DYER, INTERRUPTED 


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Alan Apte
Ezzie Thomas

In a parallel universe, one in which John Hugh "Buddy" Dyer, Jr. wasn't his own worst enemy, his 2004 re-election to the Orlando mayor's office would be just another notch in a blossoming political career. As one of the most powerful Democrats in Florida – with statewide name recognition thanks to a near miss running for attorney general in 2002 – Dyer would be on the short list of gubernatorial candidates in 2006 or 2010, and who knows what after that. As downtown resurged, maybe even bringing Parramore up with it, Dyer would go down in city history as one of our finest, most visionary leaders.

That was the universe I had in mind when Orlando Weekly endorsed Dyer in 2003 against Pete Barr Sr., and again in 2004 against Ken Mulvaney. Dyer talked the talk. His good-ol'-boy charm aped Bill Clinton, although Clinton is the master and Dyer an imitator. And, despite his grew-up-next-door demeanor, Dyer is smart. He has degrees from Brown University and University of Florida law school.

His vision for the city was impressive. In early 2003, when he entered the special election to replace Glenda Hood, Dyer didn't have the mind-boggling grasp of city affairs of Tico Perez, but he made up for it by making us see the city he saw, its downtown bursting with energy, packed with skyscrapers and offering residents the amenities of a real metropolis. If Dyer wasn't always clear on how we were going to get there, at least he got us excited about the trip.

During the honeymoon, Dyer lived up to his promise. Within 30 days of taking office, he cleaned up a $23 million budget deficit left behind by Glenda Hood. In so doing, he made a lot of enemies, because he fired roughly 200 city workers without consulting or even informing the city council. Big red flag there, but we all missed its significance.

Dyer passed a watered-down living-wage ordinance, convened committees to study downtown and Parramore, and breathed life into plans for a performing arts center. His re-election in 2004 was in the bag.

Then, just when Dyer could have sealed his legacy, things got weird. In November 2003, Dyer's administration allowed Church Street Station redevelopers Robert Kling and Lou Pearlman to remove wrought-iron railings on their project, over the objections of the city's Historical Preservation Board, which wanted a little time to hash out the issue. Major changes to historical buildings generally require the Historical Preservation Board's OK, but Dyer's staff deemed the removal of the iron railings "minor review" issues, neatly short-circuiting the regular process.

"We don't want to do anything to impede their progress," Dyer explained. The mayor's true personality began to bloom. Again, we let it slide.

That same month, as part of a plan to open Church Street to two-way traffic and help Kres Chophouse provide valet parking to its customers, the city revoked sidewalk café permits bar owners had used for years to hold street parties. Church Street bar and real estate owners – including Brian Mulvaney, who along with his brother Ken owns the building that houses Makos – showed up at a council meeting to protest. Dyer told them the issue wasn't up for discussion that day. Brian Mulvaney asked the mayor for a meeting; the mayor granted an audience. The day before their scheduled meeting, Church Street became a two-way thoroughfare. By now the pattern was set: Dyer got what Dyer wanted; screw you if you weren't onboard.

In December 2003, developer Cameron Kuhn announced an agreement to bulldoze the long-dead Jaymont block and replace it with condos, office space and a movie theater. Only later did we find out that Dyer actually recruited Kuhn – a big supporter – to build the project during the 2003 campaign. Dyer paid lip service to hearing objections, but the deal was already done. Moments after the council voted to approve Kuhn's development, and before anyone with the historical board had a chance to file a lawsuit to stop the destruction of a building some people considered historically significant, Kuhn's bulldozers were tearing the Jaymont block down.

As an added finger in the face to those who wanted to proceed with caution, Dyer made sure the city incentive deal for the $140 million project was signed, sealed and delivered before the public heard a word about it. Dyer's staffers told city council members they would only get to see the tentative deal if they agreed to secrecy. Once everyone got a good look at the deal, it was easy to see why Dyer was reluctant to have it aired in public: $7 million cash up front, and between $28 million and $40 million profit in Kuhn's pocket with no risk to the developer.

