Clinton and the Cuban Fixer

Hurricane Andrew hit South Miami at around 2 a.m., Aug. 24, 1992. Before it was blown off the roof, the wind gauge at Homestead Air Force Base clocked a wind speed of 217 miles per hour. From South Miami, through Homestead and into Key Largo and the Everglades, Andrew left a swath of destruction about 30 miles wide. In the disaster, of course, lay opportunity.

Homestead was flattened by the storm and in late 1993 the Air Force decided to move out. The Defense Department put Homestead high on its impending closure list and in 1994 proposed to transfer the base to Dade County, free of charge. The county had a big plan for the site: to build a large commercial airport there, relieving the pressure on Miami International Airport a few miles to the northeast .

These plans soon aroused the concern of local conservation groups, since the old base sits amid Biscayne National Park, the Everglades, and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The $12 billion development planned for Homestead--the largest in the history of Southern Florida--spelled 230,000 annual overflights of commercial jetliners in and out of the new airport, plus toxic storm water and sewage leaching through Homestead's porous limestone.

As plans for the gigantic scheme began to shape up, observers of the real estate scene in Dade County were startled to see that the county was not putting the plans for the construction of the airport and the attendant commercial center up for competitive bids.

In fact, Dade County lost no time in signing an exclusive 70-year lease and development agreement with an unknown company called Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc. (HABDI), without asking for a penny in exchange. HABDI's president is a Cuban-American by the name of Carlos Herrera. Herrera also heads the Latin Builders Association, regarded by many as the most powerful political group in South Florida. Two of the other HABDI partners, Pedro Adrian and Camillo Jaime, are also officers of the Association, which has had an unsavory history in local politics. According to the Miami Herald, it was involved "in the greatest corruption case the U.S. Attorney's office ever made in Miami." Back in 1989, several officers of the Association had been caught on tapes offering cash bribes to Dade County commissioners to win approval for other large building schemes.

Herrera was born outside Havana in 1958, the year before Fidel Castro led his revolution into power. Herrera's mother was a beautician, who took her son to Florida in 1964, where they settled in Hialeah. Herrera dropped out of school at the age of 15 to work for an air conditioning company. Three years later he started his own business, Local Air Conditioning, which he runs to this day. How Herrera made the jump from A/C repairman to mega-developer remains obscure.

One of the directors of the Latin Builders Association is Miguel DeGrandy. DeGrandy is also the chief lobbyist for HABDI, as well being a partner of the Miami/D.C. law firm Greenberg Traurig. The managing partner of Greenberg Traurig is Marvin Rosen. And here we enter the financial air space of the Democratic Party, since Rosen served as chairman of the party's finance committee from 1994 through the recent election.

Marvin Rosen cut his teeth in Democratic Party politics back in 1980 when he was the Florida coordinator of Sen. Ted Kennedy's doomed effort to wrest the Democratic Party nomination from Jimmy Carter. Though Kennedy did badly, Rosen proved himself a whiz at beating the bushes for money. By 1984 he was the leading fundraiser for Fritz Mondale. In 1988 Rosen served as finance chairman of the Dukakis campaign and, during the cash-strapped days of Clinton's 1992 bid, was personally solicited by Gov. Bill himself to raise money, and celebrated the inaugural victory in the company of the Clintons and the Gores.

Seeking to capitalize on such a long investment in time and effort, Rosen opened a D.C. office for his law firm in 1993 and immediately hired Ron Brown's son Michael to be his director of legislative affairs. He also recruited Ted Kennedy's new wife, Victoria.

Rosen's Kennedy connection was not irrelevant to plans afoot for Homestead. Back in early Clinton time, Ted Kennedy sat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which was overseeing the base closures. Rosen and Kennedy arranged a meeting between Herrera and then-Transportation Secretary Federico Peña, at Kennedy's estate in Virginia. The encounter took place on April 3, 1996. The meeting was crucial because the Federal Aviation Administration (part of Peña's bailiwick at Transportation) must approve the lease, designs, and operations of the new commercial airport.

In the wake of the rendezvous in Virginia, Herrera told the Miami Herald, "I'm a respectful guy. I always go to the highest person possible to explain what I am doing. With my contacts and the help of certain senators I called Peña and got a meeting. The guy is accessible. I just wanted to give the guy a face-to-face briefing. I wanted to tell him where we stood on the lease itself, and to tell him we were going to be meeting with the FAA soon to get their approval."  

