Saturday, October 26, 2013

Original version published in Poder magazine, October/November 2013

Fusion: Once a nuclear reaction, then a compact car, now a brand new 24-hour television channel.

How the next big TV thing materialized — in Miami.

By Kirk Nielsen

In the vast and crowded supercollider that is the American media universe, what were the odds that Ben Sherwood would coincide with Isaac Lee at just the right moment two and half years ago to set off the long and complex chain reaction now issuing forth as Fusion, the newest national cable network in the U.S.? Perhaps it was inevitable. Sherwood, who is 49 and the New York City-based president of ABC News, first met with Lee, the 42-year-old Miami-based president of Univision News, and Cesar Conde, the then 37-year-old president of Univision Networks, on March 31, 2011. “I did not have the actual idea in my back pocket. It was serendipitous that Cesar and Isaac came by and in the course of them being there the idea just sort of appeared in front of us while we were sitting there together,” Sherwood recalls.

The catalyst of the meeting was actually Robin Sproul, the ABC News Washington bureau chief. In January of that year, Sproul had had breakfast with a friend, Mike Feldman, and they were sharing ideas for covering the 2012 presidential election. Feldman, who had served as a senior advisor to Vice President Al Gore in the 1990s, is the founding partner and managing director of Glover Park Group, a strategic communications firm. “He had done some work about the growing influence of the Hispanic electorate,” Sproul says. “I was intrigued with some of the information he shared with me about Hispanic populations.” So she called Lee to talk about potential partnerships in political coverage.

Lee, a consummate networker, was more than interested and two months later traveled to New York City along with Conde for the March 31 meeting with Sherwood. Over a fancy lunch in a conference room on the 22nd Floor of ABC News Headquarters building on West 66th Street, they brainstormed with Sherwood and several of his colleagues, including Sproul, Disney Media Networks vice president of strategy Lisa Segal, ABC’s international editor Tom Nagorski (now executive president of the Asia Society), and ABC’s head of news gathering Kate O’Brien (now president of Al Jazeera America).

“We knew that we had to get into the English language. They knew that they had to get into the Hispanic world,” says Lee. “We explained to them that day that the right way to go was in English not Spanish. And that was new to them. But it was quite impressive to see how quickly Ben got it.” 

That’s probably because Sherwood had started tracking the country’s changing ethnic demographics back in 1994, when he took leave from his job as a 29-year-old ABC News producer in New York and returned to his native Los Angeles, after the unexpected death of his father. It was a superheated time in Southern Cal politics: anti-immigrant groups had gotten Proposition 187 on the statewide ballot. The measure aimed to bar undocumented residents from receiving state-funded services and was at the white-hot center of the governor’s race between Republican Pete Wilson and Democrat Kathleen Brown. Sherwood was the Brown campaign’s issue’s director. 

“I watched the powerful political forces at work and the rapidly changing demographics in California,” he recounts. “I set out in 1994 to write a book called The Un-Whitening of America. The thesis of the book was going to look at the profound political, economic, social, cultural changes that would take place both in California and over the next 30 years in the United States, as the demographic surge would make the United States a majority minority nation.”

But “life intervened,” and he resumed his high-velocity climb through the network ionosphere by joining NBC Nightly News in 1997, and never finished the book (although in 2000 he did manage to publish a comical novel, The Man Who Ate the 747). He returned to ABC in 2004 as executive producer of Good Morning America. He became president of ABC News in December 2010—the same month Conde hired Lee at Univision.

While Sherwood was climbing through the network television ionosphere, Lee had been traversing a circuitous course in a parallel universe of print and online media. In the mid-1990s in Bogotá, he’d been a 25-year-old editor of Cromos, a photo-heavy fashion and celebrity gossip magazine; a 26-year-old editor-in-chief of Semana, Colombia’s leading news weekly, during which time he launched SoHo, Semana Group’s answer to Maxim, and oversaw the company’s entry into the Web. 

In 2000, Lee landed in Miami as editor of Punto-com, a start-up business magazine with online and print versions whose target readership was Latin American Internet entrepreneurs. A year later the venture fizzled along with the bubble. But Lee raised new private equity funding and reorganized as Zoom Media Group, which by the end of 2002 was publishing monthly editions of PODER in Spanish and English and Loft, a men’s lifestyle magazine, in both languages. Zoom folded in 2005 after Lee’s majority investor at the time, Andrés Mata Osorio, owner of one of a big Caracas daily El Universal, withdrew funding. But Lee bounced back as Page One Media, which soon relaunched PODER, circulating two English versions in the U.S. and several Spanish editions in Latin America. Televisa, the huge Mexico-based TV production colossus and part-owner of Univision, added PODER to its magazine portfolio in 2009. (Televisa handles the advertising; Page One Media still runs the editorial side.)

Lee took his bilingual model with him to Univision, where one of his first moves as news division president was to launch the Univision News Tumblr site, where a small team of mostly young reporters posted video and articles in English. “It was a little side project that no one was paying much attention to,” Lee says. “We put together this team, and we started seeing the impact of what we were doing in English. The growth of our followers, the impact of our stories. We were becoming very relevant with very little. And it was every time more clear how big the opportunity was.”

Conde had worked to overcome skepticism on Univision’s board—which includes 18 private equity owners representing a consortium of six firms that bought the firm in 2007— about making some kind of huge play in English. He declined to identify the biggest skeptics or describe their specific qualms. “Change is always difficult,” he says, diplomatically. “The general sentiment was one of being very careful not to disrupt the traditional business model.” He prevailed after showing them how an English-language programming would be “additive not cannibalistic” for the Spanish side of the Univision family.

The only owner Conde would comment about was billionaire Haim Saban, the 68-year-old head of Los Angeles-based Saban Capital Group. Saban was always “extraordinarily supportive” of taking Univision into English in a big way. “Haim is a very savvy and forward-thinking entrepreneur, and he understood intrinsically from the beginning that it was important for Univision to continue to grow and diversify its business,” Conde offered.

Now Lee and Conde were not only eating lunch with the president of ABC News but having such “incredible chemistry,” to use Sherwood’s phrase, that they were “finishing each other’s sentences.”

Memories can be hazy for those in the daily television news biz, but the brainstorming “went significantly beyond potential partnerships for covering the 2012 elections,” Sproul recalls. “Ben, Cesar, and Isaac challenged each other to think boldly about the potential for joint projects.”

Sherwood sums up the discussion this way: “We sort of shared some ideas about the present and the future of the country,” adding that it was “no surprise” to hear Conde and Lee tell him that Univision News wanted to expand into English-language television programming, rather than Spanish. “In fact, that’s actually what I was hoping,” says the ABC News chief. “That’s what we were hoping.”

That first ABC-Univision encounter produced only one immediate free radical: they agreed to share costs for a bilingual correspondent to cover the Latino vote beat for both networks during the 2012 presidential primary season. (The gig went to ABC News’s Chicago-based reporter, Mark Jaffe).    

But the bigger, bolder ideas soon mushroomed. “While they had come nominally to ask about certain partnerships that they were interested in covering the 2012 presidential election, we very quickly began to dream big dreams together,” Sherwood says. “And we began to talk about joining forces to create a brand new multi-platform service aimed at English-speaking Hispanics.”

In other words, a brand new national news channel. Discussions involving ABC and Univision lawyers and financial operations people on how to structure such a joint venture started in April 2011.


Did Latinos really want a whole new English-language channel devoted just to them? Was there really a viable way to split off yet another slice of America’s already super-segmented television audience? If the answer was yes, Lee and Sherwood knew that at some point Bob Iger, the 62-year-old CEO of The Walt Disney Company, which owns ABC, was sure to want some corroboration.

