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The Hardemon Way: $385,000 in no-bid grants to nonprofits run by Miami commissioner’s aunt, uncle

A smiling Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon standing at a lectern before microphones.
Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon

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.”

Hardemon jobs

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 and Barbara Hardemon

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

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.

Commissioner Hardemon celebrating the third installment of the MLK Wheels to Work program with the Martin Luther King Economic Development Center.

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.

After-school learning

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.”

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Latest comments

  • I Enjoy the Bulldog a lot. Here in Pompano Beach, we have an ex-Mayor, turned County Commissioner, Lamar Fisher, who bought up several distressed properties, around a McNab Park neighborhood, went on to re-zone these areas under the CRA, and then sold them, to the City, for a big profit! Several residents reported on it to the citizenry, the Pompano Pelican wrote it up and did a great piece documenting it all. I reported it to the Inspector general’s Office and it went nowhere, they don’t answer the phone, and that was before the Virus hit, and my next step is to file a complaint with the State D.A. office.
    What I see as the problem here, is, the obvious conflict of interest of an elected official, buying and selling real estate, (he has a Broker’s License) and representing his constituents while up-zoning the properties to enhance his profits. As a result, half of the park is now going to be used for an Antique House turned restaurant and the neighborhood loses a park. A small 2.5 acre park that is turned into a commercial enterprise.
    You do a lot of investigation on nefarious politicians, so if you want more information, I will gladly send it to you.
    Kay McGinn

  • Wow. Great research. “Where there is smoke there is fire.”

  • Here is some actual awesome news about City of Miami’s Commissioner Keon Hardemon. After securing $1 million in funding the Commissioner has started an economic development and food supplement program for those living in District 5. Those facing hard times in district 5 will receive 10 meals coupons for each individual living in the household .The coupons are to be used at participating restaurants in district 5. Residents can select from the participating restaurants and the day they wish to have their meal. The restaurants will provide them with a hot meal in exchange for the coupons. The restaurants are paid for each coupon , which helps these businesses during these trying times. I applaud his efforts, because WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. (FYI…might want to leave politics out of this, America is hurting) Money spent by people In our community for a businesses in our community #CORVID19 #Miami #District5.. If you or anyone you know who lives in Districts 5 that could use these services here is the information…www.miamigov.com/district5 I WILL BE POSTING HELPFUL INFORMATION HERE…REMEMBER WE ARE ALL IN THIS CORVID-19 TOGETHER❤️

  • Kay McGinn thank you for sharing this information because this is exactly what I believe is about to happen in Coconut Grove with the recent vote to extend the CRA to that area of the community. I have been in meetings when constituents have stated “well [white] politicians have been doing it all the time and getting away with it” and I cringe at the thought we would justify wrong for right based on a specific ethnic group. Yes! It is very clear that “white privilege” does exist and has plagued our systems for years. But to assert any right by us[disenfranchised people] doing the same is morally crippling to the very systems we call to be just. equal for all. Recusing yourself; amidst transparency, is a no brainer. Especially if you’ve done your due diligence and all those other Commissioner’s are onboard. My recusing yourself also shows faith in the very systems that you have been sworn to uphold. I believe funding for organizations that support the communities of District 5 is essential but can not come at the lack of funding to other organizations that also provide a high level of resource support and history to the community. A closer look needs to be taken into account for those registered organizations, in good state standings, that have NOT received “unrestricted” support from the Commissioner.

    Lawanda Washington…I am glad you brought this up. I am curious if you live within the District?!? Because if you do, I’d ask– have you asked around to see how and who has received these vouchers? Great idea this was to start this program (which was the idea of a community business located within Overtown) but the execution of it and how the information is reaching the community is questionable on every level. Under these circumstances that we are living in, it is easy to take advantage of the system and those who truly need the support are often times left out. Also keep in mind, we have been in this pandemic debacle for more than 2months and on April 29th is when you make an incomplete announcement around community support that is so difficult for basic community members to access. If you truly want the resources to reach the people in need then you would do everything in your power to ensure the information is received and resources are provided. This is nor has been the case. BUT rest assured that people like putting their PICTURE/Name on things to say what they are doing (smoke and mirrors to those of us educated in the systems of politics and grassroots building).

    I am glad for articles like this because it provides a paper trail to truth and how someone uses their political powers to justify their actions. The law is written for safety and yet we look for loopholes that benefit our direct needs. If he is willing to do these things in his city position, I could only imagine what could potentially happen at the county level. Which is very scary knowing that the person elected in that position would have an operational budget of more than 5billion. The optics can never be denied.

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