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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Audiotapes and Videos Hint at Corruption

Audiotapes, videos hint at corruption in North Miami
The Miami Herald by Nadege Green - March 26, 2012

In the past year, North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre had a nagging suspicion he was being followed. He also thought someone had his City Hall office bugged with listening devices. It turns out Pierre was right; someone was watching and listening. On Jan. 26, 2011, Pierre snapped a photo on his cell phone of a suspicious vehicle outside of his North Miami law firm. According to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigative report, the car belonged to an FDLE special agent. In July, Pierre had secret cameras installed in his City Hall office and a private firm swept the space for bugs and wiretaps, costing taxpayers about $8,200. Audio recordings obtained by The Miami Herald, and the FDLE report, confirm police conducted surveillance on Pierre, who did not return several telephone calls from a Miami Herald reporter on Monday. The recently obtained recordings were taken on the day FDLE agents arrested Ricardo Brutus, Pierre’s nephew, on March 25, 2011. Brutus, who served as Pierre’s campaign manager in 2011, was charged with unlawful compensation after an undercover video showed him accepting a white envelope stuffed with bills from North Miami businessman Shlomo Chelminsky. The money was in exchange for Brutus lobbying council members to pull an item off the agenda about privitizing the city’s trash pickup, investigators say. Chelminsky felt privitization would benefit him as an apartment building owner, although many residents opposed the plan. The audio recordings provide a glimpse into law enforcement’s case against the mayor’s nephew and what will likely be a broader public corruption investigation into the North Miami City Council. Brutus told FDLE that Pierre tried to circumvent election laws in the 2011 race. Pierre won the mayoral contest against two opponents. According to what Brutus told FDLE, Pierre told Chelminsky to make out a check for his campaign to Bertrand Consulting, a company owned by Brutus’ fiancĂ©e Sarah Bertrand. Brutus told investigators there may have been other campaign checks deposited into Bertrand’s account, but he said he couldn’t remember. If these checks were intended for the campaign, their deposit into a third-party account would violate campaign finance laws. Brutus also admitted to accepting cash from Chelminsky once before. He told investigators he wasn’t exactly sure why the North Miami businessman had given him money. He said he accepted $1,500 or $2,500 from Chelminsky. Investigators said the amount was higher, but they were not specific. Chelminsky, who is cooperating with FDLE, declined to comment Monday.

According to the audio recordings, FDLE investigators said Chelminsky asked the mayor to intervene on a City Council agenda item that involved switching the city’s sanitation, recycling and stormwater fees from a monthly payment to an annual one. Chelminsky, who owns several apartment buildings in North Miami, was concerned he would have to pay one lump sum at the end of the year. The mayor, according to investigators, told Chelminsky, “I’ll have my man get in touch with you.” On Sept. 15, 2010, the council voted 4-1 to keep the fees on a monthly basis. Pierre was the only dissenter. The next day, Brutus went to Chelminsky’s office to pick up a cash-filled envelope, investigators said. Pierre called Chelminsky at 8 a.m. the morning after the resolution passed in Chelminsky’s favor, investigators said. According to the audio recordings, investigators told Brutus that Pierre said: “I didn’t get a thank you. It’s pure politics, I had to vote no. I had to make it look good. I voted no, but you got what you wanted. Pure politics; everyone’s got to play politics here.” The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office would not confirm whether there is an investigation. There was also the issue of the city privitizing its sanitation services, a contentious matter before the council last year. Brutus was caught on videotape in January 2011 boasting to Chelminsky that he could have a council member pull the item from the agenda and have it voted on at a later date. Brutus told Chelminsky, according to the video, that the item was hot and it would be better brought up after the May 2011 elections. In January 2011, Councilwoman Marie Steril pulled the item from the agenda. She said Monday she would not comment until after she listened to the recordings. In the past, however, she has denied discussing city business with Brutus. Investigators said that minutes after taking the $4,000 from Chelminsky in an envelope, phone records show that Brutus called Steril. Brutus told investigators he may have called Steril, but did not fully recall the conversation. “I don’t remember asking her to pull it off the agenda. When I spoke to her it was more like trying to get information, OK. To see what is going to happen. I don’t think I asked her directly, ‘Marie, can you pull this off the agenda?’ ”

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