That process would fall to Anne Sweeney, as president of the Disney/ABC Television Group (and Sherwood’s boss). In corporate television this is known as “testing the hypothesis,” that creating such a channel was a good idea for ABC and Disney, Sherwood explains. “There’s talking to the client base in the advertising community. Is there interest in sort of reaching this community? There’s talking to distributors about their interest in a new multi-platform service aimed at Hispanics.”

Sweeney determined that enough advertisers and distributors would be on board to continue to move forward. Her assessment then went to Kevin Mayer, Disney’s head of corporate strategy, for his take. After his thumbs up, the proposal went to Iger, the Disney CEO, who also approved.

“At each step there were a lot of questions about the overall interests of the Walt Disney company, the strategic interests of ABC News, the ability to distribute this channel,” Sherwood says. “As each of the data points comes back, let’s just say that there is considerable enthusiasm for this idea throughout the Walt Disney Company and throughout the marketplace.”

Putting together the deal would take about year. Engaged in the back-and-forth were Conde, his CFO Andrew Hobson, and Lee on the Univision side, and Mayer, Sweeney, and Sherwood on the other. “And an army of lawyers,” Conde emphasizes. The contract wasn’t finalized until May 2012.

“What it breaks down to is Disney/ABC News is in charge of essentially monetizing the venture, in other words, the ad sales and distribution. And Univision is essentially in charge of the day to day operations and the editorial, or the content,” Conde says. Now what he terms “the real work” had to begin.

Sherwood, Sweeney, and Mayer from Disney/ABC combined with Conde, Lee, and Hobson into a single board to direct the launch phase. Univision’s 35-year-old executive vice president of operations, Beau Ferrari, commenced plans to convert a block-long warehouse about two miles west of the Miami International Airport into what he calls “the biggest news facility in the country.”

But their future broadcasting baby was still nameless; Conde and others had jokingly started calling it “Project Milagro.”
Truth be told, Lee and Sherwood both say that the new channel they hope will start making television history on October 28 has ended up being significantly different than what had appeared on their dreamscape during their lunch back in March 2011.

“We spent a lot of time and a lot of money on research,” Lee discloses. “I think we made [sic] more than 200 focus groups.” Among the key consultants were Lubin Lawrence, a New York-based growth strategy consulting firm, and Miami-based Bendixen & Associates.

First major observation: a lot of English-speaking Hispanics—about 10 million of them— are millennials, today’s marketing buzzword for what used to be called “the younger generation.” In 2010, the Pew Research Center defined millennials as anybody between the ages of 18 and 29, which would mean that now the oldest millennials are 32.

Another revelation was that U.S. Latinos under 30 hated the idea of being culturally ghettoized. “Young Hispanics did not want to be treated as an isolated group,” Lee explains. “They wanted to be acknowledged, but as part of a general conversation. And if we wanted to be successful what we needed to do was good content for young Americans.”   

The concept of Sherwood and Lee’s dream channel started becoming less “Latino” and more “millennial.” “The trick—and it sounds easy but it’s not—is that we’re not going to disregard Hispanics,” Lee says. “Twenty percent of those young Americans happen to be Hispanics. By doing good content we would definitely reach them. But not just them.”

The quest for just the right name continued through most of 2012. Lee and his team turned to branding consultants and ad agencies for help. In focus groups, young Latinos tended to reject suggested channel names that were “too Spanish. Like ‘Olé’,” Conde says. “They wanted to feel that this was a community that was inclusive of everyone.” The name Fusion beat out about 700 other possibilities.

Wielding approximately $300 million, Ferrari, who also became Fusion’s interim president,  presided over the completion of the Newsport -- as the channel’s production and broadcast facility is known -- and funded the hiring of about 200 people, most of them since May. “There are only certain moments in your career or your life when you’re able to be a part of something as game-changing as this,” Ferrari says. “And most of the people who are here are here because they feel that way.” On the television side they’ve come from Viacom, Nickelodeon, FX, CNN, MSNBC, NBC, ESPN, ABC, and Disney; on the digital, Vogue, Mother Jones, Mashable, Chip Chick, the Washington Post, and the Huffington Post. 

There was one major departure: Conde left Univision in September and joined NBCUniversal as a vice president focusing on international business development, strategy, and special projects.

Meanwhile, Lee and his team of writer-producers will be fusing the knowledge generated by all those focus groups into actual television shows and their digital offshoots. Millennials think ordinary television newscasts boring. They tend not to watch breaking news. They learn about news events secondhand, for example, from their Facebook and Twitter feeds.

“By the time they were going to watch something, they wanted more than just a report,” Lee says. “They did not want like a very well-produced, tons of makeup, perfect lighting newscast with the news anchor reading something that was very well rehearsed. They preferred something that was more authentic and transparent.”

Another important revelation: millennials prefer news that is funny or satirical. “They relate so powerfully and so well to humor,” Lee says. “That is why programs like Jon Stewart’s ["The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"] and "The Colbert Report" are so successful. They feel that that’s getting news.”    

Fusion will begin radiating from actual television screens in late October with eight hours of original live or live-to-tape programs each weekday. This past May, Lee hired Billy Kimball, who served as executive producer of "The Al Franken Show" on Air America radio and authored eight episodes of The Simpsons earlier in his career, to oversee Fusion’s on-air and digital content.

In his small office with picture windows just off the expansive main newsroom, which feels as cavernous as a sleekly furnished and carpeted jumbo-jet hangar, Kimball tells me that “America with Jorge Ramos,” which airs at 8 p.m. is Fusion’s hardest news show, adding that Ramos’s stature within the media landscape is “about as influential as it’s possible to be.

“That’s part of what the show is about -- fighting for people who need to be fought for or need someone to fight for them,” Kimball adds. “So while Jorge’s not someone in the millennial age cohort, I think he’s somebody whose attitude and whose role in society will definitely make sense to our audience.”

Kimball, who is 54, recruited Los Angeles-based writer and producer David “DJ” Javerbaum, a veteran of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," to manage Fusion’s 9 p.m to 10 p.m. news satire slot. They decided on two half-hour shows. One is "Sports Bar," a talk format presided over by three hosts, including a member of the Harvard Sailing Team comedy troupe, who’s not all that into sports. The other half-hour of the satire block was under wraps, Kimball told me, but intimated that it’s based on a “post-Daily Show” idea that Javerbaum had developed before joining Fusion. 

“It’s not better (than "The Daily Show"). It’s not a twist on it. It’s not the next anything. It’s its own thing that’s different,” Kimball hints. “And that’s the part about it that got us really excited about it. Instead of people saying, ‘Wow, they managed to do something almost as good as 'The Daily Show.’”

Javerbaum's creation is called "No, You Shut Up" and features four puppets as commentators, Fusion eventually announced.

At 10:00 p.m. Fusion segues into seriousness again with “Open Source” a journalistic talk show hosted by Leon Krauze, the anchor of the evening news for KMEX-TV in Los Angeles. “People have focused a fair amount on the satirical material and that’s important but we also have some stuff like prison reform, the drug war, that we really think are to some extent under-reported elsewhere because audiences can grow fatigued from those stories,” Kimball says. “So while we take the satirical route, as well, we also have some pretty serious stuff we want to talk about with our audience on the network.”

The launch slate also has a three-hour morning show featuring Yannis Pappas, a Greek-American comedian from Brooklyn, who’ll offer something that’s “definitely a little more high fiber than traditional morning fare,” Kimball assures. An afternoon show, Fusion Live, will sort of resemble ESPN’s “Sports Center” with Fusion reporters and producers hot from the assignment desk or highlighting and repurposing material from the previous night’s shows, perhaps even noting viewer feedback via social media.

