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I-Team: Frank Vecin — Beyond the Badge

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MIAMI (CBS4 I-TEAM) A Miami Dade police commander, with close ties to Mayor Carlos Alvarez, has allegedly been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by developers to expedite their request for permits and provide access to top county administrators, according to a CBS4 News investigation.

Miam Dade Police Chief Frank Vecin is now under criminal investigation by both the Miami Dade State Attorney and the Inspector General’s Office.

Vecin refused to comment for this story. Richard Sharpstein, an attorney for The Terra Group, one of the developers that hired Vecin, acknowledged that the developer had recently been served a subpoena for contracts and financial records relating to Terra’s involvement with Vecin.

“Terra had a contractual relationship with Frank Vecin; a straight forward, honest, above board business relationship,” Sharpstein said. “He was a permit expediter and had a business, Oak Tree, that provided services to Terra and other companies in expediting permits within the county.”

While it is not uncommon for developers to hire consultants to assist them in navigating the maze of county permitting procedures, it is highly unusual for that person to be a current county employee.

At the same time Vecin was assisting various developers as CEO and as President of Oak Tree Development, he was also in charge of the police department’s Intergovernmental Bureau, which is responsible for investigating illegal contractors and criminal violations of the county’s building code.

In other words, he was being paid by the very same developers and builders his police unit might be called upon to investigate. Instead it was the developers who found themselves with a valuable friend in the police department.

In one instance, according to e-mails obtained by CBS4 News, the Terra Group used Vecin’s clout and status inside the police department to initiate an investigation into a condo board member who was giving the developer trouble.

On May 23, 2007, the developer wrote to Vecin, using Vecin’s private e-mail address, to complain about the board member at Metropolis at Dadeland, 9055 SW 73rd Court

Among the litany of complaints the developer had with the board member was that the board member wanted to change the circular valet driveway in front of Metropolis from a two-way lane to a one-way lane. The developer was afraid this change was going to cost them time and money. So a few minutes after receiving the developers e-mail, Vecin logged into his Miami Dade Police Department e-mail and assigned one of the sergeants under his command to initiate an investigation of the board member.

“Please see if we can use the various agencies to see that this individual does not violate county laws and ordinances,” Vecin wrote. The sergeant recruited officials from the county’s public works department and they successfully blocked any changes to the valet lane.

A review of the developer’s complaints by CBS4 News shows the condo board member was more than likely wrong in trying to make the changes to the valet parking lane. Traffic patterns would have to be approved in advance by the county, and the condo association can not unilaterally change them. But the fact that the developer used their connection to Vecin to shut down the changes raises obvious conflict-of-interest questions.

Neither the Terra Group nor any of the other developers involved with Vecin are the target of the investigation, according to sources familiar with the case.

Sharpstein also said he has been assured by the state attorney’s office that Terra, whose owner, Pedro Martin recently donated The Freedom Tower to Miami Dade College, is not the focus of this inquiry.

“Terra is proud it has always been an upstanding corporate citizen in the community and they will continue to cooperate,” Sharpstein said.

On the financial disclosure forms Vecin files each year with the police department, it appears Oak Tree earns very little money. In 2006, for instance, he reported earning $16,000, in 2007 he reported just $1,500, and in 2008 he reported $8,643. Vecin’s disclosure form for 2009 is due at the end of the month.

But one source familiar with the contracts between Vecin and the Terra Group told CBS4 News that since 2007, the Terra Group alone paid Vecin a total of $165,000.

A second source wasn’t certain of the total but told CBS4 News that Vecin’s fees would range anywhere from $2,500 a month to $50,000 a month depending on what he was asked to do.

Sharpstein refused to comment on how much Vecin was paid.

“He held himself out as having this business and they had a complete business relationship,” he said.

This is not the first time Vecin’s conduct has been questioned. Earlier this year, CBS4 News exposed questionable spending by the police department’s environmental task force. Vecin was in charge of the fund and monies that were supposed to be used to investigate environmental crimes – such as illegal dumping – were instead used to purchase new computers and hybrid SUVs for police commanders. Vecin even provided one of the SUVs to the mayor. After the news reports surfaced, control of the environmental funds was taken away from Vecin.

For Vecin, the incident was a minor glitch in an otherwise storied career. But the current questions being raised about Vecin’s outside employment are likely to prove far more serious.
VECIN’S RISE

Frank Anthony Vecin was 33-years-old when he first applied to be a reserve officer in the Metro-Dade Police Department. Born in Havana, Vecin moved to the United States in the early Sixties as a child and grew up in Edison, New Jersey, and served two years in the Army, before moving to South Florida.

