Politics: Skeleton Coast

By Jeffrey Bradley

The coast of Namibia, in Africa, is strewn with the bleached bones and rusting relics of cargo ships that came to grief, ran aground, and were pounded to pieces by wind and wave. Some wrecks are so old they lie wrapped in dunes a half-mile from the restless, shifting shoreline. This Skeleton Coast, as it’s called, is a desolate outcrop where the cruel desert meets the faithless sea. No more barren place exists on Earth…

But let’s talk politics. Real politics, the down and dirty, public-trough piggery that makes our commission fluffball imbroglios look like a scrub team. And we need go no further than the Miami-Dade County Commission. These political impresarios “own” their seats, rule fiefdoms and are assured reelection no matter what infraction they commit, and do it all with an aplomb so breathtaking it would make Tammany Hall blush. Chicago hardball politics? What Chicago hardball politics?

And while the rest of us may fear only fear itself, county commissioners fear only removal by governor edict.

Now, you could make book on just about anybody up on that dais getting nabbed for public corruption, but black commissioners seem to have a particularly vulnerable spot in the Miami International Airport (MIA). Scores of confidence men and lobbyists have for years gorged themselves on the loot and lucre stolen there, and prominent politicians have over time ensnarled themselves in conspiracy charges, conflict-of-interest and fraud.

Let’s face it: Miami-style black politics are a spectacle. These ladies and gentlemen are bespoke, agleam with jewels, past masters at division politics and have adroitly turned the race card a time or two. Hey, you use the weapons you got at hand, right? And while we’re sure they do great good for their communities (though we’re not quite sure what), we do know they’re awfully good at getting reelected.

Still, joining the political elite has its dark side. For the airport is the veriest graveyard of the commissioners, a bleak landscape rife with the remnants of black political careers. Now, getting caught isn’t a black thing — any more than it’s a Latino or white thing (who, in fact, were doing it long before anyone else). And we know that people of every imaginable stripe have battened onto the public dole that has become the airport. But here’s the difference: They don’t set the laws and they don’t get caught. Or, if they do, we haven’t heard of it yet.

Here’s a roll-call of “victims” in this familiar, sordid story:

Commissioner Dorrin Rolle is the most recent casualty to become ethically stuck in the airport morass. See, those fat dangling government contracts should have alerted him, as chairman of the county’s airport and seaport committee, to recuse himself. Otherwise, his business ties with those seeking commission approval crosses the obvious ethical line — especially when the flocks of high-powered lobbyists are factored in.

According to the county’s ethics ordinance, and state law, commissioners are barred from participating in or voting on issues pertaining to gain — for themselves or business partners.

Unfortunately, all this occurs just as the commissioner is facing scrutiny over his leadership of the James E. Scott Community Association, an 85-year-old anti-poverty organization. Millions of dollars in the red, it was hard to justify his $200,000 salary as CEO following discovery that retirement accounts were raided and charity funds diverted to pay for executive salaries. The commissioner has since relinquished that post.

Dennis Moss holds the powerful position of chairman of the County Commission. So shouldn’t he know better than to become enmeshed in ethical questions involving the airport? He was most vocal against the effort to pry the airport from the commission’s grasp and turn it over to an independent authority. Why? Hasn’t he heard of the coverage exposing all those high-paying airport jobs handed out to commissioners’ family members and friends, or the endless scandal over sweetheart deals for lobbyists who fork over big bucks to commission campaigns? Quite the contrary; he’s offended even by the suggestion of impropriety in a commissioner’s ability to award airport contracts.

Here’s the thing. While Moss is exercised over perceived slights to commissioners’ “honor,” his wife is a senior procurement contract officer at the airport. Now, if this doesn’t qualify for the term conflict of interest, what does? Sadly, this is just one of many examples arguing for taking MIA away from the commission.

That friends or associates of Barbara Carey-Shuler were deeply involved in airport corruption caused this once-popular commissioner to take an early retirement after becoming caught in the relentless vortex. No charges were filed — lucky that statute of limitations has limitations!

Lastly, there’s the sad story of the wayward Art Teele, who suffered a very public suicidal meltdown in the lobby of the Miami Herald that assured his 15 minutes. His unraveling began with mail-fraud and money-laundering charges that arose from schemes hatched at the airport. Poor Art; the world was too much with him.

(We are not counting Michelle Spence-Jones, a protégé of Carey-Shuler, who got derailed long before she made it as far as the airport, following accusations of stealing county grant money).

… They say even today, Africa’s riches lead mariners to desperately wager their fortunes against the shoals and rocks of ruin. And those that lost the bet have left their vessels, their cargoes and their bones, flotsam and jetsam on the high tide line, for vultures to play with a weird ear for music.

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