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Tuesday August 7, 2012

How South Beach really runs: code enforcement extortion crackdown

Jose L. Alberto Here’s a partial peek behind the curtain, curtesy of the FBI. Since it’s a press release, I’m going to cut ‘n’ paste just like I wrote it (just like the Herald would), and I’m going to delete out the boring bits:

Jose L. Alberto, the former lead code compliance officer for the city of Miami Beach, pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right for his participation in a scheme to extort cash payments from a South Beach nightclub. Alberto faces up to 20 years in prison.

Alberto was indicted on one count of conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right and 22 counts of extortion under color of official right and induced by the wrongful use of actual and threatened fear of economic loss. Alberto was the second most senior official at the Miami Beach Code Compliance Division and oversaw and managed all the Miami Beach code compliance officers.

Alberto admitted that in June 2011, he solicited a cash pay-off from a Miami Beach nightclub owner in exchange for not enforcing a large fine for a code violation.

The nightclub owner reported the alleged extortion to the FBI, which commenced an undercover investigation. During the undercover investigation, Alberto accepted 22 separate cash pay-offs for a total of $16,600 from either the nightclub owner or an undercover FBI agent posing as the manager of the nightclub. These cash pay-offs were made in exchange for Alberto’s protection from potential code violations and to permit the nightclub to continue operating.

In court, Alberto also admitted that while the pay-offs were being made, he introduced various other code enforcement officers to the undercover FBI agent to help protect the nightclub. These code enforcement officers, like Alberto, also received cash pay-offs in exchange for their protection of the nightclub. Two of those officers, Vicente Santiesteban and Orlando Gonzalez, have pled guilty to conspiring with Alberto to extort cash from the Miami Beach nightclub and are scheduled to be sentenced in the coming months.

So there you have it — a pretty substantial criminal conspiracy run from inside Miami Beach city hall gets shut down. We’re left to speculate what this really means. Is it that the system is working? We’ve all heard about how the Beach is run by the mob, right? Is it that these guys didn’t have the permission of the official extortion ring (which surely would involve the Miami Beach Police Department, after all) to be doing this?

The $16,000 figure is interesting. Maybe Alberto hit up the nightclub as an experiment, and the FBI steered the direction towards high pay-offs to make a better case (in other words, he was only extorting this or a couple of other nightclubs). Or Alberto was determining the amount of the payoffs, which would suggest he had his own fee structure and that he has had been doing this a long time? If he made $16,000 from one club between June 2011 and March 2012, imagine how much you could rake in on the beach with a little ambition. It’s not like the money is that much to the club in exchange for getting to ignore the code with impunity.

I hope somebody follows this a little, because I’d love to hear what club this was, just to see what happens to them going forward. Not willing to play the game? I doubt that’d very good for business.

Photo from Flickr, via Random Pixels, where there was good reporting on this back in April, after the arrests were made.

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Friday July 13, 2012

Pride, Greed, Sloth, and general incompetence

7 Deadly Sins This week in local cultural malice, incompetence, and shoddiness, sung to the tune of the seven deadly sins. I’ve only got four this week, so I guess we’re not doing so bad

Sloth

I am sure that the Florida Cultural Alliance does important work, and deserves all the support we can muster for them. But when I saw the email they sent out yesterday, I just had to share it as an example of the worst kind of corporospeak, and the worst in online interaction design. Try — just try — to have any sense of what the purpose of the email is and what they want you to do after reading it just once. Not possible. I’ve ready if about a half donzen times and I get it now, and it’s stark. The FCA has apparently submitted SUGGESTIONS to a Florida State government entity. They want you to familiarize yourself with the state program they’re addressing, read their dense PDF suggestions, write a letter indicating your support for their suggestions and fax (Yes. Fax. In 2012.) it to the number provided TODAY BY 5 PM. Doesn’t say who you’re faxing it to, and doesn’t say why it has to be today. But hey — this was dated 1:25 pm, so they’re giving you more than three hours. Get on it.

Oh! And as an afterthought, yeah, you can submit your suggestions for the Five-Year Strategic Plan. Oh wait no, that’s for the Six-Pillar Framework. You do it by clicking into a PDF (this one created by the State) that takes your comments and has a “email this form” button which to me looked suspiciously like just a text box with no functionality.

