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I-Team: Transit Committee Denounced, Under Investigation

MIAMI (CBS4) - A day after CBS4 News first reported that county transit workers were doing political work on the taxpayer's dime; the repercussions could be felt throughout County Hall.

Sources told CBS4 I Team investigator Jim DeFede that the Miami-Dade Inspector General's Office had launched its own investigation while one of Miami Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez's closest allies publicly denounced him.

CBS4 News found that at least a dozen Miami Dade Transit employees – on county time – have been actively campaigning on behalf of Mayor Alvarez and Commissioner Natacha Seijas.

On Tuesday CBS4 News discovered several of the employees, members of Transport Workers Union Local 291, at an early voting site in North Dade, including union president Talib Nashid, the union's political director Gary Johnson, and bus drivers Katanya Johnson and Shadel Hamilton.

"I'm going to be out here everyday," Hamilton said at the time. "We are out here trying to inform people, trying to educate people."

Hamilton is a member of the union's Civil Rights and Education Committee, which was formed on January 26. The members of the committee continue to be paid their normal county salary – bus drivers earn between $20 and $30 an hour – but instead of driving buses, their assignment is to "educate" transit workers about an array of issues, including the recall.

"If that question comes up they'll talk about the recall," said union president Nashid.

Added Hamilton: "Yeah I'm getting paid. I'm getting paid but it is something right now I am volunteering to do."

Hamilton maintains that the time he works the early voting site is separate from his education committee time – time he goes into the transit garages at night and talks to workers about the recall.

"I could have been on the other job doing the committee work but I am out here supporting the union," he said.

But at other times during the interview, Johnson made it clear he considered his time at the early voting site to be integral to the committee's work.

"This is part of the committee," he said, as he handed out flyers to early voters. "And from here I'll go to the garages and we go to the drivers."

What does he discuss with the drivers?

"Politics, what the union is doing, what we are working on," he said. "Right now it's about the recall, basically about the recall but it is not limited to that, we inform them to let them know why the union is supporting the mayor."

On Wednesday, Miami Dade County Commissioner Carlos Gimenez blasted the committee. "Without a doubt, this doesn't pass the smell test," said Gimenez, who is hoping to replace Alvarez if the mayor is recalled.

"I don't know if the mayor knew this beforehand or not, but he knows about it now and he needs to put those people back to work," Gimenez continued, "put them back to work in their regular jobs and stop this whole thing."

Alvarez refused to disband the committee. He said he only learned of the committee's existence through news reports.

"The policy of Miami-Dade County is that public employees should not be engaging in political activities on county time," the mayor said in a written statement. "We are looking into the allegation. If it is determined that policy was broken, action will be taken."

Commissioner Seijas offered a much stronger critique. Seeking to distance herself from the mayor, she publicly denounced the mayor for what she called a "blatant abuse of taxpayer dollars."

"This decision is entirely unacceptable," she declared in a written statement. "This is an insult to the taxpayers of Miami-Dade County."

Seijas added: "I cannot imagine a more blatant abuse of taxpayer dollars. Why would the Strong Mayor think it is reasonable for the taxpayers to foot the bill for campaign workers? I am shocked by this news."

Of course what Seijas left out of her press release is that the transit workers have also been campaigning in support of her. The committee has been encouraging members to vote to keep Seijas in office.

A spokesman for Seijas said the commissioner knew nothing about the committee's efforts.

"There is no possible justification for the taxpayers of this county to be paying bus drivers a full-time salary while they participate in a political campaign," Seijas's statement maintains. "They should be earning their money behind the wheel of a bus."

It was a sentiment shared by Gimenez: "We need those people back on the street and not on some sort of educational committee."

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