Politics: Gunfight At Miami-Dade Corral

 

Transit style, that is

By Jeffrey Bradley

The bad guys are in town. They’re down at the OK corral, awaiting a shoot-out. But these aren’t Texas toughs or high plains drifters, just various under- and overlings of the MDT (Miami Dade Transit department). Enter Wyatt Earp and a band of white hats (read: Transit Director Harpal Kapoor and the Feds). We all know the coda to this story, right? A hail of bullets puts the bad guys up on Boot Hill. Only this time it’s not quite so clear who wears the black hats or the white turbans. And while a few of the baddies have already been felled, there’s no way of knowing the final body count because the gunfight’s still raging. But who’s been doing what to who, and how they do it when they do, is abundantly clear. This being the County, there’s money involved. Lots of money. And truth be told, no tale of the Old West comes close to the wickedness of the cronies of County Hall.

This familiar story grows only more sordid in the retelling. Financial shenanigans at MDT, Dade County’s third largest agency, early on caught the notice—and ire—of federal regulators concerned with the alarming lack of controls or even accountability over the $800 million a year budget. No local officials took any steps to  arrest the incipient crisis altho’ they knew of it as far back as summer.

By November the FTA (Federal Transit Administration) decided to suspend $180 million in transit grants. Coming hard on the heels of the 2007 federal takeover of the county housing agency after the lid on that septic tank blew, this latest federal fuming over the ineffectiveness of Transit’s internal constraints caused Miami-Dade’s slumping bond program to take another hit among Wall Street rating agencies—oddly enough!

That’s not the only applecart threatened with upset. This latest transit imbroglio not only stinks to high heaven but to the very halls of Congress, where future funding requests are threatened. MTA’s reputation, already blemished in federal eyes, just hit a new nadir. Worse, this turned-over rock exposed incompetence, illegalities and infamy, and charges of administrators misleading federal auditors.

Hundreds of documents, interviews and emails show a department beset by more infighting, plot twists and betrayal than Machiavelli’s The Art of War.

The rats soon began deserting the sinking ship, or turning on each other to deflect blame (“man up” apparently has no resonance with the political set), as staffers ran end-arounds their superiors or appealed directly to the feds. Appropriately, by Halloween, goblinesque emails began piling up.

Luckily, the reach of the 17th Street Irregulars (our spies, informers and infernal-device anarchists that haunt the halls of power) extends to County Hall. And the backstory we got suggests that Assistant Transit Director Marjan Mazza, who popped off the loudest and clashed most frequently with Transit Director Kapoor, was in league with Transit Controller Joelle Janvier to practice malfeasance—wrongful conduct of a public official—then cover it up. Bear in mind Mazza was second-in-command of transit, and that a Controller (Comptroller?) handles the money.

It goes higher. County Manager George Burgess first denied anything wrong, then pooh-poohed the mounting mess. He also withheld key information that might well have reassured auditors. But when stuff hits the fan at the County level it gets all over everything. Even the County Commission, probably able to distance itself truthfully for once, brought an awfully suspicious “outrage” to the party, especially when their actions effectively destabilized the transit department to begin with. Nor has that august body’s troubled and troubling presence done anything more than further tarnish a much-maligned image. These are the folks that squandered the half-penny tax revenue and spent it on everything except transit.

The agency’s now in thrall to misconduct, corruption, laxity. In essence, myriad Neros fiddle while Rome burns. And the taint is everywhere: the Easy Card fare card was unequipped with basic antifraud features, so thieves were able to steal away a quarter million dollars; flaws in procurement practices made ineligible County requests for grants, and invalid expenditures canceled out reimbursements, among others, which prompted the federal review of the process. All the while Kapoor beseeched employees to assume responsibility minus the finger pointing rank incompetence overlay a deeper, more sinister malaise as Ms Mazza and her assistant completely ignored federal strictures against any more funding and tried accessing $15 million through an online account—which the irate feds have demanded back.

But in revealing desperation, the pair went to the county budget director instead to complain that Kapoor had encouraged them to break the rules. They were deflected to Human Rights and Fair Employment Practices, where they filed complaints. With the feds closing in, noose in hand, things turned ugly as goading by auditors elicited nothing more than a penchant for backstabbing, sideslipping and crab-bucket maneuvering. The disingenuous Ms Mazza opined her job didn’t include ensuring that contracts met federal guidelines, before attempting to shift the blame (in our book, you draw down the funds then you better know what the fine print says). In a no-it’s-not, yes-it-is playground argument, she chided a colleague for not taking responsibility “for your role.” A wearied federal auditor copied on these frantic emails informed her that “Mr. Kapoor’s statements contradict your representations”—officalspeak for better get your act together. Sensing she was about to go over, the frenetic Ms Mazza next ran to an assistant county manager overseeing Transit to claim that her boss, Kapoor, lied. Both that administrator and Burgess himself kept their own counsel, and left the supplicant to twist in the wind. On November 23rd Mazza got fired, and that very day her compadre Janvier was reassigned. Amid the burgeoning chaos, the FTA suspended payments until corrective actions are taken. We’d love to see the rest of those emails!

Lastly, a former transit employee known to us from the days when ART—the Alliance for Reliable Transport—actually mattered, Jeff Bechdel left over $20K stuffed in a drawer when he left in 2009 and couldn’t account for another $120,000 because of “lousy” bookkeeping. Shocked by these disclosures—he wasn’t charged with theft because of a lack of evidence and because these actions were just one more torpedo to a sinking ship—if guilty we’d be the first to string him up by the thumbs. He was supposed to represent the interests of Miami Beach in that transit rathole.

Where’s Doc Holiday when we need him?

 

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