Only In Miami: Indicted, But On The Payroll

More proof that Miami is the worst-run city in America:

Assistant Fire Chief Veldora Arthur was paid more than $120,000 to stay home and do nothing for seven months this year.

She wasn’t sick. She wasn’t agoraphobic.

She was under federal indictment for mortgage fraud.

On paper, Miami has a policy stating that non-union employees who face criminal charges should be placed on unpaid leave, or reassigned to another job. Arthur wasn’t reassigned, and she kept getting paid.

Between her indictment in February and her conviction in September, Arthur’s only duties were to stay inside her house from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and phone the office twice a day. She also got a one-hour lunch break.

This is uproariously humorous, unless you’re a Miami taxpayer.

As expected, nobody in authority has offered a reasonable explanation of why Arthur got cozy treatment. However, plenty of reasonable questions are being asked, such as, “Why would they pay you to be at home when they could put you to work?”

That one came from Robert Suarez, the city’s fire union president.

In any other U.S. city, Arthur’s crime alone would have been the predominant aspect of the scandal. She acted as a “straw buyer” in an $11 million mortgage-fraud scam involving high-end condominiums in Aventura.

In exchange for about $317,000, the assistant fire chief allowed her name and credit ratings to be used to secure mortgages for the condos. She even claimed to be living in one of them when in fact she lived in Weston. The units later went into foreclosure, which surprised everyone but the scammers.

It was a sleazy end to an inspiring story line. Arthur, 45, had worked for the fire department since 1986. She was Miami’s first black female firefighter, and more than 10 years ago had been elevated to an administrative, non-union post.

At the time she was busted, Arthur was in charge of the fire department’s payroll and quality control. Again, the irony would be splendid if she hadn’t been getting a $184,000 salary, and wasn’t in line for a $167,000 pension from the city’s deferred retirement system.

But all that money wasn’t enough. Arthur got greedy.

City policy is to put criminally charged employees on unpaid leave. If they’re acquitted, they get reimbursed for back pay. As an alternative, the city manager may transfer them to another job until their court case is resolved.

The unusually generous decision to pay Arthur to stay home until the trial came from top city officials. On March 2, Miami’s then-chief financial officer, Larry Spring, emailed fire chief Maurice Kemp and directed him to put Arthur on paid leave.

It rankled many firefighters, who saw it as special treatment. The city has claimed that other non-union employees charged with serious crimes were kept on the payroll, but the records are proving mysteriously elusive. (Miami City Hall is a notorious black hole for important documents. The filing system was apparently devised by a pack of stoned dingbats).

How did Assistant Fire Chief Arthur pass the time during those seven months of enforced yet highly compensated relaxation? Chatting with her two defense lawyers, no doubt. Watching soap operas, perhaps, or knitting a turtleneck.

We know that she was given permission to take two vacations, one in North Carolina, and one in the Bahamas. We also know that, in addition to her salary and pension, she cashed in 125 hours of accumulated vacation time, worth another $11,000.

In a sane world, Arthur’s fertile relationship with Miami taxpayers would have ended definitively on Sept. 30, when a jury convicted her on three counts in the mortgage fraud case.

The good news: Arthur has been canned from the fire department. The bad news: She still wants that $167,000-plus city pension.

She’ll probably get it, too, unless the Miami Fire Fighters’ and Police Retirement Trust has its way. Trust officials say that employees convicted of felonies can forfeit a pension if the crime occurred on the job.

Arthur made the blunder of using city fax machines to send out letters and contracts while carrying out her role in the mortgage fraud. Prosecutors introduced the documents as evidence during the trial.

With any luck, some sane person at City Hall will agree that a lowlife scam artist who just happened to be assistant fire chief doesn’t deserve a big fat check for sitting in a jail cell.

That’s where Arthur is now, awaiting sentencing on Dec. 16. She faces up to 20 years in federal prison, with no vacation time.

(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)

(c) 2011, The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.

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