|Banah International Group|
|Alexander I Perez recieved a congressional recognition from U.S. Rep David Rivera.|
FROM TRAFFICKING TO POLITICKING
On Banah Sugar's Facebook page, Perez loves posting photos of his new political pals. Scroll through them and you'll catch images of Mayor Gimenez with his arm draped around Perez and embattled U.S. Congressman David Rivera, who is the subject of two federal investigations, shaking hands with Banah's founder in his company's lobby.
Another pic shows Hialeah Mayor Hernandez, Hialeah City Council President Isis Garcia Martinez, and Herman Echevarria, owner of Miami socialite magazine Venue, in Perez's office at Banah's Hialeah headquarters. They are standing in front of a wall decorated with a large photo of former President George H. Bush and former Soviet Union head Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as seals for the Central Intelligence Agency, the Office of Homeland Security, and the Vice-President of The United States.
The politicians provided Perez with more than just photo-ops. On Oct. 13, 2011, Rivera awarded Perez with a "Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition" due to his "outstanding and invaluable service to the community." At the presentation ceremony in Washington D.C,, Rivera and Perez were joined by Congresswoman Illeana Ros-Lehitinen and Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart.
Rivera spokeswoman Leslie Veiga says the congressman did not know about Perez's criminal record and that he gave Banah's owner the certificate at the behest of Colombian American business leaders she did not identify. "Had our office been aware of the issues in Mr. Perez's past, he certainly would not have received a congressional certificate," she says.
Katrina Valdes, Diaz-Balart's spokeswoman, says her boss only attended the event as a professional courtesy to Rivera, who asked him to meet with a large group of South Florida businessmen. Ros-Lehitinen's press secretary could not be reached for comment.
Three weeks later, through the Beacon Council, a public-private agency that is supposed to promote economic development, Banah requested $400,000 in tax incentives
from the county and state. The company claims it will create 300 new jobs paying an average of $50,000 a year in 2013. In December of that year, county commissioners approved Gimenez's recommendation to grant Banah the tax breaks.
Gimenez spokeswoman Suzy Trutie says the mayor's office was unaware of Perez's criminal record and relied on the Beacon Council to conduct a background check on the company and its officers. On the state application for the incentives, Perez listed "none" when answering a question if he or any of his companies were involved in any recent criminal investigations, civil suits or had any liens.
Asked if the mayor would have rejected Banah's request had he known about Perez's conviction, Trutie declined comment. "I don't want to talk hypotheticals," she says, insisting the mayor's recommendation is just a formality. "The Beacon Council did the due dilligence. Nothing came up."
(Banana Republican did not try to obtain comment from the Beacon Council prior to publication because the responsibility of monitoring how these tax incentives are doled out ultimately falls on the county. Below is the Beacon Council's response which was emailed to me this afternoon.)
Beacon Council spokeswoman Ana Acle-Menendez explains that the agency relies on Google searches and information obtained from Dun & Bradstreet, a company that provides some information on businesses such as their credit rating and if they've filed for bankruptcy. "We do not have the capability to do a criminal search as we don't have a person's birth date and often companies are owned by several people or corporation," she says. "It'd be great if the county or state could do the search but it would have to be done in a timely manner."
Acle-Menendez also noted that the background question on the state application for the incentives is not clear. "The problem is 'recent'has to be define," she says. "It's not up to us to define that and we'd like to see that loophole closed."
She adds that Banah must fullfill its investment, add the 300 jobs and pay all its taxes before it actually gets the money.
Nevertheless, Perez showed his gratitude for Gimenez's formality when Banah International Group donated $500 to the mayor's reelection campaign on Dec. 12, 2011, six days after the county commission signed off on the incentives. Two months later, the county commission approved Commissioner Rebeca Sosa's request to rename SE 10th Avenue in honor of Banah. Sosa says she did so at the request of the Hialeah mayor and the city council. Hernandez declined comment.
However, Sosa didn't seem to have a problem with Perez's criminal record. "There are people who have paid their debt for incredible mistakes they made in life," she says. "Where do you draw the line?"