Vecin had been working construction jobs, and when he applied to be a reserve officer, he told an interviewer that while his dream was to become a police officer so he could help people, he still wanted to do construction because he needed the money.

By all accounts, Vecin’s time as a reserve officer was exemplary. One of his first supervisors was Carlos Alvarez, who was himself a rising star in the department.

Vecin was assigned to the Cutler Ridge gang unit and in 1991; he received the department’s Gold Medal of valor for rescuing two children from a house engulfed in flames. Vecin became a full-time Metro-Dade police officer in 1992 and his timing couldn’t have been better. A few months later, Hurricane Andrew hit.

Vecin’s stock within the police department shot up with the arrival of the devastating storm. As a licensed general contractor, Vecin spent months volunteering his time helping police officers whose homes were destroyed by the hurricane.

More importantly, he became the department’s point man on a new, multi-agency task force created to crack down on illegal contractors who descended on South Florida following the storm.

In 1996, Vecin was given a special salary adjustment and promotion to the rank of Police Supervisor — even though he did not have the required college degree. The request was so unusual it had to be approved by both the county manager at the time, Armando Vidal, and the police director, Fred Taylor. The paperwork shows that it was pushed forward by the then Assistant Director Carlos Alvarez. The memo approving the increased salary notes that Vecin would now report directly to Alvarez.

When Alvarez was promoted to police director in 1997, Vecin position inside the department never seemed more secure. Between 1999 and 2009, Vecin’s police salary continued to rise dramatically, more than doubling from $64,694 to $146,724.

Vecin, however, always seemed to know the real money lay elsewhere.

After making the move in 1992 from reserve officer to full-time officer, he began filing the required outside employment forms with the county, stating that in addition to working for the police department he would also take on some construction jobs.

According to state records, Vecin had formed Oak Tree Development in 1991. Every year that he filed the outside employment form regarding Oak Tree, he was asked the following question:

Is business conducted with Miami Dade County or any County owned or controlled property? Vecin always checked “No.”
THE MAYOR’S TASK FORCE

When Carlos Alvarez ran for county mayor in 2004, he often spoke on the campaign trail of streamlining the county’s permitting process as a way of creating jobs by spurring development. And as soon as he was elected, Alvarez issued a memo to County Manager George Burgess instructing him to “convene a working group of professionals both from the private/public sector to address the problems in the Building Department.”

The December 7, 2004 memo goes on to state: “There should be recommendations made regarding on improving the very real problems facing the Building Department specifically in the permitting process.”

The task force was supposed to come back in 60 days with their results, but the issue proved so complex that it took more than a year for their work to be completed.

On January 25, 2006, Alvarez held a press conference at the county’s permitting and inspection center to announce the new, streamlined permitting process. Assembled in the audience were some of the county’s biggest developers and builders as well as the heads of every county department involved in the building and permitting process.

“As a county we must facilitate growth, not obstruct it,” Alvarez said. “At the same time we need to ensure the development of safe, sustainable communities.”

Standing behind Alvarez was Frank Vecin. Whether intentional or not, Vecin’s presence behind Alvarez sent a very clear message to everyone that Vecin was part of the mayor’s inner circle when it came to building and permitting issues.

And for anyone in the building industry who was not at the press conference, that message was made known to them as well. The February 2006 newsletter for the Builders Association of South Florida (BASF) made the press conference its cover story and included pictures showing Vecin standing with Alvarez. After the event the president of the builder’s association made sure to have her picture taken with Vecin. The caption in the newsletter reads: “Lani Kahn Drody with BASF member and Mayor’s Office Liaison, Frank Vecin.”

Vecin’s influence throughout county government is undeniable. Because of his years with the police department and especially his years of working with all of the local county agencies to crack down on corrupt contractors following Hurricane Andrew, Vecin knows the inner workings of the building department, the water and sewer department, and all the other agencies a developer or builder needs. More importantly, he knows each department director personally.

“I think I first met Frank during that time of Hurricane Andrew,” said John Renfrow, the head of the Miami Dade Water and Sewer Department.

But the mayor’s 2006 press conference announcing a new expedited permitting process cemented the view that Vecin was the man to know.

In the four years since, Oak Tree Development’s business in representing developers has grown dramatically. In the case of the Terra Group, Vecin was hired to assist the company in their development of two major projects in downtown Miami, a 60-story condo tower across from the American Airlines Arena known as 900 Biscayne; and Quantum on the Bay, a twin tower design that is 51 stories high. He was also called in on the Metropolis project in South Dade.

