By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Call them the ingredients seasoning the latest drama to roil Miami-Dade’s third most populous city: a mayor’s romance, a sweetheart contract and a $12,300 earmark.
On May 13, 2015, Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert III spearheaded a resolution to help two black-owned for-profit companies that specialized in assisting minority start-ups obtain control of the city’s soon-to-be-abandoned police headquarters. The firms wanted to transform the old cop shop into a launching pad for entrepreneurial-minded residents.
The mayor’s deal, approved unanimously by the city council the same day, called for Miami Gardens to charge Digital Grass and EcoTech Visions just $1 a year in rent as long as the companies maintained the property and provided discounted service fees to any Miami Gardens businesses that sought assistance.
Today, Mayor Gilbert and EcoTech’s founder and president, Pandwe Gibson, are husband and wife. And that’s got city activists complaining that Gilbert may have violated ethics rules by courting Gibson while promoting her business incubator program and voting last month to approve the city’s 2018 budget. The budget included a $12,300 line item to pay for maintenance at the rented-out building.
“As a public official, and more importantly, as the city’s chief elected official, he should avoid any appearance of impropriety,” said James Wright, a private security company owner who ran unsuccessfully against Gilbert in 2016. “There’s an appearance that there was an ongoing relationship long before his marriage to Gibson. Those are the types of things in public service we want to avoid.”
An ethics opinion
Gilbert told Florida Bulldog he’s taken steps to ensure he doesn’t have a conflict-of-interest, including obtaining an opinion from the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust shortly after marrying Gibson.
“I solicited an ethics opinion because I wanted to make sure the ethics commission was aware of the situation and seek guidance so that everything would be transparent and above board,” Gilbert said. “The appearance of impropriety only exists when people try to hide what they’re doing.
Gibson did not return a phone message and two emails requesting responses to questions about her relationship with the mayor and EcoTech’s incubator program in Miami Gardens.
Michael Hall, co-founder of Digital Grass, said he is the one who initially approached city officials in March 2015 about implementing a start-up business assistance program and that he brought in EcoTech as a strategic partner. “I pitched them a presentation for the opportunity to use [the police headquarters] when it became available,” Hall said. “I had a couple of meetings with the manager and the mayor.”
Hall recalls that Gibson briefly attended the May 13, 2015 city council meeting, but said he did most of the presentation. Five months later, he and Gibson signed a “use, occupancy and service” agreement with the city for their companies to utilize the old police building, located at 1020 NW 163rd Dr. Among other things, the agreement requires EcoTech to provide assistance like mentoring and providing discounted co-working space to 15 firms within five years, host courses, conferences and seminars and be responsible for repairs and maintenance to the building. Digital Grass was required to assist five companies.
Hall said Digital Grass exited after Miami Gardens officials tried to change the deal. “At one point, we were going to take the whole building,” Hall said. “Then they told us we would only get a portion of it, which impacted our ability to get investors for the project. Things didn’t pan out and the project moved forward without Digital Grass’ involvement.”
In early 2016 the police department relocated to a site further north on NW 183rd Street and 27th Avenue. With Digital Grass out, that left EcoTech as the agreement’s sole provider – a status that Miami Gardens Deputy City Manager Vernita Nelson said in an email has not been officially revised to reflect that Digital Grass is no longer involved.
Grand opening in January
Nelson said EcoTech moved into the building in September 2017, but held its official grand opening in January. She added that EcoTech has been holding an average of six seminars and workshops during the past six months and that each one was attended by an average of 50 to 60 residents. Asked if EcoTech had provided a list of local businesses that are leasing co-working spaces and receiving incubator services at discounted rates, Nelson replied: “The city does not have this information.”
A Florida Bulldog reporter visited the police-station-turned-Ecotech-incubator on Feb. 26 during mid-day. The space was virtually empty. No one was behind the reception desk and a man in a t-shirt and shorts was sleeping on a black sofa in a lounge area. A woman sitting at a desk with a computer in a cramped office said she did not know Gibson and declined an interview.
By contrast, LAB Miami, a business incubator in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood, has dozens of tables that are occupied by entrepreneurs, as well as offices and cubicles. What’s more, as reported by Florida Bulldog in January, recent lawsuits against EcoTech raise questions about the firm’s finances and ability to perform.
Last June, Robert Half International sued EcoTech Visions Inc. for nonpayment and unjust enrichment. The job placement company accused Gibson’s firm of failing to pay Robert Half a $10,000 fee to find and hire a financial analyst. In December, EcoTech settled by agreeing to pay Robert Half $6,000 of the amount owed.
