Carl Hiaasen

We should all have an ex like this one

Every divorced guy would love an ex-wife like Barbara Gomez.

As the chief of Miami's public housing agency, she helped funnel more than $1 million in city contracts to companies employing one of her former husbands.

The lucky dude is Ruben A. Santana, a one-time Sweetwater cop and carpet salesman. He and Gomez divorced in 1978, but apparently the spark never died.

Gomez's theme song should be: Stand By Your Ex-Man.

Stand by him even after the FBI raids his house and finds 11 weapons, including a fully automated AR-15 machine gun.

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Stand by him even after he goes on the lam for 15 months as a federal fugitive.

Stand by him even after he does six years in the slammer for smuggling cocaine in a shipment of tropical fish.

When Santana got out of prison in October 2004, his loyal ex-wife was there to help him make a new start on life. So, unwittingly, were U.S. taxpayers.

Within weeks of Santana's release, Gomez recommended to the Miami City Commission that federal monies be taken from a nonprofit group and reallocated to, among other recipients, a firm that had just hired Santana as marketing director.

The company, which provided meals for the poor, was called Judy's Catering. It was a financial shipwreck, although its travails didn't discourage Gomez from being generous.

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During a 16-month stretch when her ex was the marketing director, Judy's Catering got almost $700,000 in loans, grants and bids through Gomez's department.

One hefty loan was for $300,000. Six months later, the company's phone was disconnected, and city inspectors couldn't find the owners.

By then, Santana had popped up as executive director of a nonprofit agency called Sunshine For All Inc., which also prepares meals for the needy and inspects public housing for AIDS patients.

Once again, Santana's presence was providential. Since he joined Sunshine For All, the group has received almost $300,000 and has been promised $200,000 more.

Gomez, who has other problems relating to unorthodox loan policies at the housing agency, insists that the funds showered upon Judy's Catering and Sunshine for All had no connection to her ex-husband being employed there.

In January, Gomez told the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that she and Santana had ''no business relationship or any type of relationship for the past 30 years,'' except for a son from their brief marriage.

Santana has the same story. He says Gomez wasn't involved in steering all that money to those companies.

Please. Why can't these two crazy kids just admit they still care about each other?

Public records examined by The Miami Herald's Larry Lebowitz and Oscar Corral show that Santana's $60,000 annual salary is paid directly from city funds approved by his ex-wife.

If that ain't love, what is it?

The state attorney's office is asking the same question.

HUD initially ruled there was a conflict of interest, but the agency later reversed itself. Now its investigators are reopening the case, apparently suspecting that the good fortune trailing Santana is not the idle coincidence that he and the former Mrs. Santana claim.

Indignant taxpayers might well wonder why funds that were meant to provide services for the poor are paying the salary of a convicted drug smuggler and former fugitive.

Remember, folks, it's Miami. A six-year hitch in prison is not the worst thing you'll ever see on a résumé here.

Last week, the city's auditor blasted the housing agency for, among other things, loaning millions to developers who never finished promised projects and often didn't repay the loans.

As reported in a Miami Herald series, the agency demolished nine low-income townhomes in Overtown even though they were 70 percent complete -- and Habitat for Humanity had offered to finish them for free.

In another curious case, lobbyist Al Lorenzo was allowed to walk away from a loan of almost a million bucks that he'd received to fix up low-income apartments, most of which were eventually demolished because they became slums.

The city says that no special treatment was accorded to Lorenzo, who happened to be Mayor Manny Diaz's campaign manager in the last two elections.

As for Diaz, he insists there's no crisis in the city housing department, although he admits to having some concern about the large loans and grants awarded to employers of Ruben A. Santana.

Santana isn't the only noteworthy ex-husband of Barbara Gomez. In February, she was divorced from Rene Rodriguez, who is under criminal investigation for his actions while he was director of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency.

The county's affordable-housing program was an even bigger cesspit of corruption and cronyism than the city's. How wacky that the two people running those operations were married!

It remains to be seen if Gomez will be as helpful to Rodriguez as she has been to her previous ex-spouse, or if her beneficence toward Santana will endure through these troubled times.

Love works in mysterious ways, especially when the subpoenas start arriving.

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