The evening block starts at 6:00 p.m. Eastern with “DNA”, hosted by Derrick “DNA” Ashong, who will “explore a wide variety of socially relevant issues spanning the arts, society, technology, business and politics,” according to an old-fashioned press release. At 7:00 p.m. Alicia Menendez, an ex-“HuffPost Live” host-producer, former Sirius XM Radio host, and ongoing daughter of U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, provides a “fresh take on stories at the intersection of sex, money and politics” with her “signature brand of witty and relatable analysis and commentary, leading a thought-provoking conversation with celebrities, newsmakers, journalists, experts and lively panel discussions,” according to the press release.

“This audience has a very good b.s. detector,” Kimball observes, “so I think efforts to pander to them or appeal to them or to try too hard to be hip and young are not going to be very availing. They’re like other people in that they have a lot of choice. And they’ll recognize what’s valuable and worthwhile to them we think pretty quickly.”

Sunday, September 15, 2013

From Poder Magazine, August/September 2013
Labyrinth of Solicitude
The emperor of a blog empire graces Miami and gives me an idea for how to save the Miami Herald (but not print magazines) 

By Kirk Nielsen

During a visit to Miami in June, Nick Denton, the founder and CEO of Gawker Media, told me about “an experiment” he was planning for his efforts to colonize the geeks of Spanish America. We met in a fine but empty restaurant overlooking Biscayne Bay on the 15th floor of the gleaming indigo high rise on Brickell Avenue known as the Viceroy Hotel, which is sleek and shiny enough to be a Gawker Media property, were it a blog. His plan involved a bilingual tweak of Gizmodo en Español, one of Gawker Media’s gaggle of eight blogs with high-end advertising.

Like the original all-English Gizmodo, the Spanish version has posts about new gadgets, video games, engineering, design — anything that might interest people who like technology, is the mantra. And both Gizes count on attracting a plethora of giddy reader comments — a form of free content that bolsters page visits, the lifeblood of the capitalist blogosphere. With only two full-time and two part-time writers, Giz en Español’s modus operandi since launching in January has largely been one of aggregation, condensation, and translation of someone else’s articles and press releases. That’s essentially how the American blogosphere works in general, except usually the translation is to Snark, not Spanish.
Denton’s bilingual experiment performs a kind of reverse aggregation back to the profusion of material hammered out daily by Gizmodo’s team of about ten full-time English-language bloggers. In other words, a couple of devoted journeymen at Giz en Español are spending their days whipping up Spanish heds and clever introductions, punctuated with “Leer” links, to the English originals. Sharing is caring!

Thus, Denton hopes to attract unprecedented numbers of the ideal Giz en Español visitor: the tech-crazed millennial (meaning born between 1980 and 2000 or so) whose native tongue is Spanish but who’s also got a fairly decent English one. “The 28-year-old sophisticated geek in Bogota, Buenos Aires, Mexico City understands, reads, quite a lot of English,” Denton told me. “They don’t read English maybe as easily as Spanish, but they read English, and they don’t want the second-rate version of technology to use. They want the real thing.” Similarly, they don’t want to read “some dumbed down, badly garbled translation” of a Gizmodo article, Denton says. They want “the real, authentic thing.”
Just think of all the untapped geeks from Weston to Viña del Mar who may be uneasy ranting and raving in English but will do so in Spanish, faster than you can say, Que volá, guey! So now, a Giz en Español reader who clicks through to an original Gizmodo article in English can immediately pontificate in Spanish to his heart’s content right underneath it, in multiple Spanish-only discussion threads. Meanwhile, on the flip side of the gawking glass, more page viewers are expounding in multiple English discussion threads stemming from that same Gizmodo article. Times hundreds of little articles per month. The endgame being the placement of high-end banner ads in English and Spanish before a prime slice of the coveted Hispanic market.

To enable all this cross-blog post sharing, manifold discussion threads, and the resulting page views required the creation of a complicated new software platform. Denton told me it cost about $10 million to develop it. It’s called Kinja. It also allows Gawker Media editors and writers to participate in the discussions, decide which comments to allow, and eschew the total nut cases. Readers who comment via user accounts -- in their real names or pseudonyms -- can also choose whom to respond to and whom to ignore.

The Miami Herald is a much different kind of media beast than a Gawker-style blog, but it could sure use a Kinja and the freewheeling yet quasi-curated discussion forums it allows for. But last February, the Herald simply chucked anonymous commenting along with its antedeluvian “discussion” platform consisting of a single vertical thread. Since then the Herald has expected readers to post comments under their real names via their Facebook accounts. That resulted in a slight rise in civility, perhaps, but a sharp decline in comments, and thus page visitors, which were already down about a million.
I prefer chatter-free publications, like great print magazines. But the advertising industrial complex currently gripping the Web seems to dictate that major newspapers ever maximize online clamor from readers, especially millennials. I think Miami needs a Herald that can figure out how do to that. Discuss?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

From The Progressive, July 16, 2013 
Four Truths the Zimmerman Jury Ignored
By Kirk Nielsen

In the prosecution’s last remarks to the six-woman jury of the George Zimmerman trial, assistant state attorney John Guy delivered a famous quote from Voltaire: “To the living we owe respect, and to the dead we owe the truth.”

Of course, the living also deserve the truth, especially the family and friends of the dead teenager in this case, Trayvon Martin. They and a good many Americans are trying to come to terms with a distressing disconnect between the truth and the not guilty verdict the jurors delivered. They can place some of the blame in Florida’s wild and reckless laws governing self-defense.

It’s not like the prosecution hadn’t backed up John Guy’s poetic plea with a lot of substance. At a news conference after the verdict, Angela Corey, the Jacksonville state attorney who presided over the prosecution, reaffirmed, “We believe that we brought out the truth on behalf of Trayvon Martin.” It’s just that the jurors would not, or could not, see enough of it in the weirdly fragmented versions of reality they consumed inside the courtroom.

Part of the truth that came out is that -- in the real world -- the then 28-year-old Zimmerman set in motion the series of events that led to Martin’s death on a Sunday evening in February 2012. Obviously, if Zimmerman had stayed home or gone to church, he never would have shot Martin.
The fact that Zimmerman initiated the series of events is an important point in Florida law, because it allowed state prosecutors to define Zimmerman as an aggressor. Read on. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

From Poder magazine, April/May 2013
  A Message from Garcia
A die-hard dialoguero pushes for more people-to-people contact -- in the U.S. House of Representatives

By Kirk Nielsen

I recently snagged South Florida’s first Cuban Democrat in Congress, Joe Garcia, by cellphone as he drove to the Keys to meet with constituents of his district. Ten years ago this spring, when I often had Garcia on the line, the conversation inevitably centered on his notion that political enemies on opposite sides of the Florida Straits should start having precisely that: a conversation. Back then he was executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) and pushing a new policy favoring dialogue with Cuban officials (except Fidel and Raul Castro). The idea was that talking could be a first step towards reconciling differences, making concessions, maybe even lifting U.S. trade restrictions. But hardliners in Miami and Havana condemned Garcia. They had vested interests in not talking.

Now as a representative serving Florida’s 26th U.S. House District, Garcia is again promoting the idea of bridging a political divide, this time the one in the Capitol building known as The Aisle. One of his first moves after taking his seat was to join a group of nine other freshmen Democrats and 10 freshman Republicans calling themselves United Solutions. Sharing “a willingness to compromise,” they’re “putting aside partisan differences to do what is right for the American people” concerning the nation’s fiscal crisis, he said in a floor speech in February. “It seems like when we do gather here in this chamber, rather than finding common sense solutions to our problems, we engage in ideological debates, taking votes that are designed for political posturing, that lead us nowhere.”

