By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Hialeah firefighter Eric Johnson’s days of whistleblowing on the misdeeds of Mayor Carlos Hernandez could soon be numbered. The 17-year city employee and fire union leader is facing retaliation disguised as disciplinary actions for being a constant source of ethics and criminal investigations against Hialeah’s top elected official, according to Johnson, his labor lawyer and a Hernandez ally-turned-foe.
“Because of those efforts, he has earned a giant bull’s-eye on his back,” Sarah Faulman, Johnson’s Washington, D.C. attorney, said at a Feb. 7 arbitration hearing. “The city went on a witch hunt.”
In an interview with Florida Bulldog, Johnson said Hernandez’s ultimate goal is to fabricate enough evidence to make a case for firing him. “The mayor is trying to set me up to terminate me,” Johnson said. “Just about everything about Carlos Hernandez that has come out, I had a hand in.”
Johnson’s claims are bolstered by Glenn Rice, an ex-Hialeah cop who chaired a political action committee that raised more than $300,000 for Hernandez’s first mayoral and re-election campaigns. Rice, who broke off his relationship with Hernandez in 2016, testified at Johnson’s arbitration hearing that Hernandez paid him with city funds to intimidate, harass and dig up dirt on the firefighter, among other enemies of the mayor, during a three-year period beginning shortly after the 2011 city election.
“I did something that was so so wrong and so stupid for the mayor,” Rice told Florida Bulldog shortly after the arbitration hearing. “I was paid to do what I did because no one else had the balls to confront Eric.”
Hernandez did not respond to phone messages and emails seeking comment.
A clash dating to 2012
Johnson came under the mayor’s scope following the August 2012 primary when the firefighter outed himself as the whistleblower who helped expose an absentee-ballot fraud ring that worked on the re-election campaign of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and the campaigns of Hialeah elected officials the prior year. Johnson hired a private investigator who followed members of the conspiracy and photographed and videotaped them picking up absentee ballots from frail, elderly voters at Hialeah housing projects and dropping them off at campaign offices.
Johnson, president of the union representing the fire department’s rank and file, was interviewed by federal law enforcement agents about what he knew of the shadow banking underworld in Hialeah in which Hernandez and his predecessor, Julio Robaina, had provided high interest loans to a convicted Ponzi schemer. (In 2014, during Robaina’s trial for tax evasion and fraud, Hernandez admitted under oath that he had provided $180,000 to jeweler and scammer Luis Felipe Perez at a loan shark rate of 36 percent.)
In October 2012, Hernandez recommended Johnson receive a two-day suspension following a Hialeah police internal affairs probe into photos of the fireman’s children holding liquor bottles and an empty box of Corona beer posted on his Facebook page. No criminal charges were filed against Johnson, but the Hialeah Police Department referred the matter to the Florida Department of Children & Families. Protective services investigators dismissed the complaint because the photos were insufficient to start a probe. Still, Hernandez recommended disciplinary action against Johnson for conduct unbecoming a city employee, insubordination and criticizing city rules, orders and policies.
The complaint was dropped, and Johnson continued his whistleblowing ways against the mayor. In 2013, Johnson posted on Facebook an old private message he had received from Hialeah gun range owner Antonio Vega, who was briefly a 2011 city council candidate but dropped out. In the message, Vega boasted that Hernandez had promised to fast track permits for his gun range if he ran against Vivian Casals-Munoz, one of the mayor’s political enemies. As a result of Johnson’s posting, the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission launched an inquiry into possible exploitation of office by Hernandez. The probe was closed when investigators determined Vega did not end up receiving preferential treatment.
Johnson remained undeterred. In August 2015, he and Hialeah Police Lt. Rick Fernandez told Miami-Dade ethics investigators that Rice had extorted two local businessmen at Hernandez’s direction. The probe didn’t find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing, but it revealed that the city paid Rice roughly $12,000 during a three-year period to monitor the company collecting trash from private homes as well as conducting background checks. Hialeah’s public works director Armando Vidal told ethics investigators Hernandez instructed him to hire Rice and that payments be made through a legal services contract the city had with Cesar Mestre, a Hernandez ally who is a former Miami Lakes councilman.
Johnson told Florida Bulldog he also anonymously provided documents to ethics investigators who looked into whether Hernandez allegedly misappropriated more than three-quarters of a $10,000 corporate grant to feed needy children in the city in order to pay for a Las Vegas trip for himself, his chief of staff, his police bodyguard and four other Hialeah employees. “I’ve tried to keep my name out of some things because of the retaliation,” Johnson said. “But I am at the point where I have nothing to lose.”
‘I can’t wait to fuck you’
Johnson claims that sometime in August 2017 Hernandez threatened him when both were in the elevator of the city’s fire department administrative building at 83 East 5th St., next door to city hall. “He pointed at his watch and told me, ‘Your time is coming, I can’t wait to fuck you,’” Johnson alleged.
Three months later, Johnson was hit with a reprimand for swearing at Fire Chief Patrick Flynn and a one-day suspension for taking a hazmat truck out of its service area to accompany two police internal affairs detectives conducting an audit of the city’s fire stations. Both incidents took place on Nov. 29, 2017.
Johnson got into more serious trouble nearly a year later. In late September 2018, he was relieved of duty with pay after Marbelys Fatjo made a complaint that Johnson called her a bitch and was harassing her with threatening emails. Johnson denies using derogatory language to describe Fatjo, noting that he had not seen her for quite some time since she had been on a five-month maternity leave when the alleged insult took place.
He claims the complaint is another retaliatory move by Hernandez because Johnson requested public records pertaining to Fatjo’s maternity leave and for more than a dozen high-ranking employees and department heads who each received 180 bonus vacation/sick leave hours in January 2018.
Johnson was allowed to return to work last month, but he remains on administrative duty. At the Feb. 7 arbitration hearing, Johnson was challenging the reprimand and one-day suspension he received in 2017. Under oath, fire chief Flynn and Hialeah Police Chief Sergio Velasquez said that Hernandez called them into a meeting that lasted an hour and a half on Nov. 29, 2017 where the mayor demanded to know why Johnson had tagged along with the two detectives auditing the fire stations.
Flynn confirmed Hernandez ordered an investigation into Johnson for cursing and taking the hazmat truck even though the firefighter continued to perform his duties, including responding to two car accidents, while he was with the detectives. Flynn also affirmed that he warned Johnson, “Stay out of trouble because they are watching you.”
Rice testified that Hernandez ordered him to tail Johnson and catch him doing something incriminating. The mayor’s former ally also said that the goal was to shove a camera in Johnson’s face and get him to slip up.
“The hell that I have lived through is just unreal,” Johnson said. “Hernandez will stop at nothing to get me because I am an honest critic.”