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Ripping Off Miami’s Poor

by ALAN FARAGO

The outstanding investigative series by The Miami Herald discloses flagrant and rampant abuse of funding meant to benefit the poor–primarily African Americans–through the Miami-Dade Empowerment Trust, a nonprofit founded to help create jobs in Miami-Dade County’s poorest neighborhoods.

The series amplifies “The House of Lies” by the Herald, which garnered a Pulitzer prize and focused on fraud and corruption at the Miami Dade Housing Agency.

A question arises: if it is not simple incompetence, corruption or ignorance that has victimized poor African Americans in Miami time and again, under the rubric of government supervision, what is it?

Again, as with the Miami Dade Housing Agency scandal, the arm’s length pushback by County Manager George Burgess is telling. Given the implosion of the Miami Dade Housing Authority–and his office’s failure to anticipate the problems–you have to wonder what is at work when he notes as “odd”, the dual roles of the former trust president, Bryan Finnie at the same time head of the county’s Office of Community and Economic Development.

Here is what I think is at work, and I’ve written about it before in context of the ‘hands-off’ treatment of the county housing agency that led to the “House of Lies”: the Cuban American majority on the county commission, dominated by Natacha Seijas, has made its deal with African American leaders– we’ll give you a piece of the action and won’t bother you in Overtown and Liberty City, so long as you vote our way on issues that are important to us, like zoning changes in farmland that benefit our primary political base, the Latin Builders Association and associated land speculators and production home builders.

It is scarcely a secret, for instance, that Sandy Walker, lobbyist and sister of African American county commissioner (charged with fraud in connection with a loan from the Empowerment Trust) Barbara Jordan, has been a prime mover in zoning changes in Homestead and Florida City, where their brother is mayor–the area of the county that was fastest growing until the building boom crashed in cinders.

Power is based, largely, on perception. It would be helpful for The Miami Herald to do more to clarify these matters, in connection with political power in which the interests of leveling the playing field for the poor are continually trampled underneath the stampede for wealth. This is not just a matter of ethical concern. In fact, the future economic viability of Miami–aside from as a playground for the wealthy–is at stake.

There should be no sacred cows when it comes to making these points clear: that solving the vast inequities in Miami Dade county is essential to a prospering region.

We have written extensively how Miami Dade county is the power base for former Governor Jeb Bush.

The base is defined, mainly, by developers and land speculators who have invested millions in farmland–much of it outside the Urban Development Boundary in anticipation of zoning changes and compliance with state mandates for land use planning.

One of Bush’s key Miami Dade loyalists, charged with coralling interests on behalf of that base, is Rodney Barreto–a former Miami policeman who became very wealthy as one of the lobbyists at the top of the county food chain. Barreto is also a developer and partner in speculative land investments outside the Urban Development Boundary. (As chairman of the Florida Wildlife Commission, his biography notes he chaired the 62nd annual US Conference of Mayors among other blue-chip achievements.)

It is telling that Barreto turns up in the Herald investigation as the only Cuban American to have taken a piece of the Empowerment Trust pie, in the African American community. (It’s a shame that the Herald reporters did not disclose how much of a profit Barreto took down, after repaying the loan–for which the Trust failed to secure a mortgage–for a piece of property in the Wynwood neighborhood. That number will emerge, in time.)

The chairman of the board of the Miami-Dade Empowerment Trust, T. Willard Fair, is the one leader in the African American community who planted his flag, squarely, on the Republican political territory of Governor Jeb Bush.

Fair was a Bush appointee to the Florida State Board of Education and co-founder, with Jeb, of the Liberty Center Charter School, the first charter school organized in the State of Florida.

On April 1, 2007, the St. Petersburg Times ran a trenchant opinion piece on the charter school movement in Florida: “A decade after creating its first publicly funded charter school, Florida has turned a worthy educational experiment into a blank check for eager entrepreneurs. As a new report by the Orlando Sentinel suggests, the push for quantity has supplanted the pursuit of quality. And the students are the ones who suffer.

Just ask Don Gaetz, a Republican freshman senator and former Okaloosa school superintendent, about the transformation. “Charter schools were a movement,” he told the Sentinel, “but now charter schools are an industry. They have lobbyists – they walk around in thousand-dollar suits, some of them” … The sad reality is that because Florida has put more ahead of better, no one can say with clear authority just how well the students in charter schools are being served. In a state that so assiduously measures how each education dollar is invested and how each public school student performs, that’s simply unacceptable.”

But it is more than unacceptable.

You see, the frenzy of privatization and outsourcing–one of the mantras of Jeb Bush’s tenure as governor (and, by no small coincidence, of the Bush White House in the performance of the federal government)–turns out to be a mean-spirited opportunity for personal gain and political power wrapped in a silken promise. That’s the theme that runs through the Empowerment Trust scandal like a riptide.

When push comes to shove in the poorest parts of America, and especially where political power grows from scarcely concealed graft mixed with political gain, the results are clear as day. It’s a tragedy and a tragedy for Miami. And that is an opinion you won’t read in The Miami Herald.

ALAN FARAGO of Coral Gables, who writes about the environment and the politics of South Florida, can be reached at alanfarago@yahoo.com.

 

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Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net

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