By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan wants to give away three county-owned properties to a financially troubled non-profit company whose owner is married to her political ally, Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert.
EcoTech Visions Foundation, Inc., whose executive director Pandwe Gibson married the mayor four months ago, would have to pay the county only $10 for a trio of lots in Opa-locka with a combined market value of $196,444 in exchange for a promise to build affordable housing on the vacant properties.
But court records, tax documents and interviews with former employees raise questions about Gibson’s ability to deliver those promised affordable homes, as well as her management of EcoTech Foundation and her similarly named for-profit, EcoTech Visions Inc.
“In my opinion, it’s hard for me to see that being a good decision [by the county],” said Juan Carlos Vasquez, who is suing EcoTech, the non-profit foundation and Gibson for breach of contract, defamation and unjust enrichment. “The way I was treated despite performing well for the company is not the kind of framework for any business to have a good foundation.”
Reached on her cellphone on Jan. 19, Gibson told a Florida Bulldog reporter that she was celebrating her birthday and could not do an interview at that time. She requested that questions be emailed to her and that she would try to respond before Jan. 22. Gibson, however, did not respond to emailed questions or to subsequent text and voicemail messages seeking comment.
Florida Bulldog emailed Commissioner Jordan and her spokeswoman, Rona Bellamy, copies of Vasquez’s Nov. 14, 2017 lawsuit filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, as well as EcoTech Foundation’s 2015 tax return – the most recent available – that shows the non-profit finished that year with a nearly $100,000 deficit. Bellamy later said Jordan was not available for comment.
Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert, reached Monday evening, demanded to know who provided a reporter with his cellphone number before he would answer any questions. He hung up when the reporter declined to disclose the source.
‘Very impressed’ with EcoTech
At a Jan. 17 county commission committee meeting where Jordan formally requested EcoTech be given the three properties, the commissioner lauded the company. “I am very impressed with the organization and their plans,” Jordan said. “They want to start doing housing development. I want to give them a shot to do that.”
On its website, Ecotech Visions Inc. bills itself as a business “incubator” that assists entrepreneurs in creating, planning and launching “green” manufacturing businesses in South Florida. The company provides business resources, office space and event space for startups developing products using recycled materials at its Miami headquarters at 670 NW 112th St, Miami FL.
The non-profit EcoTech Foundation obtains private grants to fund its programs, according to its publicly filed 2014 and 2015 federal tax returns. For instance, The Miami Foundation gave the organization a $52,500 grant in 2014 for “economic development and program support.” Today, EcoTech’s Pandwe Gibson is a member of The Miami Foundation’s board of trustees.
The tax returns show that in 2014 EcoTech Foundation began the year with $124,237 in net assets yet ended the year with $23,422 in net assets. The non-profit had $83,062 in expenses, but generated only $24,945 in revenue. The following year, EcoTech Foundation generated $153,365 in revenue but had $230,933 in expenses. It ended 2015 with a negative balance of -$98,255.
During those two years, Gibson’s annual salary from the non-profit jumped from $15,000 to $67,500. Florida Bulldog requested a copy of EcoTech Foundation’s 2016 tax return, but Gibson did not provide it.
Problems paying vendors and employees
The EcoTech entities have also experienced problems paying vendors and employees. On June 29, 2017, job placement company Robert Half International sued EcoTech Visions Inc. for nonpayment and unjust enrichment. Robert Half was retained to find and hire a financial analyst for the company. However, EcoTech failed to pay Robert Half’s $10,000 fee, the lawsuit alleges. EcoTech settled the lawsuit on Dec. 13 after Robert Half agreed to accept $6,000 of the amount owed, according to court documents.
On May 2, 2016, Vasquez entered into an “at will” employment agreement with for-profit EcoTech Visions to serve as “Digital Citizen Bootcamp Director.” A copy of the agreement was filed with the complaint. According to other court documents, Vasquez’s salary and quarterly bonuses were to be paid from proceeds of a $200,000 grant provided to EcoTech Foundation by the Knight Foundation. Vasquez’s job was to teach a seven-week course to low-income residents of Liberty City to prepare them for careers in technology.
However, EcoTech allegedly failed to pay Vasquez his quarterly bonuses even though he says he was forced to perform duties outside of his scope of work and exceeded his performance goals. He claims he was owed $15,000 in bonuses, but Gibson kept giving him the runaround. During a telephone call on March 1, 2017, Vasquez claims Gibson told him that EcoTech was having financial issues and that she had used money from the Knight Foundation grant to pay some of the nonprofit’s financial liabilities, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit includes copies of emails and text messages between Gibson and Vasquez that support his allegations. For instance, on March 16, 2017, Gibson sent Vasquez a text message stating that she would present a proposal to EcoTech Foundation’s board of directors to include an extra $500 in his regular paychecks until the full amount of the bonuses was paid.
Two weeks later, a fed-up Vasquez sent an email to EcoTech Foundation’s five board members to complain that Gibson was not following through on her promises to him. He also claimed that he had witnessed a “significant number of employee limited notice firings.”
Vasquez also contends that Gibson and EcoTech managing director Charles Hill, another defendant in Vasquez’s lawsuit, defamed him by sending the board memos making false allegations that he had violated the terms of his employment agreement, had been late to several meetings and had failed to respond to correspondence from his supervisor. He left EcoTech on April 1, 2017. An email from Hill to Vasquez asserts that he quit, but Vasquez maintains that he was fired.
In a phone interview, Vasquez said he provided the board of directors with documentation that showed EcoTech was using the Knight Foundation proceeds for expenses unrelated to the boot camp. “There was a lot of turnover and the number of employees who were missing payments was concerning,” he said. “It was unpredictable if you were going to get paid or not.”
Vasquez said that during his time at EcoTech, the company was not involved in real estate development. “I didn’t see that angle as being a focus of our mission,” he said. “That would be a surprise to me.”
Another former employee of for-profit EcoTech, who requested anonymity out of fear Gibson would retaliate, said Knight Foundation funds were also used to pay staffers who were not part of the “Digital Citizen” program. “She misappropriated the funds,” the ex-employee said. “And documentation she provided the Knight Foundation was not accurate.”
The ex-employee also said EcoTech was not involved in real estate development, but that Gibson is one of 12 investors in a company called Miami Millennial Investment Firm that has renovated and sold at least two homes in Liberty City. “Pandwe is not involved in the day-to-day and has not made any decisions about development,” the ex-employee claimed. “She is only an owner.”
In an Aug. 23, 2017 letter to Commissioner Jordan, Gibson claims that she and EcoTech Visions Inc. have developed eight residential and seven commercial properties in Miami-Dade, and that through her involvement with the Miami Millennial firm, EcoTech participated in the “designing, permitting, building and selling of over 30 developments.”
On Oct. 1, Gibson tied the knot with Miami Gardens Mayor Gilbert, who gave Jordan a commendation last year when she received a county proclamation for her contributions to Miami-Dade’s Head Start program. Both politicians have endorsed and campaigned for one another for reelection.