South Florida’s first Cuban Democrat in Congress is also the first Hispanic Democrat elected to the House from anywhere in the Sunshine State. That fact, owing in part to the South Americanization of his district, probably explains why he was far more eager to speak about “comprehensive immigration reform” than anything else, even Cuba policy, as he drove southward along the Overseas Highway. He thinks the $18 billion federal agencies spend annually on “border protection” is excessive and has diminishing returns. He scoffed at the use of military drones to patrol the border with Mexico. (We spoke before Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky’s 13-hour filibuster to, in Rand’s words, “sound the alarm [that] “no American should be killed by a drone without first being charged with a crime.”) Garcia is also concerned about the 49,000 foreign travelers who miss connections each year at Miami International Airport because of slow processing by the understaffed immigration and customs system there. “We need a border that works,” Garcia says. 

Not surprisingly, Garcia’s first bill as a member of Congress was immigration-related. The Venezuelan Liberty Act would grant amnesty to Venezuelans who relocated to the U.S. after Hugo Chavez became president in February 1999 but who lack permanent legal status. Garcia told me he also plans to introduce legislation that would aim to ensure that hundreds of Haitians, Hondurans and Salvadorans who’ve received temporary visas while seeking political amnesty aren’t left out of reforms. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, he’s in a good position to do so. 

Garcia may have a tougher time affecting Cuba policy since he’s not on the foreign relations or appropriations committees. Still, he couldn’t help but offer more progressive notions that are certain to rile any hardliners left in his district. He still supports the U.S. ban on tourist travel to the socialist island but believes President Obama should expand the number of licenses Americans receive for educational, religious, and cultural exchanges there. He thinks Congress should authorize micro-loans for entrepreneurs on the island and scholarships for young Cubans to study at U.S. universities, even though he acknowledges that the current regime in Havana would probably shoot down those overtures as they did CANF’s 2003 pro-dialogue message. “More civil society is better than less. More family contact is better than less,” he says.

“I’m not going to obsess about Cuba,” he added, “but one of the problems is you need someone willing to engage in change on the other side.” 

That goes for other side of The Aisle, too. Let’s hope Garcia and his bipartisan colleagues in United Solutions have a lot more success at dialogue than did CANF.
From Poder magazine, February/March 2013
For the Birds

A push by home builders to reclassify the endangered wood stork serves only to highlight southern Florida's wetlands crisis

By Kirk Nielsen

Southeastern Florida has been inhospitable lately not only for Republican presidential candidates but also for another endangered species: the wood stork. Both types of rare birds have suffered—in different ways—from a tendency to prioritize certain commercial interests while devaluing environmental protection.

But even FDR is to blame. In the 1930s, when 70 percent of wood storks resided south of Lake Okeechobee, an army of federal bulldozers started carving the Everglades region into a maze of huge drainage canals. Some 20,000 breeding pairs of wood storks waded around South Florida then, including parts of the eastern Everglades now known as Kendall, Doral, Miami Lakes, Pembroke Pines, and Weston. By the late 1960s, when wetlands waters funneled into the last major canal project, fewer than 8,500 breeding pairs graced the River of Grass. In 1984, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service counted about 5,600 breeding pairs and added the wood stork to the endangered species list. By the late 1980s only about 500 breeding pairs were left in South Florida, owing to continued wetlands destruction.

Thanks to government-promoted wetlands restoration efforts in the 1990s and 2000s, the wood stork population has made a comeback—except in South Florida, their historical breeding zone. Because of wetlands destruction in our neck of the woods, wood storks have fled up the Atlantic Coast as far as North Carolina and along the Gulf as far west as Mississippi, doubling their range, biologists have found.
There are now more wood storks in Georgia and South Carolina—about 4,200—than in South Florida. The sub-Okeechobee tally is about 3,000, not significantly greater than the 2,858 which biologists counted in 1983, just before home builders and other wetlands-based commercial enterprises drove the wood stork to endangered status.
Oddly, the release of the good news (to the extent that relocation rather than depletion is good) was prompted by a petition sent to Fish & Wildlife by commercial groups who don’t have a wood stork’s best interests at heart. One is the Florida Home Builders Association, whose vaguely worded mission statement describes as its purpose “to create the best possible economic and regulatory environment for our members to succeed.” The manifesto is devoid of language that values an environment in which wood storks can prosper (or any animals of the Florida wetlands, save perhaps the Burmese python).
Allied with the builders is the oxymoronically named Pacific Legal Foundation, a bellicose outfit based in Sacramento whose motto is “Rescuing Liberty from Coast to Coast.” In this case, foundation lawyers want to remove the wood stork from endangered status so that homebuilders are at liberty to build more houses in wetlands. “Environmental regulations must have credibility,” a PLF statement asserts. “No legitimate purpose is served by calling a species ‘endangered’ when it isn’t.”
Ironically, the anti-governmental petition has served little purpose than to force the federal government to spend funds to handle the petition. In 2007, long before the petition was filed, Fish & Wildlife biologists determined that research supported reclassifying the wood stork’s listing to “threatened.” Because of budget constraints the agency refrained from official action, which costs taxpayer dollars and taxes scarce Fish & Wildlife resources. Instead, the agency focused on other beleaguered species needing new protections.
Agency spokesman Chuck Underwood assured me that the redesignation will have no impact on real estate, mining, or other projects that jeopardize wetlands, despite perceptions to the contrary by home builders and their legal eagles. “The reality is that reclassification is a biological classification in the context of extinction,” he explains. Noah Greenwald, a biologist at the environmental group, Center for Biological Diversity, says the change to threatened is “warranted.” “Although it doesn’t reduce habitat protections, I’m sure that the PLF will claim to its paying clients that it does,” he added.
Had South Florida not remained home to one fourth of the total wood stork population across the southeastern U.S., federal biologists wouldn’t have recommended the revision to “threatened,” Underwood noted. Which means that while South Florida may be less critical for the success of GOP presidential candidates, we are ever more so for wood stork designation.

So how can average South Floridians help keep wood storks from fading again into  endangered status? “Local communities can help,” says Underwood, “by continuing their support of local, regional and state wetland conservation and restoration efforts.”

Thursday, December 20, 2012

From Poder Magazine, December 2012 
The Immigrant's Tale
The Zola-inspired novel of the season seems equal parts probe of Homo Miamians and candy-colored word-map of Tom Wolfe’s gifted mind 

By Kirk Nielsen

This fall, while nervously awaiting a review copy of Tom Wolfe’s new 704-page novel, Back to Blood, I guzzled up the documentary, "How Tom Wolfe Got Back to Blood" and was stirred by the New Journalist-cum-Great American Novelist’s dedication to field reporting. It was paramount for not getting things “wrong technically,” he explained. “I don’t want readers in Miami to go, ‘Oh my God, are you kidding?’”

With deadline looming, I noticed my November issue of Vanity Fair contained part of a Back to Blood chapter titled “The Super Bowl of the Art World.” It opens with a crowd waiting to enter a VIP preview of Art Basel. “Two hundred or so restless souls, most of them middle-aged men, eleven of whom had been pointed out to Magdalena as billionaires — billionaires — were squirming like maggots over the prospect of what lay on the other side of an inch-thick glass wall just inside a small portal, Entrance D of the Miami Convention Center....”

