By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
During his seven-year tenure on the Miami City Commission, Keon Hardemon hasn’t batted an eye while legally funneling more than $2 million in no-bid grants to a pair of nonprofits helmed by Billy and Barbara Hardemon, his uncle and aunt who have played an integral role in his political rise.
But when a Little Haiti homeowner inquiring about a city-run home repair program recently sought the commissioner’s assistance, Hardemon advised the constituent to hire a lawyer and declined to otherwise help him.
On June 23, about a month after a blaze consumed part of the roof and damaged the exterior of his house on NW 69th Street and 5th Avenue, Matthew Coons emailed Hardemon: “I am District 5, resident and homeowner. I am requesting assistance with the City of Miami’s single family emergency repair program. In late May, my house was destroyed by fire.”
Two days later, Hardemon informed Coons he was on his own. “I am sorry this happened to your property,” the commissioner wrote. “Please use every resource you have to deal with the item administratively. I would recommend that you hire an attorney for this important process.”
A 44-year-old computer programmer, Coons said he bought the house in 2017 with cash from the sale of his former home in Virginia. He said after he lost his job, he discontinued his property insurance because he needed to save the money. “Then the house caught on fire,” he said. “It was bad timing with COVID happening and everything else going on.”
Last week, during a phone interview, Coons told Florida Bulldog he is still residing in his burnt home. He said he is borrowing electricity from a neighbor’s property by running an extension cord to his house and that he needs about $3,500 to hire an architect and an electrician and obtain the necessary permits to start getting his property back up to code.
Out of work, and no insurance
“The city is requiring me to fix or demolish part of my house,” he said. “I am in a difficult situation. I just recently lost my job and I don’t have property insurance. I have a little bit of savings, but I don’t know if that will be enough.”
Because the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development has temporarily suspended the intake of new applications for the home repair program due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Coons reached out to Hardemon.
“I was kind of disappointed by his response,” Coons said. “He told me to get an attorney, which really didn’t make sense to me. That’s not what I really need right now.”
Hardemon’s handling of Coons’s plea for help illustrates how the city commissioner is more interested in advancing his political career and helping his family than aiding his constituents, said Grady Muhammad, a community activist who initially advised Coons to seek the commissioner’s assistance.
Hardemon is the candidate with the most name recognition in the race to replace termed out Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmonson in the Aug. 18 county election. He is competing against five other candidates, including Edmonson’s anointed would-be successor Tisha McGhee.
“You will be [Coons’s] and my next Miami-Dade County District 3 commissioner,” Muhammad wrote Hardemon on June 26. “But you are still the city commissioner. So cut the BS and help a district resident and homeowner.”
A letter to the city
The same day, Muhammad filed a letter with the city clerk addressed to Mayor Francis Suarez and the five members of the city commission attacking Hardemon for sponsoring and voting for resolutions that awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in city and federal grants to the Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp. and the Foundation Of Community Assistance and Leadership, aka FOCAL, since he was first elected in 2013. Billy Hardemon is the economic development corporation’s volunteer chairman and his wife, Barbara, is FOCAL’s $25,094-a-year executive director. Their two daughters are also employed by the foundation, earning annual salaries of $70,494 and $50,989, respectively.
“Over the last seven years, Keon Hardemon has given…over seven million dollars via waving of competitive bids to both not-for-profit organizations headed by his uncle Billy and his auntie Barbara Hardemon,” Muhammad wrote.
Muhammad attached copies of some of the Hardemon-sponsored resolutions benefitting the two nonprofits. For instance, between 2017 and 2019, the city commission approved a combined $585,000 in no-bid grants sponsored by Hardemon to FOCAL. During the same period, MLK received a combined $405,000 for a professional chef and kitchen incubator program without competitive bidding. Each time, Hardemon voted for the grants and did not disclose his relationship to Billy and Barbara Hardemon.
Florida Bulldog reviewed the minutes of all the city commission meetings since Hardemon was sworn in as commissioner in November 2013. Muhammad’s math was off by nearly $4.7 million. In actuality, Hardemon sponsored $2,379,521 in no-bid grants to FOCAL and MLK. In June 2019, the commissioner also ushered through a no-bid deal that awarded MLK the rights to redevelop the historic Carver Theatre at 6016 NW 7th Ave. A year earlier, the city had paid $1.5 million for the property using a federal community redevelopment block grant.
Nevertheless, Hardemon used the city’s process for awarding grants by sponsoring no-bid allocations to FOCAL and MLK, Muhammad told Florida Bulldog during an Aug. 3 phone interview. “How he responded to Mr. Coons was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Muhammad said. “My goal is to expose the corruption from Hardemon to his auntie’s and uncle’s nonprofit organizations.”
Hardemon: a political attack
In an Aug. 6 email, Hardemon dismissed Muhammad’s letter as designed to hurt his chances in the county commission race. “Such an accusation just before election day is clearly an attempt by him and my opponents who know him well to organize and send an unpaid, illegal, and negative political advertisement with your assistance,” Hardemon said.
Moreover, he doesn’t control the city’s home rehab program and it is illegal for him to direct city staff to act on any particular applicant, Hardemon asserted. At the same time, he added, it’s not an ethics violation or a crime for him to recommend FOCAL and MLK receive funding since Billy and Barbara Hardemon are not his immediate family members. He said the fact they are also consultants on his political campaigns does not weigh on his decisions to allocate city funds to their nonprofits.
“You and I have already discussed FOCAL and MLKEDC and what services those organizations offer the community,” Hardemon said. “You already know that any allocation I have ever given to them or any other organization that I give to in the exact same way is legal.”
Billy Hardemon echoed his nephew’s comments. “Grady is obviously trying to slime Keon,” Billy said. “I consider him a hater.”