Friday, June 10, 2005

The Duval Street Underworld

I discovered that some of the material for Key West The Newspaper remains on the internet. The following article was reprinted on January 11, 2002. As noted, it was first published as an editorial in 1996. That's almost nine years ago.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

The Duval Street Underworld

by Dennis Reeves Cooper, Editor & Publisher

EDITOR'S NOTE: This editorial was first published here in Key West The Newspaper on June 21, 1996.

There is an organized underworld on Duval Street. The members of this underworld, typically foreign nationals, make up a secretive, closely-knit "family" that is not-so-slowly buying up one of Key West's most historic streets. No one knows where these people get their money. But they are seemingly able to pay whatever price is asked to acquire one property after another. As this real estate is acquired, members of the family use it to open nearly-identical t-shirt and cheap electronics shops. Dozens of these clone-like businesses now line Duval Street. More are planned. Traditional Duval businesses are being forced to leave the street. Many owners just can no longer pay the escalating rents.

RUDE & SLIMY BUSINESS

Some of the t-shirt and electronics stores are known for rude and slimy business practices. The City's Code Enforcement Dept. has thick files of complaints about employees of these stores ripping off tourists and locals alike? sometimes charging hundreds of dollars for a t-shirt to an unsuspecting customer's credit card. Some of these stores openly hire "family" members who may be in this country illegally. Periodic sweeps by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) routinely root out illegal workers at these stores. (One local wag suggests that if you want to see t-shirt shop employees scatter, stand in the front door of one of the stores and shout, "Immigration! Freeze!)

Last week, a number of "family" members were arrested and charged with offering bribes to a City Code Enforcement officer who had been ticketing them on various charges ranging from illegal display of merchandise to too-loud music. Reportedly, they also wanted him to alert them when the INS is in town.

Some critics have charged that the network of t-shirt and electronics stores here is simply a part of an elaborate scheme to launder money. But what kind of money? No one we've talked to is sure, but guesses range from money from illegal drugs, arms deals and diamonds.

MONEY LAUNDERING CONVICTION

We do know, however, that Shlomo D'Jamal, one of the biggest t-shirt merchants on Duval Street, has been tried and convicted for his role in a sizable international money laundering ring. But a computer check of records in Tallahassee shows that he is still involved in at least 10 businesses on Duval Street and has close ties to other businesses owned by the "family."

But the real ownership of these businesses is often difficult to determine. Family members have set up hundreds of corporations. Some of these corporations own real estate. Other corporations own and/or manage stores that rent from the corporations that own the buildings. Members of the family appear to alternate official roles in these corporations? president, secretary, director, etc. The same names show up again and again in different corporate records. It is not unusual to see one family member paying an exorbitant amount of money to rent from another family member who owns a building. Next door, those roles may be reversed. Because these corporations can appear and disappear so easily and quickly, it is not difficult for store managers to circumvent laws that prohibit phony "going out of business" sales.

During the arrests last week, two different "family" members told police they owned one of the stores involved. When asked, most employees of these stores say they don't know who owns the stores where they work. Persistent questioners? especially the press? are often told to leave the stores or the police will be called.

Earlier this week, the city pulled the occupational licenses of several stores implicated in allegedly in offering bribes to a Code Enforcement officer. Prediction: Other "family" corporations will quickly reopen these stores under other names.

Last year, an effort by the City Commission to limit the number of t-shirt shops on Duval Street failed because several commissioners apparently yielded to pressure from the "family". On first reading, the ordinance seemed to be headed for passage. But on second reading, Mayor Dennis Wardlow and Commissioners Harry Bethel, Percy Curry and Emery Major sided with the t-shirt merchants.

"I get the impression that sometimes they are more interested in taking care of their friends than doing what's right for the community," said Commissioner Jimmy Weekley, who sponsored the ordinance.

Last week, following the bribery-related arrests, the manager of one of the t-shirt stores reportedly stood in his doorway and threatened, "We will own Key West!"

A CALL FOR ACTION

He may be right? unless some serious action is taken and soon. First of all, we hope that our so-far gutless City Commission will stand up to what is nothing less than a siege. The Commission must find ways to propose, pass and aggressively enforce creative laws to limit these businesses, at least in the historic district.

Secondly, we urge the immediate formation of an interagency task force to investigate the "family" here. In addition to local police and Code Enforcement officials, such a task force should include representatives from the State Attorney's Office, the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement, FBI, INS, IRS and other agencies. These people say they will own Key West. If that's their objective, Key Westers have a right to know who they are. Let's find out. Let's find out where they get their money. Let's find out who's really buying Duval Street.

We predict, however, that, like Shlomo D'Jamal, many of these people will not want this information to see the light of day.


NOTE: There are, of course, multiple sides to this story. Some t-shirt merchants run perfectly legitimate businesses and should not be tarred with the same brush used to tar the ripoff artists. It should also be noted that some of those arrested on bribery charges say they were entrapped, that bribes were solicited by one or more city officials? and that there are secret tape recordings that allegedly document these charges.

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