Once again it wasn't so much Dyer's actions that tripped him up; the Jaymont block needed to be leveled, and the city needed to offer incentives to make it happen. It was Dyer's secrecy, his unwillingness to allow the people who elected him to vet projects, that made second-guessing his political acumen a spectator sport in Orlando. The bloom was officially off the rose; Buddy was just another politician. What a disappointment.

'IT'S A NUISANCE'

On Dec. 13, 2003, Ken Mulvaney announced he was running against Dyer for mayor. Mulvaney is a nice guy, and an astute businessman, but politically no match for Dyer. He couldn't explain his stance on issues, and his platform seemed to be based almost entirely on the idea that he would treat people better than his opponent did. Dyer should have mopped the floor with him.

But right away it was an ugly campaign. Mulvaney filed a lawsuit accusing Dyer of slandering him with a "push poll," the unethical practice of spreading misinformation about one's opponent under the guise of an objective political poll. The suit was eventually thrown out, but the bitterness escalated as Mulvaney and Dyer accused one another of dirty campaigning. Mulvaney and Dyer's three other challengers bombarded Dyer with criticism during debates and on the stump.

Dyer's dismissive attitude and outright arrogance toward Mulvaney was a poorly kept secret. At campaign events Dyer would speak, then leave before Mulvaney had a turn at the podium. Perhaps Mulvaney wasn't the toughest challenger Dyer had ever faced, but pretending that you give a damn is common courtesy.

Dyer won, just as everyone thought he would. But he avoided a runoff election by less than a percentage point – with only 234 votes to spare. Of course Dyer would have won a runoff. But it's noteworthy that he barely managed to avoid the scenario despite the fact that his challengers were entirely unremarkable. In reality, 49 percent of Orlando voters cast ballots against Dyer, just a year after he'd assumed office. They'd already seen enough.

Then things got weirder. Mulvaney filed a lawsuit alleging that Dyer consultant Ezzie Thomas and his associates had illegally collected and in some cases tampered with as many as 364 absentee ballots they collected in predominantly poor, African-American communities. Because the absentee ballot process was tainted, Mulvaney argued, the court should throw out all absentee ballots and order a runoff election.

Dyer paid the Mulvaney suit little heed, as did the Orlando press corps. Most observers thought it was a case of sour grapes, nothing more. Most were amazed the suit survived Dyer's motion to dismiss.

Brian Mulvaney filed a criminal complaint with the Orlando Police Department, which later turned the complaint over to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to avoid a conflict of interest.

In May, an Orlando Sentinel reporter bit on some Dyer propaganda; the mayor floated a letter he'd requested and received from the FDLE declaring, "`T`here was no basis to support the allegations of election fraud concerning these absentee ballots." The impression was that the FDLE had evaluated Mulvaney's claims and dismissed them. That wasn't the case. In reality, the FDLE hadn't started its investigation.

A few days later, Brian Mulvaney presented his evidence to the FDLE: Forty-two affidavits from people whose absentee ballots Thomas had witnessed, some of which suggested that Thomas in fact had tampered with them. I had seen the affidavits beforehand, and reported on their contents May 20. Soon after, I was called into an off-the-record meeting with Thomas and Joe Egan, one of his attorneys. Their theory was that the Mulvaneys were manipulating the witnesses, many of whom were elderly. Egan tried diligently to sell the idea that this was a Republican conspiracy to suppress the black vote before the November elections.

The FDLE investigation indefinitely delayed the trial in the Mulvaney civil case, which had been slated for July.

In June, the FDLE began investigating another election-related complaint: That the firefighters' union was illegally using taxpayer dollars to aid Dyer's re-election bid. On June 11, television news crews camped outside City Hall, rolling tape as FDLE officials carted out city computers as evidence. Dyer insisted he'd done nothing wrong and would ultimately be vindicated.

"It's a nuisance," Dyer told reporters at the time. "But knowing that we've done nothing wrong, I'm not concerned with the outcome." He blamed the mess on an accounting error.

