trusted political operatives until they had a falling out shortly after the Las Vegas trip. Rice said he drove Alonso to Fort Lauderdale International Airport on Sept. 13, 2015, according to the investigative report. “He said [Alonso] told him the mayor was going, but was vague as to any particulars of the trip,” the report states.

According to an Oct. 25, 2016 sworn statement, Delgado — whom Dziedzic described as the mayor’s bodyguard — said he only found out Hernandez was staying behind when he boarded their JetBlue flight. “He said Alonso told him that the mayor would not be going to Las Vegas but did not say why,” the report states. “Delgado said he normally speaks to the mayor on a daily basis at work. Delgado said the mayor did not call him during the week he was in Las Vegas and that he did not call the mayor.”

Delgado also explained that Hernandez had requested he go to Las Vegas in order to “keep everybody out of trouble” and that the mayor was particularly concerned that Alonso “might have too much to drink and do something to embarrass the city.” He noted that the chief of staff “did have a couple of drinks, vodka,” the report states.

Lissette Franco, Hernandez’s administrative assistant at the time of the Las Vegas trip, told investigators on March 30 that Alonso and the mayor are “extremely close” and that he “would be privy” to the Hernandez’s whereabouts when he was scheduled to be at the 2015 NRPA conference.

“I like to party”

On June 12, after being subpoenaed by the state attorney’s office and with his lawyer present for his sworn statement, Alonso said he had no direct knowledge of Hernandez’s whereabouts after the mayor decided not to go to Las Vegas. The chief of staff also said he could not recall any communication with Hernandez during those seven days. As far as Delgado’s claim about Hernandez’s concerns that Alonso had a drinking problem, the chief of staff said: “Listen, I like to party. I’m 38 and single.”

Investigators subsequently obtained text messages from Alonso’s city-issued phone which appeared to show him covering for Hernandez when City Attorney Lorena Bravo asked to have the mayor call her. “Okay, I will let him know,” Alonso wrote back. “Remember we are both out of town.”

In an Aug. 22 email to Reichling, ethics commission investigator Karl Ross broaches the possibility of subpoenaing cell tower data for the mayor’s phone during the week he was supposed to be in Las Vegas based on Alonso’s text messages. “I don’t know whether this rises to the level of possible perjury,” Ross wrote. “But it seems to suggest Alonso was not being truthful or forthcoming or whatever you want to call it while he was under oath.”

In his response to Ross, Reichling didn’t think there was enough to proceed with a perjury investigation against Alonso. “He certainly was not specific or forthcoming with his responses, but that is not a crime that I am aware of,” Reichling wrote, adding that the mayor’s cell phone location data would also not help proving a crime had been committed.

“With regards to an order for historic cell site data, our office’s policy is that there be probable cause to believe the cell site data would lead to evidence of a crime,” Reichling wrote. “Unless I am missing something, I do not believe I could proceed with charging Alonso with a crime, or applying for a cellular site order on the Mayor’s phone.’’

Hialeah’s mayor, a former crony, an off-the-books city gig and an ethics investigation

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, left, and retired Hialeah police officer Glenn Rice Photo: NBC6

Being a political operative for Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez comes with city perks.

Glenn Rice — a former city cop who worked on the mayor’s 2011 and 2013 campaigns — collected roughly $12,000 during a three-year period acting as an off-the-books employee monitoring the company Hialeah hired to collect trash from private homes, as well as investigating potential hires and vendors, according to an April 25 Miami-Dade ethics commission close-out memo.

Ethics commission officials began probing Rice’s work for the city between 2013 and 2016 while investigating separate criminal allegations that Hernandez was shaking down local businesses, and that Rice was collecting bribes on the mayor’s behalf. At the time, Rice was also working as a $2,000-a-month consultant for three city vendors, including two garbage-collection firms.