Pride

It’s not in my nature to wipe lipstick off a pig, but the Jewish Museum of Florida couldn’t hack it anymore and signed it’s buildings and collection to FIU. And that’s fine. The Wolfsonian certainly seems to be thriving under FIU’s wing. But tacking the initials of the university to the organization’s name, which henceforth will be “Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU”, is galling. It makes perfect sense from the institutional ego perspective, but would have been overruled by typographic aesthetics and all-around sanity at a classier organization.

Envy

While Googling around for the previous article, I perchanced to click on a link to a Sun Sentinel article. You will probably not get it, but here’s what I saw:

sun sentinel screenshot

“Hey, you found a link to one of our articles in a search engine! Can we interest you in a home-delivery subscription to our newspaper?” Look at your statistics Sun Sentinel — this is not helping your subscription rates. And I guarantee you that it’s hurting your readership and credibility. And while we’re on it: I understand why your pages need to be choked with ads, but spam popover links? Really?

Greed

Next February, the Arsht Center is hosting a concert tribute to Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. It’s part of a series of six concerts, half of which are these condescending “tributes” to Jazz Names You Recognize, which in my opinion are demeaning to the performer, the legendary figure, and the audience. But something (and I’m assuming it’s actually not the Arsht Center’s people) has sunk to a particularly odious level with this, which I received in yesterday’s email:

thelonious monk

Thelonious Monk is died in 1982 after a heartbreaking final few years. He is a hero to musicians and creative people everywhere. And while this concert does include his son, using the man’s name and image like this is repugnant. There is a special place in hell for the people that did this, where they can hang out with the folks behind the John Lennon shirts

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Monday November 26, 2007

Many condos are currently selling for $225 to $250 per square foot. When it hits $175, Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff wants to buy units and subsidize them for teachers, police, etc. Sounds like a no-brainer, but when condo prices really bottom out, those folks may not need subsidies. The article also points out some trade-offs with building dedicated low-income housing.

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Wednesday November 7, 2007

LOL: The slogan of the City of North Miami Beach is “Now More Beautiful!”

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Thursday October 4, 2007

The bastards changed the time of the Museum Park meeting tonight from 6 to 4:30pm! WTF — they’re claiming conflict with a later event, but isn’t this a transparent effort to make it impossible for many people to come? Why isn’t anyone making noise about this?!

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Wednesday October 3, 2007

HUD takeover approved

I’m looking for something interesting, and it’s really just slim pickins. Yesterday the Dade Commission approved HUD’s takeover of the County’s housing agency. We knew this was coming, and the commission voted 11-1 for it because this way they get a little oversight and a little veto juice over some of the fed’s decisions. They’re unhappy, and so are housing advocates, on the grounds that the fed’s just a bigger bureaucracy (and so how can we expect it to do a better job).

But come on, people — the Miami-Dade Housing Agency was a clusterfuck for a very long time, lots of people knew about it, and they let it slide. And don’t give me “the problems are being addressed,” either. The response has been a completely limp, “we’re addressing the issues” type of shit, not the “we’re going to lock up everyone involved, and everyone who knew what was happening.” Also: you think that was the only Agency in the county that was corrupt? Where are the crackdowns on the other departments, Mr. Carlos Alvarez, Strong Mayor? Where are the results?

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Monday September 17, 2007

PBS’ Exposé on last year’s House of Lies series in the Herald shows how Debbie Cenziper put the story together, and looks at what’s happened since. Not enough, it looks like, but it’s a very impressive story of reporter vs. corrupt government agency.

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Thursday September 13, 2007

Rebecca Wakefield on Florida government budget cuts. “According to the gloom and doom projections of financial analysts, the consequences of years of mortgage fraud and ill-considered sub-prime loans have just begun to hit. In other words, we ain’t seen nothing yet. The budget reductions could last several years. .  . It won’t surprise you that Florida ranks 44th out of the 50 states in benefits for workers, such as health-care coverage, and 50th in the percent of private sector workers with pension/retirement plans.”

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Monday September 10, 2007

The state of the Art in Public Places program in Miami is a complete disaster. Many works have been lost, stolen, damaged, or destroyed. This makes me want to cry, and I want whoever is responsible to be brought up on charges of criminal negligence. It’s time for us to stop putting up with all this neglect and corruption in our government.

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Monday July 9, 2007

What's up with Bill Proenza?

Bill Proenza I’ve worked in a government bureaucracy, and I’ve seen people lose their jobs when they publicly said stuff that made their bosses uncomfortable, so when the shit started to fly around Bill Proenza last month, I was the first to support him. Well, new shit has come to light. SotP has been following the story (and has been consistent about sticking up for Proenza, and scathing toward his critics). Not only have more then half of the staff of the National Hurricane Center that Proenza heads signed a petition against him, but it seems that the scrutiny from above came at their urging as well. I think it’s time to give this guy a closer look, not just blindly defend him.

