County ordered poverty trust to fund Florida FTAA
By Wayne Tompkins
Miami-Dade County officials say they thought low-income areas would benefit from jobs and economic development if the Free Trade Area of the Americas were to bring its Secretariat to Miami.
That was why the county used the embattled anti-poverty agency Empowerment Trust to allocate $300,000 over three years to the Florida Free Trade Area of the Americas Foundation Inc., county spokeswoman Suzy Trutie said.
The Foundation is a private entity that receives state and county money and is working to establish Miami as the FTAA's headquarters here.
The FTAA is a long-stalled trade pact that would unite 34 Western Hemisphere nations and is intended to be the most far-reaching trade agreement in history. Leaders in Florida and elsewhere in the state say locating the headquarters here would bring tremendous prestige and economic benefits to the state.
The Trust award, while only a small part in the broader story of an Empowerment Trust embroiled in controversy over a botched biotechnology park, bad loans, insider deals and other failures, has led to embarrassment at both the trade organization and the county.
Florida FTAA Chairman Charles Cobb said last week his group is seeking an explanation for why the county used $300,000 from 2003 to 2006 from the Trust to fulfill an obligation to provide 10% of the FTAA's $1 million a year budget. "Our understanding was that the FTAA had nothing to do with the empowerment zone," Mr. Cobb said.
The Empowerment Trust's award to the Florida FTAA was part of recent publicity citing the trust's questionable funneling of millions of dollars to entities that did little to create jobs in low income sections of the county.
The Florida FTAA received $525,000 from the state, in addition to $100,000 from the county, in 2006.
The county, which severed its ties with the Empowerment Trust in July, also has distanced itself from the trust's actions in the wake of its conduct.
"People associated with the ET were empowered to make decisions, and what we are seeing is the failure of people in places of trust within the Trust," County Manager George Burgess said.
Miami-Dade County's involvement with the Trust has been administrative or ministerial in nature, Ms. Trutie said. "ET actions are not — and cannot — be construed as decisions made by Miami-Dade County government."
In the instance of the Florida FTAA funding, the county told the Empowerment Trust to use its money to fund the county's obligation.
Officials at the Empowerment Trust did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The FTAA would unite the hemisphere's economies into a single free trade agreement comprising 800 million consumers. .with a combined gross domestic product of $14 trillion. Political leaders in many of the proposed member countries have raised objections to the proposal.