Cuba’s Crisis

A respected police officer and union leader who thought he was helping veterans or a man who schemed and conspired to pull in huge profits from an illegal gambling enterprise?

Good guy or bad guy?

Unless he agrees to a plea bargain, it will be up to a jury to decide the fate of Nelson Cuba, who faces 26 felony charges in the Allied Veterans of the World gambling scandal. The scandal resulted in the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, a new state law outlawing gaming centers known as Internet cafés and the arrest of 57 people, including prominent Jacksonville attorney Kelly Mathis.

Cuba, former president of Jacksonville’s Fraternal Order of Police, and former Vice President Robbie Freitas each face charges ranging from money-laundering to racketeering and allegedly setting up a shell company to illegally run gambling profits through the FOP Foundation.

It is likely that both men will go to trial this fall. At a hearing held May 30 in Sanford, Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester told attorneys for Cuba and Freitas to return in September, because both had waived their speedy trial rights.

Cuba, 48, is well-known around Jacksonville as president of the Fraternal Order of Police, a job he has held for a decade, fighting for better pay, working conditions and pensions for police officers, and never missing an opportunity to mix it up with city officials — once threatening a boycott of Gate Petroleum, owned by then-Mayor John Peyton’s family.

“Nelson has these great thoughts of being Jimmy Hoffa or something, but those days are over,” former Mayor Jake Godbold told The Florida Times-Union in July 2009.

A review of Cuba’s personnel file, obtained under the state’s Open Records law, shows a police officer rated excellent by his superiors, but also an individual with ambition. On separate forms, he lists his long-term goals as being “promoted and elected sheriff” and to “become union president.”

Records show Cuba took a winding route before becoming a union boss in 2003, the first Hispanic — and the first member of any minority — elected to the position.

As a 6-year-old along with his sister, mother and father, Cuba arrived South Florida in 1971 on a Freedom Flight, according to a database of Cubans who came to the United States published by the Miami Herald.

A Times-Union profile of Cuba said his father first worked in construction before buying a food truck, and his mother was a seamstress.

Cuba graduated from Hialeah High School in 1983 and joined the Navy in 1984, where he worked as a medical corpsman in ophthalmology, according to his job application to become a police officer. He stayed in the Navy for four years and worked at a Publix warehouse in Jacksonville before being accepted at the police academy in 1989.

While in the Navy, he became a U.S. citizen in 1986.

Cuba joined the sheriff’s office in 1990, working five years in the public housing unit. He also spent two years as an investigator for the city of Jacksonville General Counsel’s Office.

He was elected president of the Fraternal Order of Police in 2003 and was elected
as Florida’s representative to the national FOP board in 2007.

There was a time, according to the Times-Union, that Cuba, a Republican, considered running for an elected office, possibly the City Council.

Throughout the years, Cuba has served as the full-time president of the local FOP, negotiating labor contracts for the union. Though he’s paid some $64,000 as a patrolman, the union also paid him for his work as president. Union officials did not reply to Folio Weekly’s questions about Cuba’s union salary. The city, in its contract with the FOP, guarantees the FOP 2,500 hours of pool time for union activities. Both Cuba and Freitas have been removed from their FOP posts. Freitas has retired from the police force, and Cuba is still suspended without pay.

The local FOP group — Lodge 5-30 — represents about 3,000 active and retired Jacksonville police officers, corrections officials and bailiffs. Lodge 5-30 is the largest in Florida and the seventh largest in the U.S.

If you believe prosecutors, somewhere along the way, Nelson’s American dream story turned sour. Cuba and FOP Vice President Robbie Freitas were charged in March, along with 55 others, for their part of a scandal in the operation of Internet cafés, which allegedly brought in more than $300 million.

Authorities seized $56,000 in U.S. currency and 5 million Iraqi dinars, about $4,300, from a safe-deposit box owned by Cuba.

Investigators also searched a storage unit owned by the law firm of Mathis & Murphy, P.A. and the FOP Foundation. Mathis, a Jacksonville attorney, has been called the mastermind by investigators, but his attorney, Mitch Stone, said Mathis was only doing legal work for Allied Veterans. He will likely go to trial in late August.

Cuba and Freitas have been removed from their leadership roles at the FOP. Cuba has been suspended without pay; Freitas retired March 29 after almost 25 years with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.

“We have verified that the accounts associated with the lodge are not frozen and are in good standing. We have canceled any lines of credit extended to Nelson Cuba and Robert Freitas, and changed electronic access codes to those accounts,” wrote Acting President Steve Amos in a statement on the FOP’s Facebook page. Amos said the FOP had changed door lock access codes and was working to recover all FOP property assigned to the two men.

Sheriff John Rutherford announced the arrest of the two men at a March 13 news conference.

“Let me be clear: This investigation was not about their policing activities. Nobody’s above the law. If we get evidence, we go after it. We always have. Nobody gets a pass,” Sheriff Rutherford said.

The sheriff said the investigation started in 2007, when his office began looking into a potential criminal enterprise. By 2010, investigators said it became clear that Nelson was part of a second enterprise with multiple shell companies, some of which were tied to the Allied Veterans of the World.