There are two possible scenarios here: (1) Bill Proenza is all about the integrity — he puts the public’s interests first, and is not afraid to tell it like it is, even if it pisses off those around him. (2) Bill Proenza is an asshole who has pissed off those above him by grandstanding and those below him by not focusing on the job at hand, and by making their lives miserable.

Well, the main thing that Proenza has been outspoken about is QuikSCAT, claiming that if the satellite dies, “two-day forecasts would suffer by 10 percent and three-day forecasts by 16 percent.” It turns out that this claim is based on a a mis-reading of some unpublished research. Jeff Masters tracked down the same research, and de-bunks some of the errors of Proenza’s reasoning. The study looked primarily at hurricanes out at sea (when hurricanes are within 72 hours of landfall, superior information is obtained by the Hurricane Hunters). The study only used one weather model; hurricane predictions use at least five. Masters cites a much more thorough study that found “no meaningful impact of QuikSCAT data on tropical cyclone forecasts.” In other words, Proenza’s 10/16% claim is bullshit.

Let’s look more closely at the voices from inside the National Hurricane Center that have turned against Proenza. Keep in mind that this guy has been on the job for a few months, while many of the senior staff have been there decades. 23 out of 49 employees (including all the senior staff) signed a petition [PDF] calling for his removal (some others didn’t sign because they were not around). Their wording is careful, but the underlying subtext is clear: “This guy has made working here difficult. The public is not served well when our job is more difficult then it needs to be.” Calling these people cowards is obstinate — they have nothing to gain from taking a public stand against their boss. In fact, insofar as his removal is uncertain at this point, they have much to lose.

The director of an agency doesn’t do the work there — he does some management, but mainly he’s the public face of the agency. The staff do the work. Well, the staff held a press conference Friday, and Masters has a transcript. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but here’s a quote from Senior Hurricane Specialist James Franklin:

When things are really happening, we’ve got a Katrina out there or a Rita type of storms, everybody needs to stop what they’re doing and pull together and make sure our message gets out and that we’re doing the best job that we can to make the best forecast. We’ve got a lot of people pulling together to do that. That takes a certain amount of teamwork and appreciation of sense of family and he’s destroying that, he’s destroying that.

The others add a lot more specifics. I think the conclusion here is clear — Proenza is an asshole, and he’s difficult to work with. He’s wrong about QuikSCAT, but the real problem is that he’s making the situation inside the NHC difficult for the people actually doing the job of predicting the hurricanes. Those are the people we should be sticking up for, no the guy who flies around the country making wild public statements. Some of Proenza’s claims about his superiors’ priorities are probably well founded, but his job is to run the Hurricane Center, and if everyone who works there hates him enough to publicly say so, then it’s absurd not to listen. It’s absurd to accuse them of playing politics; these are scientists and they want what everybody with a serious job wants: to do a good job.

So… is Proenza going to step down? Well, Margie Kieper rounded up the news yesterday, and it seems to indicate that he will (she also has some visual demonstrations of QuikSCAT imagery, compared to imagery from other satellites). Let’s hope we get someone else in there soon enough to get the ship together before we get hit with the first storm of the season.

Update [6:25 pm]: For better or worse, Proenza’s out. Everything else aside, the way NOAA handled this stinks. “Anson Franklin, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration . . . would not say whether Proenza was ordered to take leave or voluntarily left the agency. He said Proenza is still a NOAA employee, but he would not provide details about Proenza’s status, citing privacy laws.” What a crock.

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Wednesday June 27, 2007

State anti-ballot-initiative law vetoed

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Thursday June 21, 2007

The Coconut Grove Village Council is behind on posting notices of their upcoming meetings and minutes of past meetings on their website. Tom challenged them on it, and got back a very polite letter which basically said, we don’t have the time to do it. Which Tom correctly points out is BS — you don’t not have time — you just don’t consider it a priority. If you can send out e-mails and press releases, you can update a website. If you thought it was important, at the very least there’d be a message at the top of your website along the lines of “Volunteer help needed running this website. Please contact us.”

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Monday June 18, 2007

Bill Proenza gets reprimanded

Bill Proenza Anyone who’s ever worked in the higher levels of any government organization (which, improbably, I have) will particularly appreciate this: Let’s say you’re the head of your own office. The boss you report to is off-site — in another state, actually. One Friday morning she drops by your office, and very cordially (these things are always cordial) hands you a three-page memo of reprimand [pdf]. What do you do?

