MIAMI — The arrest of Robert Word, who received a $175,000 grant in 2004 to develop businesses in the Overtown neighborhood – but allegedly kept much of the money for himself – is the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of the Metro Miami Action Plan Trust (MMAP).
A report by the Miami-Dade Office of Inspector General says MMAP failed to conduct appropriate oversight of its grant to Word’s company, BCJ Development LLC. An arrest warrant indicates Word spent $132,000 of the money paying off personal debts and back child support, dining out, and even buying land in Colorado.
He now faces charges of grand theft and conducting an organized scheme to defraud MMAP, while the quasi-public agency, created in the wake of deadly riots in Miami in the 1980s, faces renewed criticism.
Word’s grant application stated that BCJ Development would bring a culinary arts training center, a veterans’ assistance program, an art gallery and a Subway restaurant to the struggling Overtown neighborhood. Word claimed he was a licensed Subway owner/franchisee with corporate authorization to expand into Overtown.
“None of that was true,’’ said Miami-Dade Inspector General Christopher R. Mazzella, whose office issued a Feb. 11 press release on the Word case, the day Word turned himself in to
authorities at the Dade County Jail.
“Our sense is that these things should have been confirmed, and not accepted as fact,’’ including contacting Subway to check out Word’s claims, Mazzella said. The OIG report also faults MMAP for not keeping track of how Word spent public funds once he received them.
MMAP, through its interim board, issued its own press release on Feb. 12, defending the grant and outlining steps it says it took to address BCJ’s “non-compliance,” including “sending letters, e-mails, and conducting visits to the last known address.”
MMAP’s release also said that when BCJ failed to respond to its inquiries, the organization contacted the inspector general’s office to request an investigation.
“MMAP entered into this contract with BCJ because the project would have created jobs and provided an economic stimulus to a community that continues to lag behind the rest of the County,” the MMAP release said.
“It is disconcerting that MMAP’s attempt to exhaust all oversight authority, including the use of the enforcement arm of Miami-Dade County, has resulted in an implication by the OIG that MMAP was either incompetent or irresponsible in its monitoring of the BCJ contract,’’ the release further stated. “This type of grandiose reaction by an entity specifically created to protect the integrity of the County will give pause to other agencies and departments considering the uses of this resource.”
Mazzella’s reponse: “I think a lot more could have been done other than writing letters. You need to go out to the site to make sure things are being done.”
He called it a “mistake” for MMAP to have issued all of the grant funds “up front” rather than in increments as the grantee met certain benchmarks.
Mazzella’s criticisms echo those in a 2008 county audit of MMAP that found inadequate due diligence in vetting potential grantees, and often a lack of follow up on how the agency funds were spent.
The report cited troubling cases such as a $25,000 grant to a Liberty City non-profit named Friends of MLK. A state attorney indictment claims that the Rev. Gaston Smith, senior pastor at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, pocketed $10,000 of that money.
The December audit, one of several over the last several years, led to the dissolution of MMAP’s board, and the creation of a task force to determine the agency’s future. But some former board members dismiss the audit as biased, even questioning the objectivity of County Auditor Cathy Jackson.
Two former trustees said Jackson told them during an October meeting called to discuss her findings that, in her view, MMAP should not exist, and people should “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.’’
Jackson did not return repeated calls requesting comment.
The former board members, including the out-going chair, John Jones, accused county leaders of shading their own responsibilities for MMAP’s troubles.
They say Miami-Dade officials, including the county’s attorney, manager and commission, signed off on every grant. They say background checks and follow-up work on grantees was conducted not by the volunteer board, but by a staff of county employees, led by an executive director who reported to the board, and a contract manager who reported directly to an assistant county manager, who is currently Cynthia Curry.
At the time Word received his grant, the contract manager and executive director were Bill Simmons and Vincent Brown, respectively.
MMAP has been the subject of previous OIG complaints alleging that MMAP staffers held conflicts of interest. The conflicts included a housing program administrator who was also a licensed mortgage broker, and the misuse of county time for such things as attending classes and doing homework.
“The county process was supposed to be the checks and balances,” Jones said. “The Trust [didn’t] handle day-to-day operations. The Trust approves what the staff brings to them. The trust [members] didn’t go out and do any monitoring. We’re volunteers, not paid employees. MMAP didn’t write checks.”
CONFLICT GOES BACK YEARS
Former MMAP trustees have been at odds with county leaders for years, accusing successive county managers of undermining the agency.
“Every year since MMAP was created, the county administration has cut MMAP’s budget,’’ said former board member Sherwood Dubose, who served on the board from 1997 to 2001.
“Every county manager has followed suit.”
Indeed, MMAP’s administrative budget, which came from the county’s general fund, was shaved each year from just over $1 million in 2004 to $903,481 in 2007, the period covered in last year’s audit.
“If MMAP was such a priority, then you put your money where your mouth is,” said former board member Herbert Robinson, dean of student services at Miami Dade College, who served on the board from 1989 until last year.
“One of the things they told us is that you have to go out and get your own money,’’ Robinson said. “So we got a lobbyist and went to Tallahassee and got money for teen court and housing, and we went all the way to Washington for economic development money. But as soon as we would get money, then they would cut the county allocations.”
The audit found that MMAP spent $21 million between 2004 and 2007 for its educational and economic development programs, of which $4.3 million, or about 20 percent, was questioned.
Critics of the county’s role compare those figures to the $1 billion cost overrun for the $6.2 billion expansion of the North Terminal at Miami International Airport, which the county took over from American Airlines in 2005, and the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, which was delivered 20 months behind schedule and approximately $102 million over budget.
“Whether it’s the Beacon Council, Performing Arts Center, the Midtown Project; all of these projects that receive government support in one form or another led to catalytic development in those neighborhoods,” said Miami developer David Wilson, who chaired the performing arts center finance committee and who has never served on the MMAP board. “That was also the mission of MMAP; to provide these sorts of catalytic projects that would help to revitalize the inner-city core.”
Wilson, who has worked with MMAP on home ownership issues, added that in his view, “you don’t see the same type of enthusiasm for MMAP” within county government as for those other projects, “particularly when things don’t go right.”
Curry has repeatedly rejected such comparisons, and places the blame for MMAP’s troubles squarely on the former board, which she said had complete authority over the agency.
“The airport is a county agency,” she said. “I can’t think of another entity outside of the Public Health Trust that has a board, similar to MMAP, that has had the legislative authority transferred to a volunteer board.”
And while Curry acknowledged that MMAP”s “entire infrastructure is county infrastructure,” she added that MMAP’s staff “report to me in the sense that if they need a person in the county they do, but it’s been a major point of contention that they don’t report to the manager and don't take direction from the manager’s office.”
Even MMAP's defenders acknowledge that the agency has been crippled by stories like Word’s, and by a perception that the board failed to run the organization with the rigor needed to ensure that funds were not wasted.
“There’s gonna always be double standards when it comes to our community,” said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who along with Commission Chairman Dennis Moss has beaten back several attempts to place MMAP under the county manager’s authority. “What we have to do is rise above that.”
Photo: Miami-Dade County Auditor Cathy Jackson