Last Nov. 14, Juan Carlos Vazquez sued Gibson, EcoTech and a non-profit foundation bearing the same name for breach of contract, defamation and unjust enrichment. Vazquez claims that EcoTech owes him $15,000 in unpaid bonuses and defamed him by sending letters about alleged poor work performance to members of the non-profit EcoTech Visions Foundation’s board. The lawsuit includes copies of emails and text messages between Gibson and Vazquez that support his allegations, including exchanges in which Gibson admits that her company is struggling to pay expenses.
A 2015 tax return for the foundation — the most recent available — shows the non-profit finished the year with a nearly $100,000 deficit. Florida Bulldog has twice requested that Gibson provide a copy of the foundation’s 2016 tax return, but she has not done so. Federally recognized charities are required by law to make available for public inspection their annual information returns for three years after the due date.
Last Oct. 7, six days after his nuptials, Gilbert sought a conflict-of-interest opinion from Joe Centorino, the ethics commission’s executive director. Gilbert informed Centorino that he and Gibson — who claims a doctorate’s degree from California-based Claremont Graduate University — did not begin a romantic relationship until after the city council voted in favor of the May 13, 2015 resolution. But he did not specify the date they became a couple.
‘We fell in love’
“Sometime later, Dr. Gibson and I began to see each other socially,” Gilbert wrote. “Eventually, Dr. Gibson became Pandwe to me, our relationship matured, we fell in love, I proposed, and we were married.”
Gilbert, who is paid a $42,000-a-year salary as mayor, explained that he wanted to create a program where city residents with start-up businesses could share work space with one another and receive assistance in business development. EcoTech was brought in to administer the program and help the city obtain state funding for it, Gilbert wrote. He asked Centorino how he should handle any potential voting conflicts on matters involving EcoTech.
“While others are capable of advocating and recruiting, it is an inherent part of my responsibilities as mayor and I’m good at it,” Gilbert wrote. “I understand that my interaction with city staff on this matter should be limited at most, but can I still recruit businesses and promote in the way that I do for other Miami Gardens businesses and can I still lobby for the maker space funding as part of the city’s legislative agenda?”
Gilbert did not disclose that on Sept. 27 he voted in favor of the city’s 2018 budget, which city records say included $12,300 earmarked for “Eco Tech Bldg. Maint.” Deputy Manager Nelson said the money was to cover the cost of inspections for the fire alarms, sprinklers, generator and other safety components of the former police building. “It’s required to be maintained by the city as the owner,” Nelson said.
The agreement, however, says maintenance at the former police station is EcoTech’s responsibility.
Four days later, the mayor and Gibson got hitched. Screenshots of Gibson’s Facebook account — sent to Florida Bulldog by a confidential source — show the newlyweds celebrating their honeymoon with a trip to the Middle and Far East that included a hot-air balloon ride in Dubai, a chartered plane tour around Mt. Everest and a visit to the Taj Mahal.
Contract gets thumbs up
Ethics Commission Executive Director Centorino responded to Gilbert on Oct. 30 after reviewing EcoTech’s occupancy agreement and prohibitions in Miami-Dade’s ethics code restricting elected officials and their immediate family members from transacting business with the government they represent. Centorino determined that EcoTech could continue with its contract because Gilbert voted for it before beginning a romantic relationship with Gibson.
But Centorino told Gilbert he would have to refrain from voting on any future legislation involving EcoTech, as well as participating or interfering in any matters regarding his wife’s company. “You should even avoid discussing the [EcoTech] contract with your wife to avoid any possibility that you might disclose confidential information regarding the contract,” Centorino wrote. He also noted that a willful violation of the prohibition would be considered misfeasance, punishable through removal from office.
Centorino is on vacation until March 5 and could not be reached for comment. Ethics commission advocate Michael Murawski declined comment. In a Feb. 27 email response to questions, Gilbert said he met Gibson sometime between 2012 and 2013, and that they became a couple in late 2016 or early 2017. He said he was not sure of the exact dates.
The mayor said that Gibson’s academic and professional background “made her uniquely capable” of helping the city draft a proposal to seek state funds for the incubator and co-working space program. He also said he did not request the $12,300 allocation for the building last fall, and did not have a conflict voting for it as part of the budget.
“At that time, I was not married to Dr. Gibson and was advised by our attorney that there was no conflict that would allow me not to vote on the city’s $100 million budget,” Gilbert said. “In fact, the city manager placed the allocation for maintenance in the budget highlights so that it could never be said that anyone tried to hide anything.”
Nevertheless, the mayor’s critics believe he hasn’t done enough to distance himself from EcoTech. Wright said Gilbert should consider asking his wife to divest her interest in EcoTech Visions or give up the contract. “It just looks and smells bad,” Wright said. “I don’t care how you cut it.”