Oh my God. Are you kidding? Tom Wolfe believes Art Basel-goers are maggots?

But no. Wolfe is merely the psychedelic messenger. Magdalena, a 24-year-old Cuban-American nurse from Hialeah, with “perfect lissome legs and thighs and hips” and a huge student loan debt, is the one who thinks so. As a little girl she’d “come upon a little dead dog, a mutt, on a sidewalk in Hialeah” and seen a swarm of “deathly pale worms” in a cut in its haunch. The sight of the Art Basel VIPs triggers the memory. She detests these rich “americanos” as much as she seeks their status. 

And so goes Magdalena, who’s never heard of Chagall, Fisher Island, or cachet, into the VIP preview with her boss, Dr. Norman Lewis, a hypomanic Anglo psychiatrist in his 40s specializing in porn addiction treatment. Her status-quest also lands her in bed with Sergei Korolyov, a “gorgeous!” Russian oligarch who’s convinced the Miami Art Museum to become the Korolyov Museum of Art, in exchange for a collection of Kandinskys and Maleviches, which turn out to be fakes.

Meanwhile, she dumps her Hialeah boyfriend, Nestor Camacho, a 25-year-old muscle-bound marine patrol cop (who hardly speaks Spanish even though his parents migrated from Cuba on a raft). Camacho’s fellow exiles, even his abuelos, have condemned him for climbing the mast of a schooner full of partying “americanos” and arresting a terrified Cuban refugee perched on the crow’s nest. He’s reviled again after a raid on an Overtown crack house during which he spews bigoted vitriol—all recorded by someone’s iPhone and uploaded on YouTube. Stripped of his badge, he tries to regain his status by helping an “americano” Miami Herald reporter bust the Russian who created the bogus paintings.

Alas our reporter-novelist commits some technical inaccuracies that deserve if not an “Oh my God” then at least an “Oh dear” or two. To wit: Camacho fears state troopers might stop him for driving while using a cellphone (not illegal in Florida); Magdalena’s Drexel Avenue apartment is south of 5th Street (the real Drexel ends at 12th Street); a senior residence in “Hallandale” is halfway to the Everglades (the real town, Hallandale Beach, abuts the ocean); and more.

Lubricating these preposterous plot lines and barely believable characters are some Miami truths, though, such as: the quintessential man must 1) avoid at all costs being taken for a “pussy” and 2) hit on attractive young women at every opportunity. Wolfe’s hypomanic yet verisimilar descriptions of almost everything rarely go by without realistic glances at cleavage and glimpses of thighs wrapped by mini-skirts or very short shorts. 

In the end, BTB is less a novel revealing the madness of a city embroiled in ethnic-based rivalries than a comedy applying Wolfe’s theories on status systems to Miami’s sexy backdrop. Mid-denouement, the Herald’s goofily corrupt editor-in chief, Edward Topping, worries about the integrity of an exposé the paper has published revealing Igor the forger and casting a shadow on philanthropist Korolyov. “Have we done what scientists call hopey-dopey research, in which the hope for a particular outcome skews the actual findings?” Topping wonders.

In other words, Wolfe is signaling his epistemological limits. He can’t help but skew his findings. It’s a farce after all, which means he has to be kidding.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

From Poder Magazine, Oct/Nov 2012
Life and Casualty
Ask not what your public hospitals can do for you but whether you have enough hospital days left for a life-saving procedure

By Kirk Nielsen

Your name is not Jim Kuhn but if it were you’d have died this past August, after doctors and hospital administrators failed to provide you with a heart pump, because your catastrophic coverage had expired.

We like to take comfort that America has “the best health care system in the world,” and it does have astonishing ways, like heart pumps and dialysis, to keep us alive. It also has astounding ways to kill us. In 2009, researchers from Harvard University and the Cambridge Health Alliance determined that 45,000 Americans die each year because they lack health insurance. That’s more than twice the number of American troops killed during the deadliest year (1968) of the Vietnam War. “The United States stands alone among industrialized nations in not providing health coverage to all of its citizens,” the researchers wrote. 

The kind of heart pump the 52-year-old Kuhn needed, according to Dr. Steven Borzak, his cardiologist at JFK Medical Center in West Palm Beach, is an amazing battery-powered gadget called a Left Ventricular Assist Device. The pump part is implanted in one’s chest and wired to a compact control unit worn like a shoulder holster.

As Miami Herald reporter John Dorschner wrote in the article that broke Kuhn’s tragic story, LVADs “were made famous when former vice president Dick Cheney received one as a temporary device before he received a heart transplant.” But cardiologists are increasingly prescribing the pumps in lieu of transplants. Dorschner quoted Duke University physician Dr. Joseph Rogers as saying “80-to-90 percent of patients with advanced heart failure die within a year without LVADs.” With them, however, patients show a 63-to-75 percent chance of surviving at least two more years, Rogers added.

The costs are daunting, of course. An LVAD sells for about $100,000. But that wasn’t the obstacle in Kuhn’s case, according to his doctor. LVAD manufacturer Thoratec agreed to donate one. The problem was that no one donated hospital days to Kuhn, a former truck driver. 

JFK Medical Center doesn’t do transplants, and when Borzak sought transplant specialists at the University of Florida’s Shands Hospital and at Miami-Dade’s Jackson Memorial Hospital, administrators at the two hospitals refused to admit Kuhn. The rationale: He’d used up his Medicare allotment of no more than five straight months in the hospital and had no private health care insurance. Florida’s hospital limit for Medicaid, for which he also qualified, is 45 days. “Borzak, the cardiologist, said no hospital wanted to implant the LVAD in an uninsured man,” Dorschner reported. In sum, Jackson and Sands left a very sick man to die over concerns about money. 

Like heart surgeries, LVAD installations are exorbitant. “The aggregate costs of such treatments can potentially become high enough to have adverse effects in other areas of social welfare,” bioengineer Kenneth Foster and three colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania concluded in a 2004 analysis. But they also wrote: “It is clearly unacceptable to deny patients a lifesaving treatment (such as dialysis or LVAD).”

The price of extending a life with an LVAD remains high, but is decreasing. A Duke cardiology study published this year estimates the average five-year cost for LVAD treatment to be $360,000. “If I were dying from heart failure I would certainly want to have an LVAD,” Foster told me recently.

Two days after Kuhn died Jackson Health Systems projected a $35 million surplus for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, after being deep in the red in recent years.

And with the help of bond money, “Jackson leaders hope to plow $63 million into capital improvements,” the Miami Herald article noted.

A small fraction of that $98 million—or even tinier fractions of the billion dollars in fraudulent Medicare payments that made their way to South Florida in recent years, or the billion dollars sunk into a baseball stadium—would have covered LVAD costs for Kuhn and many others. 

JHS’s new budget also includes $1.5 million in marketing and advertising. What a shame. Because no commercial could ever send a more powerful message than a news story about surgeons defiantly giving Jim Kuhn a heart pump regardless of his insurance coverage. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Updated from Poder Magazine, June/July 2012 
Bright Lights, Bad City
At Miami’s city hall, massive flashing billboards replace video slot machines as the boldest new idea for municipal finance.

By Kirk Nielsen

For a long time I wondered what the Miami Parking Authority could possibly have to do with video slot machines. I now know, after a chat with Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado at a recent conceptual art show in the Design District. Part of our conversation went more or less like this:

Me: So, I’ve been wondering. What do video slot machines have to do with the Miami Parking Authority? (I was referring to a phone call the mayor made in October 2010 to then-city manager Carlos Migoya. Regalado wanted him to get police chief Miguel Exposito to delay raiding cafeterias, bars, and other places featuring video slot machines until after a vote on the future of the parking authority. Several days earlier, Regalado had won commission approval of an ordinance allowing city officials to license video slot machines and charge their owners operating fees, even though the devices were illegal under state law.)