Herrera later reckoned that between 1994 and the end of 1996 he had given more than $100,000 to the Democratic Party and to politicians such as Kennedy, John Kerry, Robert Torricelli, and Bill Clinton.

One of the first of the now notorious White House "coffees" in 1994 saw the presence of Herrera, soon after his former lawyer Marvin Rosen had been installed as finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee. In the wake of his first White House visit, Herrera gave $25,000 to the DNC. "When I first meet the president," Herrera later disclosed, "I had not contributed a penny. Any politician who would listen without giving me a penny gets a lot of respect. Afterwards I did contribute as much as I could."

Four further meetings among Clinton, Gore and Herrera took place over the next two years, and Herrera later reported that the chief executives had "opened up some doors for me." Herrera continued to show his gratitude. A week after the fall elections he sent a $15,000 check to the DNC.

The doors that Herrera yearned to see opened were first, the rapid transfer of the title of the Air Force base to Dade County; second, an agreement that the tab for potentially expensive environmental clean-up of hazardous waste on the site would be borne by the federal government; third, that HABDI would get speedy approval from the FAA for its airport plans; four, that all of this would take place without the costly and disruptive ordeal of an environmental impact statement. This desire to cut through persnickety red tape--otherwise known as the laws of the land--was beautifully expressed by Rosen's associate Miguel DeGrandy, the lobbyist for HABDI. In January, DeGrandy told the Miami weekly New Times, "Based on Clinton's agenda for reinventing government, and wanting to flow everything down from the local government, it wouldn't make sense for the White House to be getting involved in what's really a local zoning issue."

But for the Clinton White House the concerns of Herrera were most emphatically not a local zoning issue. The White House's game plan for 1996 was to win Florida, where Cuban-Americans have become a potent political force and where the support of men like Herrera was eagerly desired. Of course the money was nice, too.

And indeed the White House has been riding two horses. In an effort to capture the national environmental vote, Al Gore had been point man in a scheme to broker a deal restraining some of the more outlandish predations of the Cuban-American sugar growers around the southern end of Lake Okeechobee, who had been pouring phosphorous into the Everglades. Gore's efforts, which in the end pleased no one, ran athwart the instincts and hopes of the developer lobby, which had been ladling out the cash to Clinton.

To put a good public face on the situation, the White House dispatched Katie McGinty to Florida on Jan. 10 of this year. McGinty was Gore's former chief enviro aide and is now head of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, one of whose functions is to oversee the development of federal environmental impact statements, and to ensure that the nation's environmental laws are being upheld. As she departed for Florida, McGinty issued a public welcome to Herrera. She declared the environmental issues should be looked at over the next couple of months, but that in the meantime the development project should go forward. Herrera said that his interpretation of McGinty's statement was that HABDI could go forward with as much as one million square feet of construction.

In other words, without competitive bidding, with no public disclosure and no environmental impact statement, HABDI has been given the green light to undertake a vast project with potentially disastrous environmental implications. The Miami group of the Sierra Club and other green outfits have requested a criminal investigation by the Justice Department, addressing the following questions:

* Where does the money behind HABDI come from? Even though it is about to undertake a multi-billion development scheme involving public assets, HABDI has never been required to open up its financial books. Rumors and speculation persist that the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to finance the project are coming from a combination of drug money and funds from South American-owned airline companies brought into the project by Jorge Mas Canosa, head of the Cuban-American Foundation. Much of the money given by Herrera to the DNC was drawn from HABDI accounts, which could mean that the party's treasury opened a southern as well as an eastern front in the battle for foreign contributions, which are illegal.  

* Did HABDI bribe Dade County officials
to approve the exclusive lease arrangement without putting the project up for competitive bidding? Many of the players in the 1989 Dade County/Latin Builders Association bribery scandal are now promoting the Homestead deal with a similar enthusiasm.

* Did Marvin Rosen, the main partner of HABDI's law firm, Greenberg Traurig, use his position as DNC finance chairman to influence the transfer of the Homestead Air Force Base? If he did, and there certainly seems to be plenty of evidence that he was organizing meetings between his clients and government officials, then this would be a violation of the Hatch Act and the Federal Elections Campaign Act.

But the Sierra Club and the other petitioners aren't holding their breaths, since the person to whom they are directing their plea for criminal investigations is the U.S. Attorney General, Janet Reno. They remember well how Reno, in her previous incarnation as Dade County district attorney, turned the blindest of eyes to political corruption and the rise of the Cuban-American mafia.

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