Editor's note: This is a corrected version of the original story.
Early this year a caller who identified himself as "Angel" — and used a calling card so his phone number wouldn't appear on caller ID — called Orlando Weekly to say he had the goods on Jose Fernandez, the 36-year-old former Orlando city clerk who is now one of Mayor Buddy Dyer's top advisers. Before going to work for the city in March 2003, Fernandez ran the nonprofit Hispanic Business Initiative Fund of Greater Orlando as a sort of slush fund, Angel said, cutting checks to his friends' businesses.
Two months after Fernandez became city clerk, according to Angel, HBIF cut a $5,000 check to Churches, Fernandez and Associates, a company he owns with his wife. Angel characterized it as political payoff. Soon after Dyer (and Fernandez) got to City Hall, HBIF's funding jumped from $53,000 to $79,500 a year.
Angel and his friend, "Frank," provided copies of checks and internal bank statements to support their claim. They said they offered the same story to the Sentinel, but the daily wouldn't bite because of a conflict of interest: Orlando Sentinel execs are on the HBIF board, and one of the signatures on the $5,000 check in question is that of Anibal Torres, then the HBIF's vice chair and also the publisher of El Sentinel.
But neither Frank nor Angel would go on record with their real names, and they wouldn't say how they got their information. Fernandez, for his part, never denied receiving the check. In fact, he provided a perfectly plausible explanation: It was reimbursement HBIF paid him as a consultant to ease the transition after he left. A memo in his city of Orlando personnel file alludes to a contract with HBIF.
But the story wasn't dead. On Aug. 4, the Sentinel wrote a story regarding a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation into Fernandez's tenure at HBIF (though they did not note that Torres' signature is on the disputed check). That same day Angel called the Weekly back to go on record with his real name: He's Rafael Romero, HBIF's vice president for most of 2002 and 2003.
"No one knows more about this case than I do," Romero says. "I am the key witness for FDLE."
The FDLE doesn't comment on open investigations. But according to Romero, the agency is looking into not only the $5,000 check to Fernandez, but also allegations that an HBIF official in Tampa wrote a check from the company's bank account to a politician — Romero can't remember who — and that Fernandez used HBIF funds to pay for a trip to Washington, D.C., to lobby then-Florida Sen. Bob Graham for a spot on Graham's fledgling presidential campaign. Romero disputes Fernandez's claim that he had a post-employment contract to consult with the HBIF.
Once again, with Romero on the record this time, Fernandez has answers for the claims. He notes that HBIF's Tampa office is a legally separate corporation, so he "can't speak to that allegation." He also says that he took many trips to Washington, and met with Graham's and Sen. Bill Nelson's staffs regularly. On the trip questioned by Romero, Fernandez says he also went to see then-U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary Mel Martinez to lobby for projects HBIF was trying to advance.
The back-and-forth raises a question: What is this feud really about? Probable answer: Access to city largesse. Because of his position and his résumé, Fernandez is the gateway to city money in the Hispanic community. But Romero has landed outside the loop, so he's hitting back.
Last year Romero's business partner, Danny Ramos, sought city funding for a Hispanic business incubator in east Orlando. The city went ahead with the incubator, but cut Ramos' company, National Hispanic Corporate Achievers, almost entirely out of the project `"They screwed me," April 6`, and instead put it under the control of the University of Central Florida. Ramos thinks Fernandez cut him out of the deal because the city didn't want anyone competing for grant dollars with the HBIF. The city counters that Ramos hardly has a monopoly on the incubator idea; it already had a handful of incubator projects with UCF and wanted to start incubator programs in each of the city's six districts.
In May, Ramos filed a criminal complaint with the Orlando Police Department, alleging that city officials broke the law by stealing his incubator idea. OPD considers the case open, and won't release records to the media. Meanwhile, Ramos contacted FDLE.
Romero says he came forward about the check to Fernandez two years after the fact — and anonymously at first — because his friend and business partner Ramos couldn't get a square deal with the city. He was initially reluctant to give his name, he says, because Fernandez wields a lot of clout in the Hispanic community, and he didn't want to run afoul of him. (He also cites personal reasons for wanting to remain anonymous, as his son was ill with leukemia at the time.)
But Romero has a checkered past with HBIF himself. When Fernandez left HBIF for the city job in 2003, Romero applied for the top job but was turned down. In November 2003, the HBIF board demanded that Romero resign altogether and filed a complaint with Orlando police accusing him of embezzling more than $11,000 by putting personal expenses on the company credit card. Romero told police some of the charges were accidental and others were for legitimate business expenses. The complaint was dropped when Romero agreed to repay $6,725, records show. Romero says HBIF pushed him out because he questioned some of the nonprofit's policies.
Fernandez maintains that Romero and Ramos' allegations against him amount to a vendetta by two disgruntled businessmen. He says he's been voluntarily cooperating with the FDLE's investigation.
Whether or not that investigation will end up in charges is an open question. What's evident is that when there is city money at stake, things can get ugly in a hurry.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.