Mayor Regalado: Well, we had a referendum coming up, and I knew that if there were raids people would start saying, “Oh, Miami is corrupt,” and then the referendum wouldn’t pass. (The referendum sought to turn the independent parking authority into a city department. A majority of voters rejected the item.)

In other words, afraid that police raids on video slot machines would sully his political image, the mayor sullied his image by meddling with police raids for political purposes. Extraordinary. And a still-defining moment of his mayorship.

Of course, all across America local elected officials have wracked their brains to find creative new revenue streams for nearly bankrupt municipal governments. Miami’s are just more insane, perhaps. Yet Mayor Regalado will forcefully tell you his motives for both legalizing video slots and usurping the parking authority were purely fiscal, not nuts or even nefarious. “I have not received one call from the FBI or the State Attorney’s Office,” he offered, apparently anticipating a question concerning news reports linking the local video slots industry to “organized crime.”

This year, staring at a deficit of at least $30 million, Regalado and commissioners want to legalize another kind of money machine that is outlawed but nonetheless flourishing in the Magic City: illuminated, flashing billboards known as LEDs. They’re illegal under a Miami-Dade county law that trumps more local sign ordinances, though several Clear Channel LEDs now illegally adorn expressways in Miami. 

In mid-April, commissioners gave preliminary approval for LED billboards on the Miami Children’s Museum, the James L. Knight Center, and the historic Olympia Theater building.

Although no civic action arose to thwart the video slots ordinance, some is mounting to prevent flashing billboard proliferation, especially in areas where the signs would shine all night into the bedroom windows of affluent condo dwellers and homeowners. A group named Scenic Miami is leading the anti-LED charge.

In late April I visited Miami City Hall down on Dinner Key one morning that the commissioners discussed yet another billboard legalization proposal. Art Noriega, the parking authority’s CEO, told me his agency had sought permission to place ads only on parking meters. But by the time city manager Johnny Martinez and city attorney Julie Bru delivered it, the initiative called for legalizing billboards on virtually any city-owned “fixture.” The commission decided to revisit a less sweeping version in the future, which did little to comfort LED-billboard opponents.

Seeking illumination of a different sort, that same day I attended the Downtown Bay Forum, where the topic was whether politics and ethics could coexist. Joe Centorino, executive director of the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission, told about 30 lunchers, “We have an election system that ought to work.” Elected officials who commit crimes must be prosecuted and removed from office, he assured, but cautioned that it’s “a dangerous thing” for people to rely on law enforcement to control elected officials. “A healthy democracy needs to have a healthy electoral process, and that ultimately is really the only way to ensure you get ethics in government,” he said.

Former county commissioner Katy Sorenson, who runs a nonprofit named the Good Government Initiative, sighed loudly and added that “all over the planet” there are “some people who will get away with whatever they can get away with,” while others “want to have a government that has integrity.” I wondered to myself, in light of the apparent drift at Dinner Key, if this latter type are outnumbered when it comes to controlling officials at Miami City Hall.

On May 24 the commissioners voted 4 to 1 to give final approval for flashing commercial signage on the children’s museum, the Olympia Theater, and the James L. Knight Center.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

From Poder magazine, April-May 2012  
 All Quiet on the Little Havana Front 
Cuban music performances are being met with serious doldrums — and that’s good.

By Kirk Nielsen
Just as a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, so can a concert be simply a concert. This has not usually been the case, though, when the stogies and musicians are from Havana and performing in Miami. That’s because—it bears repeating—for significant numbers of Miamians such cigars and musicians still symbolize a shameless indifference toward the Castro regime and the painful sense of loss (of blood, property, and patria) it continues to induce in some of its exiles.

For other Miamians, the arrival of musicians from Havana evokes memories of pettier kinds of politically-motivated aggression. Among the most fabled of these followed the scheduling of a concert at a Little Havana restaurant in 1996 by a septuagenarian diva named Rosita Fornes. “A considerable number of Cuban exile organization representatives” considered her to be an “instrument of the Cuban government,” a Miami-Dade Police Department intelligence bureau memo stated that year. Thus, she’d “received strong criticism from several anti-Castro government Spanish radio stations,” the memo noted. “As a result, unknown persons tossed an incendiary device into Centro Vasco Restaurant, thus causing the cancellation of the concert.” Fornes eventually did perform, in 1999, at Cristal night club on South Beach, but drawing only spoken aggression from protesters outside the venue.

Fortunately, verbal hostility has remained the weapon of choice for attacking “instruments” of Havana who come to sing in public. Protesters razzed Fornes outside The Place of Miami on Calle Ocho as recently as November 2009. Last August about 200 demonstrators yelled and picketed outside American Airlines Arena while another Havana-based singer, 68-year-old Pablo Milanes, delivered his first-ever Miami show.

But while there was an unusually large contingent of cigarette smokers in front of the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana on a balmy Friday night this past February, not a soul was fuming, despite the presence inside of musicians with very strong ties to La Habana. They included Raul Paz, Descemer Bueno, David Torrens, and Kelvis Ochoa, the founders of a musical “project” they call Havanization. That’s their word for adjusting to life in the Cuban capital after living in Europe, Mexico, or the United States for many years. Joining them on stage were two other musical artists. One is Diana Fuentes, a 24-year-old pop singer who has always lived in Havana but is trying to break into the U.S. market. The other is Eider Morales, aka Mr. Haka, a Cuban hip-hopper who moved from Camaguey to Miami in 2001 and hopes to perform in Havana sometime this year. 

Considering that Manuel Artime was a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion and a prisoner of war, I found it remarkable, even heartening, that activists chose not to stage another political showdown at a venue that not only bears his name but is owned and operated by the City of Miami. Less surprising but just as gratifying was the lack of speechifying inside the 839-seat theater, which was nearly full.

“It’s been a beautiful experience to be in Miami,” Paz said blithely in Spanish to the audience, adding that like every Cuban on the island, half of his family is here. “You are Cubans and coincidentally so are we,” he continued. He then introduced his song “Carnaval,” which he said was about withstanding all the “here” and “there” that many Cubans experience, as well as “the taxes, the governments, and todo lo que nos jode.” (Everything that, uh, screws with us.) That was as polemic as it got.

And so the concert was just a concert, newsworthy only in its insignificance. Were I a critic I’d have found the musicians’ hour-late start time annoying, their aging fusion of salsa, hip hop, and rock not quite enthralling, the sound system grating. But I’m no reviewer, and several hundred Havanization fans were on their feet and dancing all night.

Meanwhile, it seemed that everyone else in town was united in a collective yawn that musicians from Cuba were singing their hearts out in the heart of Little Havana. To imagine such indifference, for a night in Miami at least, was a beautiful thing.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

From Poder Magazine, Oct-Nov 2011
Turbine or not Turbine
Twenty years since Denmark became the king of wind power, Florida’s clean energy story remains a tale of woe

by Kirk Nielsen

I spent much of August quite literally chilling in Denmark and returned to muggy Miami with a partial solution for ending the Sunshine State’s addiction to oil, coal, and plutonium. Prince Hamlet’s former realm, like much of Florida, is a flat, low-lying land with vast expanses of drained wetlands next to the Atlantic Ocean.