The FDLE finished its investigation and turned over its 4-inch stack of documents to Orange-Osceola State Attorney Lawson Lamar. It concluded that "`F`our of the firefighters whose timesheets were changed were in fact working on the re-election campaign of Mayor Buddy Dyer. In addition the review of Chief `Robert` Bowman's computer and the back up tape revealed that the e-mail sent to him by `Inspector Joe` Szewczyk had been deleted from his computer. As a result of Bowman's actions as Fire Chief he violated Florida Statutes 838.022 and 119.10 (2), Official Misconduct and Destruction of a Public Record respectively."

Regardless, a grand jury declined to hand down indictments in the case, instead issuing a generic admonishment that city governments shouldn't be in the business of funding political campaigns. Dyer was, in a sense, vindicated. Bowman kept his job. And given the old saw that a grand jury could indict a ham sandwich, Dyer's critics – including some inside the FDLE – wondered if Lamar, a fellow Democrat, had gone too easy on the mayor.

DYER STRAITS

Meanwhile, the FDLE's ballot-fraud investigation was just heating up, and garnering national attention. On Aug. 16, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert opined that the FDLE investigation was part of a GOP plot to suppress the black vote in the presidential election. Herbert was sure the investigation was without merit. When Herbert's colleague, Paul Krugman, echoed the claims, the liberal intelligentsia went nuts.

Local media didn't fall for it, though, because by then it was obvious that there was something to the investigation after all. By the end of September, the probe had widened to include other candidates who had employed Thomas' services. When Orange County Circuit Judge Alan Apte was named as a "person of interest," Lamar claimed a conflict of interest – he'd publicly endorsed Apte – and backed out. Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Brad King, state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit, to prosecute. Bad news for Dyer: King has a reputation as a hard-nosed, no-nonsense prosecutor. He took down a Marion County sheriff for embezzlement, and spanked Lake County commissioners for violating the state's Sunshine laws. Last year, he prosecuted former Lake County sheriff George Knupp on perjury charges.

Dyer was headed for the rocks. In January, Thomas attorney Dean Mosley told reporters that Dyer had indeed paid Thomas to collect absentee ballots, contrary to a 1998 law that Dyer himself voted for as a state senator. Thomas was given use immunity, meaning nothing he told investigators could be used against him – implying that he had something valuable to say. In February, King announced he was taking the case to a grand jury.

All the while, Dyer was still busy making enemies – notably the Orlando police union. Dyer offered cops a 2 percent raise, the same as all city departments, but the union wanted 3.5 percent. Moreover, union officials say Dyer announced the 2 percent raise before the city began negotiations, which to them meant he was negotiating in bad faith.

In October, talks between the city and police union broke down. Cops took to following Dyer around and bad-mouthing him at every opportunity. They protested his state of downtown speech on Oct. 27; they interrupted another outdoor speech by rolling slowly down Orange Avenue, blowing their sirens. During a Christmas parade, the union bought a sky banner declaring the mayor a Grinch.

Dyer's latest breach of public faith was made public Feb. 6 in a Sentinel story reporting that, for a year, he had been secretly studying ways to sell off the Orlando Utilities Commission and use the $322 million it would generate to shore up the city's budget. On the face of it, selling off OUC is a question that is at least worth asking. But once again, Dyer's ham-handed execution turned it into a political battle, creating a legion of new enemies for himself and more allegations of secret dealings.

DREAM BIG

You have to give the guy credit for looking for ways to push his agenda. When raising taxes isn't an option to get things done, you start looking at other means to free up a few bucks.

But Dyer is often too blind to realize that what he wants isn't necessarily what constituents want. A recent statewide poll by Quinnipiac University Polling Institute found that 85 percent of Floridians don't want to spend public tax money renovating the TD Waterhouse Centre arena. A survey of Orange County residents conducted at the behest of county government found that of 26 issues facing county government, a new arena ranked dead last. A renovated arena placed next to last. Renovating the Citrus Bowl ranked 24th, and a new performing arts center ranked 23rd.

