By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Miami City Commissioner Keon Hardemon has steered no-bid grants totaling $385,000 to nonprofit organizations headed by two family members who work on his political campaigns, and he doesn’t see a problem with it.
On April 23, the Miami City Commission — which Hardemon chairs — unanimously approved $135,000 for the Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp. to buy cars for up to 10 low-income residents, as well as $250,000 for an after-school and summer program run by the Foundation of Community Assistance and Leadership (FOCAL). Hardemon’s uncle Billy Hardemon is the chairman of the MLK Economic Development Corp., and his aunt Barbara Hardemon is FOCAL’s executive director.
A husband-and-wife team, Billy and Barbara Hardemon have carved out successful careers as political campaign consultants for African-American candidates running for office in Miami and Miami-Dade County, including their nephew, since 2012. Barbara Hardemon currently chairs a political action committee called One Miami-Dade that has raised $465,950 to assist Keon Hardemon’s Miami-Dade County Commission run in this year’s election. She is also a lobbyist representing developers and companies at the City of Miami.
Despite counting on his aunt and uncle to help propel his political ascendancy, Keon Hardemon tells Florida Bulldog that he did not violate Miami-Dade’s conflict-of-interest law, which also applies to municipal governments, by sponsoring and voting in favor of the two grants, which were first reported by City Hall gadfly and blogger Al Crespo.
Hardemon said the law doesn’t apply to him because his aunt and uncle are not immediate family members who have a financial interest in either of the nonprofit organizations that received funding.
“The law defines an immediate family member as a spouse, domestic partner, parents, stepparents, children and stepchildren of the person involved,” Hardemon said. “Therefore, since Billy and Barbara Hardemon are my aunt and uncle, not immediate family, and receive no remuneration for their volunteerism, I am perfectly within the law and have absolutely no conflict of interest voting in any matter regarding them.”
Billy Hardemon is MLK Economic Development Corp.’s unpaid volunteer chairman, but FOCAL paid his wife a $25,094 salary in 2018, according to the nonprofit’s most recent publicly available tax return. The foundation also employs the daughters of Billy and Barbara Hardemon: Jamilia Hardemon is paid $70,494 and Zakiya Kelley is paid $50,989. According their dad, they have been salaried employees since before Keon was elected.
Billy Hardemon also noted his wife’s company, B&B Professional Consultants, donated $31,800 to FOCAL in 2018, and that funds for her salary come from a Miami-Dade grant. City of Miami grants fund roughly $42,000 of his daughters’ salaries, he said.
Two ethics scholars Florida Bulldog interviewed disagreed with Hardemon’s claims of no conflict. Robert Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University law professor who teaches legal ethics, said Hardemon should have recused himself and disclosed his family’s connections before the vote. “The fact that Hardemon’s family is not receiving a ‘direct’ benefit is irrelevant,” Jarvis said. “They are receiving public funds and, in the case of Hardemon’s aunt, she is receiving a salary that is only possible if the charity stays in business.”
While neither family member is directly receiving the funds, the grants are allowing MLK Economic Development Corp. and FOCAL to stay in business, Jarvis added. “Equally important, [the funds] place the city’s imprimatur on the charities, which likely will influence other donors when they decide whether to give money to the charities,” Jarvis explained.
Edwin Benton, a political science and public administration professor at the University of South Florida, said disclosure and transparency are keys to ensuring the public that elected officials don’t grease their hands. “[Recusing himself] is a no-brainer,” Benton said. “I just shake my head at these people who are supposed to know better.”
Hardemon, a private practice lawyer who began his legal career as a Miami-Dade public defender, scoffed at the suggestion that he acted unethically by supporting two nonprofit organizations that have provided tangible results assisting predominantly poor African-American residents in Miami. “I am a law-abiding officer of the court,” he said. “I take my reputation very seriously, and I suspect that you feel the same about yours.”
The Hardemons’ rise
Billy and Barbara Hardemon told Florida Bulldog that the nonprofit companies have been receiving funding from the City of Miami since their nephew was a kid, garnering support from his predecessors dating back to the late Miller Dawkins, who served as city commissioner from 1981 until 1996, when he resigned after he was ensnared in the federal corruption probe known as Operation Greenpalm. Dawkins, who was caught on tape accepting a $30,000 bribe, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 27 months.