But parallels with Florida pretty much stop there. Among the enormous dissimilarities are the clusters of giant white, sleekly-designed wind turbines on Danish landscapes. One day while feeling a 60-degree breeze on Denmark’s western-most island, Jutland, I looked east over the marshes and pastures and saw a line of six windmills in the distance. Beyond them, through the haze, I detected two more rows probably 20 and 30 miles off. To the south, there were 19 windmills along the horizon. Another day, back in Denmark’s eastern-most island, Sealand, I counted a line of 27 slowly swirling above the sea just off the entrance to Copenhagen’s huge shipping channel.

Meanwhile, my (sweltering) fellow Floridians gazing out from Miami Beach or any other point along Florida’s breezy Atlantic coast saw no wind turbines. Nor would they have seen any to the west, even had they driven all the way to the Gulf.

Why no wind power in Florida, two decades after Denmark pioneered the world’s first wind farms, and one since George W. Bush affirmed our “addiction to oil?” One culprit: an outdated wind-velocity map published by the Department of Energy in 1987, which long held that Florida’s wind speeds were “marginal” for electrical generation purposes. Thanks to better computers and measuring devices, DOE recently released a new, higher resolution map based on measurements that are more nuanced and precise. 

The map also reflects the potential of much taller turbine towers. “Generally, the higher you go, the better the wind speeds,” explains Simon Mahan, renewable energy manager for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an advocacy group. “Wind turbine hub height has grown to over 80 meters, a 40-percent increase over the models installed in the late ‘90s.”

So, now DOE tells us that Florida’s on-shore wind speeds are much higher than previously believed—they average around 14 miles per hour. That isn’t radically lower than Iowa’s average of 19 miles per hour. Had we looked into it ourselves, we might have known sooner and now ranked among the nation’s leaders in wind energy, which provides Iowans one-fifth of their state’s electrical needs, rather than one of the country’s renewable energy laggards.

In addition, we might have realized that for several years now technological advances have made it viable to harness low-velocity winds. “New highly efficient large-scale turbines are commercially available that can begin to generate electricity in wind speeds as low as 6.7 miles per hour,” Mahan says. “Longer and lighter turbine blades help improve the efficiency of these new turbines.” The latter have 145 percent more capacity, he adds, meaning fewer are needed than before to generate the same amount electricity. 

Moreover, the 
Atlantic Ocean should have given us an advantage over those resourceful midwesterners. “Florida likely has better wind resources offshore,” Mahan tells me. But the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory hasn’t even conducted an offshore wind resource assessment for Florida, in part because of our (and our congressional delegation’s) lack of organization, as meteorologists like to say.

So, is it because turbines kill birds that we lag so? No. Researchers have found our feathered friends tend to avoid the new longer, lighter, more slowly-spinning blades. Recent nationwide surveys indicate bird fatality rates range from zero to 39 birds per turbine per year. When built in sensible locations—as opposed to, say, a golden eagle flyway in California’s Altamont Pass—windmills kill far fewer birds than American coal and nuclear plants, tall glass buildings, cars, or cats, according to various scientific studies.

After returning from Denmark, I learned that some breezes of change have been blowing in Florida. Wind Capital Group, a Missouri-based company, is securing leases and permits for dozens of turbines on sugar cane farms southeast of Lake Okeechobee in Palm Beach County. Florida’s only other major wind venture is one Florida Power & Light is considering off the coast of Port St. Lucie. It’s taken four years for FPL just to get permission to start building a 90-meter tower to measure wind speeds in that area.

Overall we remain in some major doldrums when it comes to developing wind power in Florida. Other states, including Georgia and the Carolinas, have Wind Working Groups, federally-sponsored partnerships in which public officials, entrepreneurs, conservationists, and others collaborate on wind projects. We don’t even have one of those. I’m not sure if something’s still rotten in Denmark, but Florida’s renewable energy efforts certainly have been.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

From Poder Magazine, Aug-Sep 2011
Quality of Vice
Voters may not have known it, but the recent mayoral election was kind of a referendum on illegal gambling

by Kirk Nielsen

I pulled the lever for him, but I’m not sure I’d put money on Carlos Gimenez’s chances for success. To close a quarter of a million dollar deficit, the new Miami-Dade mayor will have to orchestrate radical cuts in county spending. He might have to invent creative new revenue streams, because he’s also pledged to lower property taxes. But I’d double down on this bet: Gimenez will never go for one new cash source that Hialeah and the City of Miami have tapped in recent years: licenses for video slot machines. 

“If I were mayor, I’d definitely propose an ordinance to outlaw them throughout Miami-Dade County,” Gimenez said on political reporter Michael Putney’s Sunday morning talk show during the run-off campaign. “Because frankly, Michael, I believe that there’s organized crime behind this.” Which was to suggest that organized crime was behind his opponent, Julio Robaina, since slots purveyors contributed heavily to his campaign.
Robaina denied having ties to mobsters, of course, but he had to admit that slots suppliers had also donated heavily to his winning bid for mayor of Hialeah in 2008. And that he pushed through an ordinance licensing the devices, popularly known as maquinitas tragamonedas (little money-swallowing machines).
Picking up on Robaina’s gambit, Tomas Regalado followed suit in Miami. Video slots suppliers donated thousands of dollars to his successful mayoral campaign in 2009. He, too, sponsored a measure to license the machines.

It was creative municipal financing at its strangest. Police have estimated the average maquinita swallows $1,000 per week, or $52,000 annually. So the estimated 1,500 maquinitas in Miami bring their owners $78 million per year. By issuing a $500 license for each machine, Regalado stood to generate just $750,000 in new revenue. Enough for about two fire department executive salaries plus benefits.

But there was a larger problem: the slots are illegal. Florida law permits video slots only in authorized establishments, like Calder Casino & Race Course, Gulfstream Park, and Magic City Casino (whose owners contributed heavily to Gimenez’s campaign).

So, two weeks after the new law passed, Miami police seized about 400 maquinitas from bars and cafes, and charged about 30 people with illegal gambling. “The confiscations were conducted as a part of Operation Lucky 7, an ongoing operation designed to rid Miami of these devices that are often rigged to rip off customers and generate untaxed earnings for businesses in violation of state law and local ordinances,” an October 2010 MPD press release stated. Miami police chief Miguel Exposito is “committed to the elimination of these devices that do a disservice to the customers, who fall victim to illegal gaming,” and the machines “diminish the quality of life of all Miami’s citizens,” it said.

Of course, even legal casinos rip you off and can even corrupt your quality of life. Any nicotine-saturated, chain-smoking slots addict can attest to that. But Miami’s maquinita industry has an added luster: a connection to The Corporation, the deadly Cuban exile outfit who waged an arson war with Italian mobsters in New York City in the 1980s, killed a few dozen people, and made almost a billion and a half dollars over a four-decade run. The racket included bolita (numbers), bookmaking, and video slot machines.

In March 2004, a task force of Miami-Dade police, FBI agents, and other agencies, arrested 25 people, including The Corporation’s top boss Jose Miguel Battle and his son Jose Miguel, Jr. The former died in 2007, a year after changing his plea to guilty; the latter is a third of the way through a 15-year prison sentence. Two hit men who pled not guilty are serving 20-year and life terms. Most others plea bargained, served short sentences, and are now free. Among the crimes in a 2005 racketeering indictment in the case were four arsons in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx in the mid-1980s that resulted in eight deaths; and five premeditated murders in NYC, as recently as 1992.
In the end, federal prosecutors focused on the bolita side of The Corporation. But information I obtained in 2007 while reporting on the case, and which the U.S. Attorney has now sealed, indicated that Miami-Dade detectives surveilled several maquinita suppliers and monitored their phone calls because they were associates of Corporation members. Some of those same suppliers are now suing Chief Exposito to get their confiscated machines back. I hope they keep their retaliations in the legal system and off the streets. 

