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    Hosting ex-leader of Brazil criticized

    Former President Fernando Collor de Mello's past made him a poor choice for a lavish visit to Oldsmar, City Council member David Tilki says.

    By ED QUIOCO

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 8, 2001


    OLDSMAR -- As far as City Council member David Tilki knows, Oldsmar has never spent money on a limousine before, and he doesn't feel comfortable about starting by hiring one recently for former Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello.

    Tilki last week criticized the city for holding a luncheon and limousine tour of North Pinellas for Collor, saying he had misgivings about spending public funds on the event. Tilki spent hours on the Internet reading articles on Collor, who resigned in a corruption scandal, before the luncheon on June 27 and became uncomfortable with the city's plans.

    "That was one of the reasons why I did not attend the luncheon," Tilki said. "I did not feel comfortable hosting somebody who personally I had some problems with their character."

    Collor and his former press aide Rony Curvelo were invited to the city by Brazilian-born City Council member Marcelo Caruso. He extended the invitation after he and Mayor Jerry Beverland attended a political rally at Collor's plush home in South Florida on June 17.

    In 1989, Collor won Brazil's first presidential election in about three decades, but his stay in office was short-lived. Two and a half years after winning the presidency, Collor resigned after a corruption scandal led to his impeachment.

    Collor, who came to power on a "clean government" platform, was impeached for collecting millions of dollars from an extortion ring. While he was earning a presidential salary of about $30,000, Collor bought a $1.7-million apartment in Paris and had eight waterfalls and a three-level lake constructed in his garden. Forty-thousand canceled checks revealed the scheming in detail. According to one pro-Collor legislator, government thieves set goals for themselves: so many millions to be stolen by a certain date.

    When Collor was impeached, more than a million demonstrators took to the streets, dancing the samba in pro-impeachment demonstrations across the country. Before Collor, no president ever had been impeached for corruption in Brazil or anywhere else in Latin America.

    Two years after his impeachment, the Brazilian Supreme Court acquitted the former president, ruling 5-3 that there wasn't enough evidence to convict Collor of being part of a scheme that netted up to $100-million in kickbacks for awarding public works projects. The Brazilian Senate barred Collor from holding office until 2001.

    When Oldsmar City Council members first discussed welcoming the former president, Tilki said, the talk centered around having a "very small reception, maybe a little cocktail party."

    The next thing he heard was that the city was inviting officials from other cities and the county for a luncheon buffet at the East Lake Woodlands country club.

    "I feel that I was somewhat blindsided on this," Tilki said at a council meeting Tuesday.

    The city spent about $1,600 on the buffet, which featured chardonnay, steak florentine and dessert. The city also paid $696 for a white stretch limousine to carry Collor on a tour of Pinellas County.

    Tilki warned that he will be more cautious before letting something like this happen again.

    "The next time any expenditure like this is brought before us I'm going to be asking for details," Tilki said. "I'm going to want to know what we are doing, when we are doing it and how much we are spending. I'm going to ask that we vote on it and not just kind of shake our head and say, 'Sure, let the guy come here and let's have a little reception.' "

    While in Pinellas on June 27, Collor was given ceremonial keys to Oldsmar, Safety Harbor and Tarpon Springs, toured North Pinellas and met with elected officials from all three cities.

    Caruso and Beverland touted Collor's visit as an opportunity for the county and the city to explore business ventures and increase trade with Brazil.

    "I look at this as something that is going to benefit this city," Beverland said.

    Beverland and Caruso aren't the only ones who support bringing Collor to the city.

    At the City Council meeting, the Greater Oldsmar Chamber of Commerce's Jerry Custin read a letter written by chamber president and chief executive officer Kevin Gartland in support of the luncheon.

    The chamber is "extremely optimistic" and plans to "investigate the potential for staging a series of trade missions between businesses in Oldsmar, Pinellas County and Brazil," according to the letter.

    "While some short-sighted naysayers will undoubtedly criticize the city for its minimal investment on this initiative, we will argue that the city of Oldsmar certainly got its fair share of positive publicity for this effort," Gartland wrote. "The potential for increasing trade between Brazil and businesses in Oldsmar and all of Pinellas County far outweighs the modest cost which the city incurred in hosting the former head of state of one of the largest and most powerful nations in our hemisphere."

    Caruso defended Collor and told Tilki not to believe everything he read about the former president.

    "You read a lot of stuff on the Internet," Caruso said. "I'm from that country and I know how it is. . . . A lot of things are not true, things that go in the paper."

    More than 50 people attended the luncheon for Collor. The former president was given a coffee-table book about Pinellas County and a goody bag containing an Oldsmar polo shirt, coffee mug and key chain. Tilki and council member Brian Michaels skipped the reception. Beverland, Caruso and council member Don Bohr attended the event.

    Thanks to Collor's contacts, Caruso said he recently spoke to an executive of a Brazilian airline company about bringing more flights to Tampa. Caruso also said that while Collor was in Pinellas, the former president spent $10-million buying two airplanes, pointing out that the purchases meant thousands of dollars in taxes for the county.

    "That is just one visit with this man," Caruso said.

    Tilki, however, remained skeptical.

    "I don't understand why we are spending this money," Tilki said. "I do not understand what Oldsmar . . . is doing spending this money hosting a former president of a country and I'm not sure what we would ever get out of it."

    - Information from Times files was used in this report. Staff writer Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183.

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