A review of county e-mails from 2009 obtained by CBS4 News through public records requests shows how Vecin operated. Vecin would receive an e-mail or a call from a developer regarding a problem they were having with a particular county agency and Vecin in turn would personally e-mail the department director asking for help.

For example, on July 20, 2009, Michael Piazza, the vice president for construction at Terra, wrote to Vecin complaining the county water and sewer department was refusing to install water meters at a project of theirs in Doral. Under county rules the water department won’t install the meters until they receive a letter from the Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) saying that a maintenance bond has been issued. But Terra was running into trouble getting the bond.

“I need you to convince WASA to release the meters without DERM’s letter,” Piazza wrote to Vecin.

Vecin immediately sent an e-mail to the water and sewer department director, John Renfrow: “I guess it was too good to be true. I am copying you on the latest e-mail. Is there anything that can be done to install the meters?”

The e-mail makes it clear that this is an issue Renfrow and Vecin had spoken about previously. Renfrow wrote back less than an hour later, saying he would talk to one of his senior managers. “We’ll see what we can do,” Renfrow wrote.

Asked about the e-mails, Renfrow said he was simply trying to be helpful.

“I knew he was working for the county and he was doing things with the police department, I forget what his rank was, and he would occasionally call for certain things and I would refer him to somebody within the department to try and see if we could help him out,” Renfrow said.

Renfrow said he was not aware Vecin was being paid by the developer, even though several of Vecin’s e-mails are signed, “Frank Vecin, Oak Tree Development.”

“No, no, I wasn’t aware of that,” Renfrow said. “I was not aware that he was hired by anybody.”

Vecin was so helpful with Terra Group that the owners recommended his services to other developers, including RK Associates, which own dozens of shopping plazas across South Florida.

On May 26, 2009, Arnold Shevlin, a general manager for RK Associates, wrote to Vecin asking him to help regarding problems they were having with the water and sewer department. Once again Vecin wrote to Renfrow asking him for help.

“John is this possible,” Vecin wrote.

Renfrow forwarded the email to a manager in his department with a note saying: “Please look into this and get back to me tomorrow AM.”

Shevlin also asked for help getting a traffic light installed in Sunny Isles. Vecin turned to the county’s public works director, Esther Calas.

Using his police department email, Vecin wrote to Calas: “Esther, can you guide me to who can give me a response for the RK Center folks…ref a traffic light.”

Calas contacted her staff to see what they could do. Her staff spoke to Vecin personally to explain to him that the light would need approval from state officials.

Shevlin, who is no longer with RK Associates, said Vecin’s name was given to them by Pedro and David Martin, the owners of the Terra Group. Shevlin said he believes Vecin’s name was passed on to them during a Miami Heat game when the owner of RK Associates, Raanan Katz, was sitting courtside with the Martins. “We were looking for someone to help us at the County and they recommended Frank,” Shevlin recalled.

Shevlin said he also checked with a friend inside the building department and they vouched for Vecin as well.

“He was an outside consultant he was working for us on a per project basis,” Shevlin said, adding he did not recall how much they paid Vecin.

It would be difficult for Vecin to claim he did not know that his outside consulting work was a conflict of interest because he was warned about it by the County Ethics Commission.

In 2005, Vecin sent an email to Robert Meyers, executive director of the Ethics Commission, asking for approval to work for a developer during the construction of a building. Vecin claimed he was only being hired to make sure the builder completed the job to the owner’s specifications.

Meyers said it would be fine – as long as his involvement was limited to monitoring the project. But Meyers warned Vecin that he could not speak to any county employee on the developers behalf.

“As a county employee you are not allowed to interact with county officials or county employees representing third party clients,” Meyers wrote to Vecin on July 20, 2005.

Vecin said he understood and Meyers – as if to reinforce the message – sent him a second email the next day. “I just want to reiterate that you are not permitted to have conversations with county employees or officials at any point in time as a representative of the owners,” Meyers wrote.

In addition to notifying the department about his role in Oak Tree Development, Vecin has also in recent years filed a disclosure form saying that he works for The Fairholme Fund, which is an investment fund founded by Bruce Berkowitz.

On the disclosure form, under “Position Held,” Vecin wrote: “Construction/Consulting.”

In addition Vecin wrote: “Offer consulting reference construction issues/concerns.”

One of the questions investigators have is the amount of time Vecin spends on his outside employment.

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