Billy Hardemon, whose primary day job for more than 30 years was as a county sanitation worker, also got caught up in Operation Greenpalm. In 1997, when he worked for a brief time as chief of staff for then-Miami-Dade Commissioner James Burke, Billy Hardemon was criminally charged with taking a $50,000 bribe. He was acquitted on the federal charges after a three-month trial, but pleaded guilty to state misdemeanor charges in connection with accepting contributions over the $500 maximum for his failed 1996 county commission campaign. While Hardemon served a year on probation, the judge who sentenced him withheld adjudication, meaning Hardemon was not convicted.
“I have been involved with MLK since my trial,” Billy Hardemon told Florida Bulldog. “Some real visionaries of the community founded the organization. What we are doing is worthy. It is not a scam.”
After his legal troubles, Billy Hardemon and his wife became among the most prominent campaign consultants in Miami-Dade’s African-American political races over the last two decades. In 2012, they quit the reelection campaign of County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson to run their nephew’s campaign against her. During a face-to-face April 24 interview at the MLK Economic Development headquarters in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood, Billy Hardemon said that he does not need to twist his nephew’s arm to support funding for community programs that benefit the city’s poorest residents, who are predominantly African- American.
“That is our motivation,” Billy Hardemon said. “The needs in this community are so great that the spare crumbs we get from the government is a necessity.”
Keon Hardemon lost to Edmonson, but one year later won Miami’s District 5 city commission seat decisively in a runoff against Rev. Richard Dunn II in which he garnered 72 percent of the vote. In 2017, Hardemon was automatically reelected when no one filed to run against him.
“I sincerely hope that your article will be truthful and not simply an effort to cast doubt on a young man that defied the odds of Liberty City and earned a bachelors, masters and law degree, worked as a public defender to defend the voiceless, and became a commissioner to help his community become a better place to live,” Keon Hardemon told Florida Bulldog.
MLK’s car giveaway
Through Hardemon’s city-funded anti-poverty initiative, the MLK Economic Development Corp. has received city grants for its Wheels to Work program since 2016. The funds are used to purchase cars and pay for the first year’s car insurance for five to six low-income residents. The cars are given away on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Recipients are required to participate in financial literacy classes and perform 288 community service hours during a three-year period, as well as make a small monetary contribution toward the purchase during the first year of owning the car. The winners are selected by the corporation, Keon Hardemon and community leaders in his district such as a priest from Notre Dame D’Haiti Catholic Church, a pastor at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church and the president of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, Billy Hardemon said.
He explained that the corporation has access to vehicles available for wholesale prices, which allows the nonprofit to provide new cars to individuals who would otherwise be forced to finance the purchase of used cars at exorbitant interest rates due to poor credit histories or other financial hardships. “There is no cynical motive here,” Billy Hardemon said.
His nephew said Wheels to Work has provided nearly two dozen families with reliable transportation. “This has allowed them to get better paying jobs, attend school, care for their family, and better afford to live in Miami despite the high cost of living,” Hardemon said.
Meanwhile, FOCAL has been using its grants to tutor and feed poor children in district 5 since the late Arthur Teele was city commissioner in 2001, Barbara Hardemon told Florida Bulldog. “This organization is not the result of Keon getting elected,” she said. “If anything, our community initiatives helped him get elected. This is something we do because it is the right thing to do. That is it in a nutshell.”
According to FOCAL’s 2018 tax return, the nonprofit had $640,000 in total revenue, mostly derived from government grants, and $456,182 of its expenses went to salaries and employee benefits. Another combined $100,282 paid for snacks and meals, field trips and program supplies.
Barbara Hardemon said FOCAL, which operates out of Miami’s Moore Park, employs 20 people, including herself, her two family members and eight teachers, five of whom hold full-time positions. “It’s an after-school learning center providing kids with experiences they would otherwise not get to have,” she said. “We’ve taken kids to China and space camp. We have a full service community kitchen that provides them with hot dinners every day.”
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, kids are still receiving tutoring online and families that have parents out of work have received gift cards to help with their finances, Barbara Hardemon said. Her nephew said FOCAL doesn’t need him to exist. “They have been contracted with the City of Miami years before I became a commissioner and I’m sure will continue to be long after I am gone,” he said.
As noble as the missions of the MLK Economic Development Corp. and FOCAL may be, Hardemon still had a duty to be as transparent as possible when doling out money to both organizations, according to the ethics scholars.
Both grants were awarded without any competitive bidding and the city commission voted on the funding without a public discussion. During the April 23 virtual meeting, Hardemon and his colleagues voted to approve all public hearing items, including the two grants, all at once. He did not disclose his aunt and uncle’s affiliation with fa.
“He owed it to the city’s residents, as well as his fellow commissioners, to recuse himself,” said Nova Southeastern’s Jarvis. “Even worse – Hardemon should have moved these items off the consent calendar.”