While ethics investigator Karl Ross didn’t find enough evidence to recommend the filing of ethics or criminal charges against Hernandez, his findings suggest the mayor attempted to conceal his involvement in the city retaining Rice’s services. Hernandez did not return a message left with his secretary Thursday afternoon and his defense lawyer, Tom Cobitz, declined comment.

Ross began looking into the relationship between Hernandez and Rice on Aug.13, 2015, according to ethics commission records. The ethics investigator, along with a detective and a prosecutor with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, interviewed Hialeah Police Lt. Rick Fernandez and Hialeah firefighters union representative Eric Johnson. Both men accused Hernandez of “extorting” two local businessmen and claimed that Rice was the mayor’s bagman.

When Hernandez, who was a high-ranking Hialeah police officer before becoming a councilman, ran for mayor in 2011 and re-election two years later, Rice often engaged his political godfather’s opponents in public confrontations. Among the Hernandez detractors Rice accosted include former Mayor Raul Martinez and blogger ex-Miami Herald reporter Elaine de Valle, who first wrote about the ethics investigation on her blog, Political Cortadito.

Hernandez and Rice have since apparently had a falling out. “Lt. Fernandez stated Rice is no longer on good terms with Mayor Hernandez,” a March 30 ethics investigative report said. “[Fernandez] stated he knows Rice well, and that [Rice] might be willing to cooperate if issued immunity via subpoena.”

In a sworn statement last fall, Hernandez said Rice volunteered to be his campaign’s “ally,” “political informant” and “snitch.” But the mayor — despite being Hialeah’s top bureaucrat — said he did not know how Rice ended up overseeing the rollout of trash-collection services by Progressive Waste Solutions. “I think he volunteered,” Hernandez told investigators on Sept. 26. He then referred them to Armando Vidal, the city’s public works director, for more specifics. “I think he can better answer the question,” Hernandez said.

Mayor denies wrongdoing

The mayor also vehemently denied directing any vendors or local business owners to make payments to him via Rice. “He said he felt Rice ‘took a lot of liberties’ and ‘used the perception of influence’ to make money,” the close-out memo states.

On Feb. 3, Vidal gave a sworn statement contradicting the mayor. “Mr. Vidal advised that several of the jobs originated with Mayor Hernandez and that Rice’s involvement was expressly requested,” the close-out memo states. “He said the mayor wanted Rice to assist the public works department in monitoring issues relating to solid waste, and also to assist the city attorney in vetting a consulting firm.”

Additionally, Vidal said he believed Hernandez was aware that Rice was being paid through a legal services contract the city had with the law firm of Miami Lakes Councilman Ceasar Mestre, who told ethics investigators he has been friends with the Hialeah mayor since 1983. Rice was subcontracted to handle “relevant investigative duties.”

“[Vidal] said the mayor trusted Rice to provide an independent look at matters relating to City of Hialeah affairs,” the close-out memo said. The public works director also showed ethics investigator Ross invoices totaling $18,056 the city paid Mestre’s law practice. Two-thirds of the money was paid to Rice, according to ethics investigators. Vidal could not be reached for comment because he is on vacation this week.

On April 4, Mestre met with Ross and told him it was either Vidal or Rice who approached him about providing legal services and that the arrangement would include the former Hialeah police officer. (Mestre was also a city cop from 1983 to 1987.) “Mestre said he never considered that his law firm was being used as a way to conceal payments to Rice from public view,” the close- out memo states. “He said, ‘that was never discussed… Mayor Hernandez and I never talked about this until after the fact.’”

Mestre did not return a message left with his secretary or an email requesting comment.

When Ross contacted Rice, the ex-cop said Hernandez “was aware of these payments” through Mestre’s law firm. In an email response to Florida Bulldog, Rice did not comment on what is written about him in the close-out memo and other investigative reports. But he said Vidal told the truth.

“Armando Vidal may be considered to be brash and an a-hole by many,” Rice said. “But he is one of the most honorable men I’ve ever come to know and he DOES NOT and will not lie for anyone.”

Newsletter

Notify me by email when new stories are published.