While campaigning Carlos Gimenez said that as mayor he’d call for a task force to determine “who’s behind” the maquinita enterprise. But such an effort seemed already in full swing. Miami police seized more maquinitas this past March and April, as did Miami-Dade cops in June in the Westchester section of Miami. Odds are the crackdown will continue, which could only make big corporate casino owners flush with appreciation. The House always wins.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Orlando Bosch, in memoriam

Perhaps it will suffice to say, I did not know Orlando Bosch well, hardly at all, but will remember him well for what he told me at his west Miami-Dade house in the fall of 2001: that a Venezuela court absolved him in the bombing of the Cubana de Aviacion jet in 1976, which killed all 73 people on board, including Cuba's national fencing team; but that all of those who died were "esbirros" -- collaborators -- of the communist regime in Havana that he so despised. From his lack of sorrow with regard to those deaths, I knew that he was not well indeed.  

After the interview, we chatted in the doorway, and to my amazement Bosch started to cry, blubberingly lamenting the deaths of all those people who died in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. This capacity to swing from the vile callousness he displayed several minutes earlier to an outburst of authentic bereavement still perplexes and disturbs me when I think about it. 

You can read a little more about this encounter with Orlando Bosch here, in this link to an old Miami New Times article "Terrorists, But Our Terrorists."

Saturday, April 2, 2011

From Poder Magazine, April 2011
The Codina Conundrum
What the Spence-Jones bribery case taught us about the real estate business and shamelessness

By Kirk Nielsen

Armando Codina, CEO of Codina Partners and esteemed icon of the local business world, was never a defendant in the bribery case of ex-Miami commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones. But he sure seemed like one. “He doesn’t want to believe he did anything wrong,” state prosecutor Richard Scruggs told the jury when Spence-Jones’s trial began last month, observing that Codina was “not a happy camper” about having to testify.  Jurors didn’t want to believe it either. They acquitted Spence-Jones of illegally soliciting a $25,000 “charitable donation” from Codina in 2006.

The unhappiest camper turned out to be State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who blamed Judge Rosa Rodriguez for having a lax sense of the bribery law. “The jury had no choice but to acquit the defendant because the judge instructed the jury that, in effect, soliciting or accepting a bribe through a charity is legal, even if done with corrupt intent,” Fernandez-Rundle says. “Bribery has become very sophisticated in our community. We believe that bribery done to influence a public official, even if done through a charity, is illegal.”

Obscured by the headlines is the story of Codina’s metamorphosis over the past year from repentant prosecution witness to an increasingly defiant asset for the ex-commissioner’s defense. He repeatedly said he was “ashamed” when Scruggs rang him up in March 2010 and grilled him about complying with Spence-Jones’s $25,000 request, while Codina and a high-rise development group had an item before the city commission.

“Ashamed” not only for agreeing to the favor but doing so while something was on his mind: a proposed ordinance to glamorize MDM Development Group’s massive Met 2 hotel and office project in dreary old downtown by changing that stretch of SE Second Avenue to “Brickell.” Codina, MDM’s leasing agent, told Scruggs that a prospective tenant -- global financial powerhouse UBS -- had wanted the change as part of its lease agreement. “They would have preferred the Brickell name,” Codina said, referring to UBS executives.

He was also “ashamed” that, yes, he promptly called his friend and business partner at MDM, Ricardo Glas, to shell out half of the $25,000. “I’m ashamed to tell you that if she wanted to leverage her position to get me to make a contribution to a good cause, I had no problem with that,” he told Scruggs. “But I thought about it, and I wrote the check.... I’m at fault .... Listen, I made a mistake.” Read on at Poder.

Monday, January 3, 2011

From Poder Magazine, December 2010
Memories of 2010: Scattered Pictures of the Fraud We Left Behind
Some of the ways we were, and probably still are, in Greater Miami

By Kirk Nielsen

With a new Republican-led House of Representatives in Washington, and a voter mandate to cut spending, we’re all supposed to prepare for smaller, more accountable government. Of course, that’s going to prompt all kinds of crises, especially at the municipal level. Good thing we here in Greater Miami actually got a head start on some of them in 2010. The wake-up call came in February at Jackson Health Systems, Miami-Dade County’s tax-supported hospital for the tired and huddled masses. There was an amazing discovery: a $244.6 million deficit for fiscal year 2009. No one is quite sure how that happened. But eleven months later, we can all take heart. The new diagnosis? The estimated loss for fiscal year 2010 is only $88 million. That’s still pretty sick, but knowing is the first step to healing. Prognosis for 2011: longer, more huddled lines at JHS, sicker people on the Greater Miami streets.

With summer came the realization that we’ve had a new industry in our midst for years and didn’t even know it. Apparently it is also one of the area’s most lucrative, behind real estate, tourism, and drug trafficking. Its name: Medicare fraud. Month after month, in the spirit of free market competition, our best Medicare defrauders continued to outdo each other, according to the local U.S. attorney’s office. By year’s end American Therapeutic Corp. emerged as the industry leader, with $84 million in bogus Medicare earnings and $100 million more in the pipeline at the time of their arrests. Overall, allegations of total fraudulent Medicare billings in South Florida approached $2 billion, as far as federal prosecutors know. Prognosis: continued downturn for Medicare fraudsters. Less waste at Medicare.

Anti-tax fever was so high that even the Florida Marlins felt it in 2010. Construction proceeded on the team’s new “$645 million” retractable roof baseball stadium and taxpayers are still paying for most of it ($515 million). But a national press leak of Marlins financial records showed the team ended the 2008-09 season with a $49 million profit. At press time county commissioners were exploring ways to make the team pay for a bigger portion of its stadium. Prognosis: prolonged stadium finance crisis, as redistribution of wealth from county taxpayers to baseball team continues.

The revelation of Marlins earnings was also to cast a long shadow on a new budget proposed by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who backed the stadium deal, would cut hundreds of county jobs, while raising property taxes 12 percent and employee salaries by $132 million. That tax hike sent Republican automobile dealer Norman Braman on a drive to recall not more Toyotas but Alvarez (who’s also a Republican). Prognosis: With anti-tax fever at an all-time high in Miami-Dade and seemingly everywhere in the nation, Braman has a reasonable chance of seeing voters eject Alvarez in 2011.

While Alvarez’s political capital depreciated in 2010, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado’s rose. As a city commissioner he’d cast the lone vote against the stadium deal in 2008. In August 2010 he avoided laying off city workers by confronting police and firefighters unions—precisely what Alvarez did not do. Moreover, Regalado (another Republican) and city manager Carlos Migoya pushed through a budget with reduced salaries, pensions and benefits for city employees. Prognosis: a continuing budget deficit will force Regalado and the commission to lay off city workers—or raise taxes.

There was even one sign of hope in 2010 for a more fiscally-responsible Miami-Dade commission, as Jean Monastime ousted County Commissioner Dorrin Rolle, who’d held the District 2 seat for 12 years. It was a triple whammy. Besides becoming the first Haitian American on the commission, Monastime knocked out one of the most fiscally-challenged politicians in the county, and did so by spending three times less money as Rolle. Monastime had campaigned to bring “accountability” and “efficiency” to county government. Rolle’s nonprofit, the James E. Scott Community Association, achieved bankruptcy this summer, owing former employees $600,000, Miami-Dade County $1.4 million and Jackson Health Systems $352,000. Prognosis: Those funds, like so many other local taxpayer dollars, are forever wasted.