“Investigating a police officer is never a happy event for us. But it is critical for our mission, and to public confidence in their police, that we ensure our officers obey the law,” the sheriff said.

According to an investigator’s affidavit, leadership of Allied Veterans of the World used contributions to the Fraternal Order of Police “to promote and protect itself” in the illegal gaming conspiracy.

Records show the organization gave $90,000 to the FOP Foundation over a two-year period. An affidavit said Cuba withdrew $420,000 as “proceeds from a gambling center” from 2009 to 2011.

Prosecutors allege that Cuba and Freitas set up a shell corporation known as Enzyme Consultants, though neither had approval of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to do outside consulting work. The purpose of Enzyme
was to channel and conceal the nature, ownership and proceeds of illegal activity, investigators claim.

One interesting side note is the ownership of The Black Bean, a Cuban cuisine restaurant in San Marco. Reports show that Nelson Cuba, Robert Freitas and Kelly Mathis all owned an interest in the restaurant, which has since closed.

Jacksonville attorney Tad Delegal, who once served as legal adviser to the FOP, said he was shocked when Cuba was arrested and charged.

“It is very much out of character. I was really surprised by all of these allegations. I would be very surprised if all these things are true,” Delegal said.

“I’ve never seen him as someone who would try to break the law or ignore the law,” he said.

Delegal noted the Legislature did not make Internet cafés illegal until after charges were filed in the case.

He said he always knew Cuba to try to do the right thing and if he had a fault, it was his unwavering loyalty to the FOP.

“I never saw any instances where he sacrificed the welfare of his members for his own personal benefit. I’ve always admired that in Nelson,” Delegal said.

He acknowledged that Nelson, a divorced father of two children, could be “hard-headed” and difficult to deal with, he said. His son, Emmanuel Cuba, is a corrections officer for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.

Emmanuel Cuba spoke with First Coast News about his father’s first court appearances.

“The restraints and the jail suit would suggest he’s a criminal and done bad things, but I know in my mind what’s right, what’s true,” he said.

“I just got to look past it; my dad’s not a criminal. He may have the inmate uniform on, but he’s not a criminal. He didn’t do anything wrong.”

Cuba’s attorney Warren Lindsey did not return emails or calls seeking to talk about Cuba’s case. Former mayor and current UNF President John Delaney and former State Attorney Harry Shorstein both declined to comment on Cuba. FOP leaders and its attorney Paul Daragjati did not return calls for comment.

Daragjati, who represents both the union and foundation, told the Times-Union that no evidence had been found to suggest that either organization did anything wrong.

“You have to remember that this is two individuals accused of committing improprieties on their own. We’ve yet to find any evidence that FOP funds were misused,” he said.

While Nelson earned several commendations from police officials, mainly for making arrests, his record lists four citizen complaints and one internal complaint. The most recent complaint, registered in April 2011, involved allegations of rudeness. According to police records, Cuba received a letter from his supervisor about the incident.

One of the complaints, on Aug. 23, 1993, was an internal complaint of Cuba’s “unbecoming conduct.” It was not sustained. In a 1994 complaint of harassment, Cuba was exonerated. In a 2001 complaint of harassment, an information letter was sent
to Cuba.

JSO spokesperson Melissa Bujeda, when asked for copies of those letters, said they had been purged and were no longer available, according to state law.

Cuba might be best known for his fiery, go-for-the-throat negotiating tactics.

“That is part of his persona,” Delegal said.

Last October, the Fraternal Order of Police refused to negotiate with the city on the mayor’s proposed pension plan. Cuba told the city it must negotiate with the Police & Fire Pension Fund.

Moments after a negotiating session began, he stopped the meeting, saying, “I’m done talking about it. Take it to the courts.”

A mediator suggested they resume talking, and it eventually led to the agreement recently announced by Mayor Alvin Brown and union leaders.

After Cuba was removed, the city, the FOP, the firefighters’ union and the Police & Fire Pension Fund reached a deal on pensions, which is now being considered by the Jacksonville City Council.

The Times-Union is suing Mayor Alvin Brown and the PFPF, alleging the pension talks violated the state’s Open Record Law.

In 2009, when the FOP and the city were negotiating a new contract, Cuba threatened a boycott of Gate Petroleum, which is owned by former Mayor John Peyton’s family. The then-mayor responded that he would not be bullied, according to the Times-Union.

Backlash from city officials and former mayors resulted in Cuba backpedaling on
his threat.

Delegal said he has watched Cuba become a more seasoned and effective leader, making fewer missteps.

“I’ve seen him mature through the years,” Delegal said.

“Nelson is very driven. He believes strongly in what he believes.”

“I had differences with him over style, policy and decisions, but I never questioned his loyalty to his members,” Delegal said.

Cuba outlined his philosophy in a negotiating session to the city, blasting plans to change the pension system.

“If we’re blessed enough to make it through this career and survive, then we were hoping that this community, this city, would keep their promise to us and give us what we’ve earned,” Cuba told city negotiators. “It’s not a handout, we’re not welfare recipients. We’ve worked for this, we’ve earned it and, in my opinion, we deserve everything we get.” 

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