Dade Ain't Disney | The Nation


Dade Ain't Disney

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Rarely in these pages does Hiaasen show such bitterness, cold anger and pure contempt for an individual or office. He had two good reasons for feeling that way. The first dates from the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

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Robert Sherrill
Robert Sherrill, a frequent and longtime contributor to The Nation, was formerly a reporter for the Washington Post. He...

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More than 160,000 people were left homeless by that hurricane. Many homes in the older South Florida neighborhoods withstood the winds rather well--even new homes built by Habitat for Humanity survived the blow ("That," Jimmy Carter told Hiaasen, was because "we used nails")--but thousands of new homes were blown away like so much straw. Obviously, homeowners had been screwed. The building industry began offering excuses. The Latin Builders Association came up with a full-page ad arguing that shoddy workmanship wasn't widespread and that Andrew's "supernatural" gusts "were humanly unstoppable."

Hiaasen's reply: "Especially if your contractor didn't bother to fasten your roof to your house."

He saw the system poisoned by

greed, politics, corruption and ineptitude.... The vaunted South Florida Building Code was deliberately weakened to allow faster, cheaper work. Staples instead of nails? Great idea! Waferboard instead of plywood? Hey, give it a try.... What were these idiots thinking?

The criminal collusion within the industry was completed by bribe-hungry building inspectors who would get out of their trucks to inspect new construction just long enough to allow a nice $100 bill to land in the front seat.

Not one inspector who approved the shoddy work was punished. In one subdivision, 147 of the 184 homes were considered uninhabitable after Andrew. But even after a two-and-a-half-year investigation that found hundreds of examples of "trusses without braces, braces without nails, corners without brackets," the Dade State Attorney's office decided prosecutions were not justified.

The contempt Hiaasen felt for State Attorney Rundle after Andrew was a good foundation for the superstructure of contempt he felt for her quiescence five years later, when confronted by a massive paving scandal. In a random examination of three dozen repair jobs, the Herald--with no help from Rundle--documented truckloads of missing materials, projects paid for but not done and hundreds of thousands of dollars of overcharges. Typical: sidewalk repairs that should have cost $20,000 were billed at $166,024. Once again, Rundle seemed reluctant to investigate, much less to prosecute the crooks.

All the work was done for the local government as part of a huge contract with the firm headed by "the loud and politically influential exile leader" Jorge Mas Canosa. And because politicians were intimidated and enriched by Mas Canosa, Hiaasen held out little hope that an official investigation would ever be made of the looting. But it was obvious that "somebody is simply robbing taxpayers blind."

Saying that, Hiaasen stepped on the biggest and most sensitive toes in the Cuban community.

Of course, it didn't take guts for Miami Herald reporters to uncover this dirt in the Mas Canosa business or for Hiaasen to comment so insultingly about it. But it is rather unusual in US journalism. Not many cities are blessed with reporters and columnists who are allowed by their corporate bosses to attack--repeatedly, that's the key--the offensive conduct of the most powerful political grandee in town.

Not long after the paving scandal was written up, Mas Canosa died of lung cancer, and the power of the empire, including the communications company MasTec (10,000 employees, $1 billion annual revenue), was shaken. But for decades prior to his death, he was looked upon as the emperor of the Cuban government in exile. When he called the White House, Presidents promptly picked up the phone. As much as any other person in America, it was Mas Canosa, backed by his Cuban-American National Foundation's wide political influence and money, who persuaded federal officials to establish and maintain the ridiculous embargo against Cuba. And because the Herald editorially talked a softer and more reasonable line, he hated it and made life as uncomfortable as possible for it. This, some think, was one reason Knight Ridder, parent company of the Herald, moved corporate headquarters from Miami to Northern California, saying it needed to be in Silicon Valley and close to the Internet technology.

Hiaasen easily saw through that excuse:

Yeah, right. The truth is, Knight Ridder's gone soft. Thrown in the towel. ... It isn't tough enough to handle Miami anymore.
         So good riddance, cyberweenies. Enjoy your vineyards and your "majestic" redwoods and your scenic Pacific Coast Highway. We'll be just fine down here in the oppressive heat and the gunfire.
         For too long South Florida has done back flips to impress major firms, only to have them desert the place or go bankrupt (sometimes more than once). It's time to focus more positively on a steady, dependable, homegrown enterprise.
         I'm talking about corruption. That's the wave of the future. That's where the jobs are....
         Unlike newspapers, corruption is a growth industry. Knight Ridder's pullout will cost the area fewer than 150 jobs, a blip compared to what would be lost if there were no bribery and racketeering to fight.
         Think of the many millions of dollars trickling into the local economy as a result of every corruption probe--gas for the undercover cars, videotapes for the surveillance cameras, file cabinets for the plea-bargain agreements. And don't forget those hefty hotel and restaurant bills run up by conspirators, co-conspirators and snitches....
         When you're talking graft, you're talking jobs.

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