Residents Protest Alleged Corruption in Miami Beach

Mayor goes face-to-face with protesters outside City Hall

By Steve Litz and Brian Hamacher
|  Thursday, Apr 26, 2012  |  Updated 9:23 PM EDT
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Miami Beach Mayor Matti Bower went face-to-face with dozens of demonstrators who descended on City Hall Thursday to protest what they claim is rampant corruption within the city's government. Hear from Miami Beach Mayor Matti Bower and Commissioner Jonah Wolfson.

Miami Beach Mayor Matti Bower went face-to-face with dozens of demonstrators who descended on City Hall Thursday to protest what they claim is rampant corruption within the city's government. Hear from Miami Beach Mayor Matti Bower and Commissioner Jonah Wolfson.

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Miami Beach Corruption Arrests

Steve Litz reports
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Miami Beach Mayor Matti Bower went face-to-face with dozens of demonstrators who descended on City Hall Thursday to protest what they claim is rampant corruption within the city's government.

Nearly 75 protesters turned out to demand Bower and City Manager Jorge Gonzalez step down in the wake of the arrests earlier this month of two Miami Beach firefighters and five code enforcement officers on corruption charges.

One of the protesters and Miami Beach resident Terri Bienstock, called the current political climate "a culture of insider deals” that only favors a select few. “If you're not a developer you don't get heard, if you're a resident you don't get heard."

At one point Bower left city hall to address the crowd and got into shouting matches with some of the protesters.

"The city manager and us as commissioners have shown that when there is something wrong we fire the people,” Bower said. “I think this is like a lynch mob.”

Another protester, Steve Berke, who ran and lost against Bower in last election, blamed the voters.

"It's their fault for not showing up at the polls, the biggest enemy to the residents of Miami Beach is voter apathy. We only had 6,800 people show up for the last election out of 44,000 registered voters, we need people in Miami Beach to start taking an interest in their city so they can vote our corrupt politicians out of office,” he said.

Commissioner Jonah Wolfson released a statement Thursday calling for Gonzalez's resignation, citing the corruption arrests.

"Our city is in crisis due to poor management and corruption at many levels," Wolfson said. "Enough has to be enough already, and Manager Gonzalez has to go." 

In an interview with NBC 6 Thursday, Gonzalez said he won't be stepping down and cited Miami Beach's booming tourism and low property tax rate as a testament to his success.

"Whether it's our new world symphony, our soundscape, our beaches, our beachwalks, our underground infrastructure, just hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars of improvements in this community all to the betterment of our residents," he said.

On Wednesday, Gonzalez sent a memo to Bower and commissioners detailing his plan to address the recent city employee misconduct incidents. The plan calls for working with the FBI's Public Corruption Task Force and other measures to fight corruption.

The recent corruption arrests happened on April 11, following an undercover operation by the FBI. Prosecutors say Jose L. Alberto, the lead code compliance inspector for the city of Miami Beach, along with four Miami Beach code compliance officers and two Miami Beach firefighters, participated in a scheme to extort cash payments from a South Beach nightclub.

Prosecutors say Alberto solicited a cash pay-off in June 2011 from a club owner in exchange for not enforcing a large fine for a code violation.

Alberto, 41, code compliance officers Willie E. Grant, 56, Orlando E. Gonzalez, 32, Ramon D. Vasallo, 31, and Vicente L. Santiesteban, 29, and firefighters Henry L. Bryant, 45, and Chai D. Footman, 36, have all been charged in the alleged extortion ring, prosecutors said.

All of the employees have been relieved of their duties and are in the process of being terminated.

Alberto, Grant, Gonzalez, Vasallo and Footman pleaded not guilty Wednesday. Bryant is due in court Thursday. Their attorneys couldn't be reached.

Santiesteban's attorney, Richard Sharpstein, said his client reached an agreement with prosecutors and will plead guilty to one count next week.

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