Well, if you’re Bill Proenza, director of the National Hurricane Center, you call the goddamned press, that’s what you do. You tell them your bosses are being assholes, and no, you do not shut the fuck up (Bill has reputedly criticized budget appropriations that have endangered weather satellites and has generally had the nerve to be honest about predictions). I could kiss this guy. Oh, and NOAA? Get off Bill’s back. And send him the money he needs for some new equipment. There’s people down here counting on it.

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Wednesday June 6, 2007

“As Miami underwent one of the most explosive growth periods in its history, with luxury buildings reshaping the downtown skyline, the city [government] squandered millions of dollars on troubled housing projects and failed to collect massive overdue loans — some borrowers haven’t made a single payment in years.” — Cenziper, Corral and Lebowitz share credit for a big expose in Sunday’s Herald.

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Monday March 12, 2007

This just came up: there are 32 Cities in Miami-Dade. Don’t click yet — write down as many as you can from memory first!

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Wednesday January 10, 2007

More adventures on MiamiDade.gov

screengrab of a horrible online tool nobody should have to use

Sooner or later, you’re going to run into a Genious of Despair, and he’s going to ask you if you know who your county commissioner is. Time to get ready . . . except that the MiamiDade.gov website doesn’t make it easy. There’s a list of commissioners, and pages for each of them, and, hmm.. ok those link to maps of the districts, but where’s a map of the whole county? Wait for it . . . and nope: after five minutes of furious clicking and searching, I can’t find the answer. There’s a “Who is my Commissioner?” link, but that takes me back to the Firefox now allowed page. The site is borked in other ways, too — expanding menus won’t stay expanded, links launch new windows and mysterious “applications,” and I just know there’s a hidden link to a PDF lurking somewhere ready to crash my computer. Let’s play a game: I’ll give you safe Jpeg links to the district maps, and you try to figure out which one you live in with the fewest possible clicks (give yourself a pat on the back if you get it in six or fewer!). Then return to this page to decode your answer. Ready?

Nope, that didn’t work either. The URL’s to the district maps are not consistent, and some of the Commissioners’ pages don’t even give a link to the map. Surrendering, I fire up Internet Explorer, and go to this horrible contraption, what appears to be a Java-powered nightmare from the latter part of the 20th century. My computer wheezes, groans, and chuckles as I tried to pan and zoom on the crappiest of little maps.

Seriously, though, if it’s wrong for the WLRN website to be inaccessible, it’s 10 times worse for the county (annual budget: $6 billion+) government website. (Ways in which it’s inaccessible #4080: the commission map is color coded. Plus, what’s up with 13 commission seats and only 8 zones on the map?) Hello, is anybody out there listening?

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Wednesday January 3, 2007

All newly issued US passports now contain RFID chips, arousing some justified paranoia. Wired magazine to the rescue! How To: Disable Your Passport’s RFID Chip: “Hammer time. Hitting the chip with a blunt, hard object should disable it. A nonworking RFID doesn’t invalidate the passport, so you can still use it. . . . But be careful – tampering with a passport is punishable by 25 years in prison.”

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Wednesday December 27, 2006

“County Auditor Cathy Jackson released a report that said Hometown Station had misspent more than $3 million that was supposed to be devoted solely to construction costs . . . Miami-Dade County Manager George Burgess gave [the] developer one week to return $5 million in public money . . . a lawyer for the development company . . . said it has no immediate plans to return it.” Classic. Check out the video “House of Lies,” too.

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Tuesday December 26, 2006

Jeb Bush’s official portrait includes his Blackberry. (via BoingBoing)

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Sunday October 29, 2006

You must use Internet Explorer to live in Miami-Dade

'This site is best viewed with Internet Explorer' error message

Excellent work, guys, really. This is the page from which I got there, by clicking the “Find a park near you” link. Three observations here:

Overall, my impression is that miamidade.gov is a very information-rich site, but with lots of baffling gaps. Check out how the parks listed on pages like this don’t link to the parks’ pages. C’mon, guys; you can do better. Update: Dugg.

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Friday June 9, 2006

South Florida Commuter Services has two blogs(!) – Diary of a South Florida Commuter and Diary of a South Florida Vanpooler. They seem pretty infrequently updated, and might (?) make for interesting reading, if they weren’t #EEEEEE on #FFFFFF (that’s light gray on white). (via Greener Miami)

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