Food Fight

WSVN — These seniors are among the nearly 1,300 who are fed daily as part of the Hialeah Housing Authority's lunch program. For some, it may be their only hot meal of the day.

Julio Ponce: "And I got to make sure it's top notch."

But the agency's executive director says food delivered by a catering company was far from top notch. He says some of it was so bad, the staff took pictures. There was mold on bread, rotten oranges and greasy picadillo. A tray of macaroni had melted aluminum foil, soup had a string in it, and unidentified objects showed up in rice. All set to be served to seniors but caught in time.

Julio Ponce: "Well, it's amazing that people would even deliver stuff like that."

Ponce says the food came from Construction Catering in Miami, which had held the contract for decades.

Julio Ponce: "We had another issue of wax paper melting into corn, 'harina' — it's Spanish for 'cornmeal' — and they say, 'Oh, it's just wax paper.' Well, you know what? I'm not going to serve wax paper, I'm not going to serve aluminum, and I'm not going to serve mold."

Because of concerns about quality, the agency decided to give the nearly $900,000 contract to another company.

Carmel Cafiero: "And that's when former county judge Ana Maria Pando got involved. Her parents own Construction Catering, and she represented them in a Hialeah Housing Authority meeting."

At that meeting, Pando insisted the quality issues were due to human error and that no one got sick.

Julio Ponce: "It takes one mistake, takes one person to eat one piece of meat to get sick, so everything has to be top quality every single day."

According to a transcript of the meeting, Pando pushed for her parents, saying, "If you go ahead, and decide to deny my request to give us an additional 90 days, then you may be faced to not provide food to the elderly one more day. Our services [inaudible] terminate now by law."

That meant no food delivery the next day. Pando added, "We don't want to do that, but unfortunately you are pushing us to adopt that position."

Julio Ponce: "I think it was very unprofessional."

It is not the first time Pando's professional behavior has been questioned. In 2005, while a sitting judge, she was reprimanded by the Florida Supreme Court for issues involving campaign donations and misleading statements. Last year, a 7News investigation first revealed she had helped her friend's company by using her judicial authority. She was being investigated for that until she lost her bid for reelection and resigned.

And now, a threat to cut off food to those in need.

Julio Ponce: "I made a statement in the meeting, that even if I had to go buy 1,300 hamburgers at McDonald's, they will get fed the next day."

Pando declined comment. Her parents did not respond to our requests for an interview.

Julio Ponce: "We were into the wee hours of the night trying to negotiate with local restaurants to serve 1,300 people the next day. That's where I found it to be very unprofessional for a company."

Restaurants came through, and no one went hungry that day. Now a new company is doing the catering and we're told, so far, so good.

Carmel Cafiero, 7News.


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