Commissioner's Holiday Party Raises Questions About How Taxpayer Money Spent - NBC 6 South Florida
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Commissioner's Holiday Party Raises Questions About How Taxpayer Money Spent

Critic: Corporate donations an "end-run around" laws

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    They came 1,500-strong in luxury motor coaches, filing carefully into an airport-area ballroom two weeks ago where a party like none other awaited. (Published Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015)

    They came 1,500-strong in luxury motor coaches, filing carefully – some with walkers or canes, or holding hands – into an airport-area ballroom two weeks ago where a party like none other awaited.

    It was the 11th Annual District 12 Elderly Holiday Party, and Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz was there to bask in the glow of all that super-voter gratitude.

    "Every year, thanks to God and Pepe Diaz for this wonderful party," enthused one of the attendees.

    Admirers roared their approval when Diaz bounded onto the stage.

    When he told the crowd there was only one requirement for the day's events, one woman shouted, "To vote for you!"

    "No," he responded sheepishly. "Just have fun."

    Diaz, who was re-elected to his fourth term last year, said the event was not about courting favor with senior voters, who tend to turn out in higher rates on Election Day.

    Since taxpayers wound up funding nearly a third of the party's expenses, the party could not legally be a political rally.

    NBC 6 Investigators found Diaz using more than $200,000 in taxpayer money to get his last five holiday parties started, paying up to $30,000 a year for the ballroom and meals and $12,000 for the buses.

    But after soliciting lobbyists and business owners to sponsor the party, Diaz's office budget has received $67,250 in party sponsorships from corporations to offset those expenses. The corporations, many of which have business before the county commission, can only give up to $1,000 to a commissioner's campaign. But Diaz has sought and received corporate contributions of varying amounts up to $5,000 for his holiday party, plus donations of televisions and microwave ovens for the free raffle.

    And the more money he can raise from corporations, the more money he can have on hand in future years to spend on more parties, charities or any other community-based organizations.

    Miami-Dade County commissioners are allocated $922,00 each this year to run their offices, and they can spend that money largely as they wish, as long as it's for the good of the district. Any money left over at year's end can be applied to the next year's budget. That carryover has resulted in current year budgets ranging from Xavier Suarez’ $948,501 to Esteban Bovo's $1.85 million.

    COMMISSIONER
    JORDAN
    MONESTIME
    EDMONSON
    HEYMAN
    BARREIRO
    SOSA
     
    DIST 1
    DIST 2
    DIST 3
    DIST 4
    DIST 5
    DIST 6
    FY 2016 BUDGET
    922000
    922000
    922000
    922000
    922000
    922000
    CARRYOVER
    106,806
    122,634
    88,358
    250,973
    465,013
    659,477
    TOTAL BUDGET
    $1,028,806
    $1,044,634
    $1,010,358
    $1,172,973
    $1,387,013
    $1,581,477
    COMMISSIONER
    SUAREZ
    LEVINE CAVA
    MOSS
    SOUTO
    ZAPATA
    DIAZ
    BOVO
     
    DIST 7
    DIST 8
    DIST 9
    DIST 10
    DIST 11
    DIST 12
    DIST 13
    FY 2016 BUDGET
    922000
    922000
    922000
    922000
    922000
    922000
    922000
    CARRYOVER
    26,501
    107,228
    75,895
    42,358
    428,193
    143,251
    929,421
    TOTAL BUDGET
    $948,501
    $1,029,228
    $997,895
    $964,358
    $1,350,193
    $1,065,251
    $1,851,421

    In the last four fiscal years, the 13 commissioners have directed more than $2.2 million of their office budgets to charities, turkey giveaways, churches and other community-based organizations, according to commission budget records.

    COMMISSIONER
    JORDAN
    MONESTIME
    EDMONSON
    HEYMAN
    BARREIRO
    SOSA
     
    DIST 1
    DIST 2
    DIST 3
    DIST 4
    DIST 5
    DIST 6
    CBOs FY
    2012-15
    $91,701
    $216,530
    $212,897
    $106,415
    $149,621
    $149,073
    COMMISSIONER
    SUAREZ
    LEVINE CAVA
    MOSS
    SOUTO
    ZAPATA
    DIAZ
    BOVO
     
    DIST 7
    DIST 8
    DIST 9
    DIST 10
    DIST 11
    DIST 12
    DIST 13
    CBOs FY
    2012-15
    $88,048
    $33,750 
    $96,682
    $376,554
    $252,348
    $143,575
    $124,168

    Diaz's CBO spending is in the middle of the pack, but when it comes to using that pot of money to throw parties for constituents, none of them has been as generous as Diaz.

    For the party two weeks ago, Diaz initially ponied up about $45,000 taxpayer dollars for the ballroom, lunch and buses, his office said. Corporations sent checks totaling $31,750 to Diaz's office fund, leaving taxpayers to foot a bill of about $13,000, according to his office.

    There was music, appearances of popular telenovela stars and a lunch of turkey, rice and beans and plantains.

    And though a banner hung above the stage displayed logos of more than a dozen sponsors, it was the man whose photo and name were most prominent on that banner being showered with gratitude from the seniors for what many called the highlight of their holiday party season.

    But, Diaz said, it was not about votes.

    "What do I get out of it? You saw me, the hugs, the kisses, the love. I can't ask for more," Diaz said. "The votes come with love sometimes. But in this case, love is the most important thing."

    Attorney Douglas Halsey, who failed to persuade the ethics commission to crack down on commissioners' discretionary community-based spending four years ago, said corporations sending big checks to commissioners' office budgets "sounds fishy to me... That sounds as if you're bypassing the legal mechanisms to provide political support to elected officials."

    Noting the $1,000 contribution limit, Halsey added, "If you're able to put money that indirectly supports a county commissioner's ability to secure support in his community, that’s essentially an end-run around those laws."

    But Diaz said it's not about politics; rather, it's about showing the seniors a good time.

    The reimbursements by sponsors into his office budget are the only way he can pull off the massive mobilization, feeding and entertaining of more than 1,500 people, unless the sponsors paid the vendors directly, he said.

    "I think they should give back," he said of the sponsors, which included Florida East Coast Industries, Florida Power & Light and Waste Management. "I think companies making money off the same constituents, they should give back to the constituents."

    As for the cost, he said they deserve whatever he could muster.

    "Listen, it could be $100,000," Diaz said. "To make all these people happy? ... These are taxpayers, too, and they're retired and they're happy and they're enjoying it. If that's what it takes to make them happy, I would do it."

    A spokeswoman for Florida East Coast Industries declined to tell NBC 6 Investigators how much it has given Diaz's party; Diaz's office revealed it was the maximum $5,000. Spokespersons for FPL, which gave up to $4,000, Waste Management ($1,500) and AvMed ($1,000) did reveal their contributions and said the companies regularly support worthy community causes and events. FPL noted the money came from shareholder funds, not rate payers. AvMed said it gave to support "healthy local communities," noting the party "builds healthy minds and gets seniors out and moving."

    Spending on community-based organizations by other commissioners varies from year to year. Commissioner Xavier Suarez, for instance, spends almost all of the $88,000 he's spent on CBOs since October 2011 on a summer internship program for recent high school and GED graduates of limited means.

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