Dyer has repeatedly said keeping the Magic in town is his "top priority," and appeared ready to hand the team a blank check if necessary. He also pushed for a renovated Citrus Bowl, either a revamped Tinker Field or another stadium capable of luring a professional baseball team, and a performing arts center. With Dyer no longer around as cheerleader-in-chief, these already unpopular projects are tipping further into limbo.

It's not as if Dyer's been impotent. A number of mixed-use megadevelopments are either under construction or in the planning process, and downtown began breathing again under his watch. Yes, he reneged on his promise to extend bar hours. Yes, his tax-incentive handouts were often lavish and came with few strings attached. Yes, his plans are prohibitively expensive. But at least something was happening. That's more than you could say for most of Glenda Hood's excruciatingly long tenure.

All the good things and all the potential came crashing down March 10 when Dyer was indicted for illegally paying Thomas to collect absentee ballots. (Apte and Patti Sharp, Dyer's campaign manager, were indicted on the same charges.) Thomas was indicted for accepting money to collect ballots. The next day, the four turned themselves in to the Orange County jail. They were photographed, fingerprinted and released on their own recognizance.

Gov. Bush suspended Dyer from office the same day. For now, Mayor Pro Tem Ernest Page is in charge, making him the city's first black mayor, if temporarily. If Dyer is acquitted, he'll return to office. If not, the winner of an upcoming special election keeps the office until Dyer's conviction, at which time the city will hold yet another special election.

At a press conference a few hours after his suspension, Dyer applied positive spin. "I can report that after a year of investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and a grand jury investigation they have found what I knew to be the case one year ago – there was no voter fraud in the 2003 and 2004 elections," Dyer said. "Let me repeat, there was no voter fraud. No manipulation of votes. ... The voter fraud portion of the investigation has been concluded and the results were negative and that should end the Mulvaney election contest."

In his opinion, anyway.

Dyer called the law that he was indicted under – the same one he voted for in the legislature – "vague."

"I intend to fight these charges with every ounce of strength that I have and I am heartened by the fact that there has never been a prosecution of this statute since it was passed in 1998," Dyer said. He characterized the entire case as "without merit" and "politically motivated," as if he couldn't fathom why anyone would think he'd ever done anything wrong.

FOOTNOTE OR DEATH KNELL?

Mulvaney's lawsuit continues. If Circuit Judge Theotis Bronson rules in Mulvaney's favor and orders a runoff election, Mulvaney would be mayor by default, and the city's planned special election would be meaningless.

On March 15, lawyers for both Dyer and Mulvaney asked Bronson to declare summary judgment – in essence, to rule that the facts of the lawsuit weren't in dispute, and that their respective sides had a proper legal argument. The debate boils down to this: If an absentee voter hands his ballot to someone else to mail, should that ballot be invalidated? Based on a strict reading of the city code, Mulvaney's attorneys argued it should. But at the Oct. 29, 2001, council meeting in which the city adopted that ordinance, it seems clear the commissioners thought handing off a ballot would be OK.

If Mulvaney wins that one, he has another hurdle to jump. In the hearing, Dyer's attorneys noted that if you discard the 364 ballots Thomas or Thomas' associates handled, Dyer would still have 50.22 percent of the vote, enough to win outright. Mulvaney's attorneys were reduced to arguing that the process was tainted, and all of the more than 4,500 absentee ballots cast citywide should be thrown out, which appears unlikely. Bronson will rule in a few weeks.

It's too early to tell whether Dyer's arrest will be a footnote or a death knell for his career. If he is cleared and allowed to reclaim the mayor's office, then his true vindication would be to prove his naysayers wrong, and govern a city that is beginning to thrive. If convicted, he will leave a legacy of unfulfilled promises.

In an alternate reality, Buddy Dyer could have been one of Orlando's great mayors, and maybe one day even a national political force. He promised thoughtful, progressive leadership to a city starving for it, a city on the cusp of becoming something big. That he squandered that opportunity out of arrogance and hubris will likely be what he's remembered for. No matter what he says, Dyer has only himself to blame for that.

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