Hialeah’s mayor, a former crony, an off-the-books city gig and an ethics investigation

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, left, and retired Hialeah police officer Glenn Rice Photo: NBC6

Being a political operative for Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez comes with city perks.

Glenn Rice — a former city cop who worked on the mayor’s 2011 and 2013 campaigns — collected roughly $12,000 during a three-year period acting as an off-the-books employee monitoring the company Hialeah hired to collect trash from private homes, as well as investigating potential hires and vendors, according to an April 25 Miami-Dade ethics commission close-out memo.

Ethics commission officials began probing Rice’s work for the city between 2013 and 2016 while investigating separate criminal allegations that Hernandez was shaking down local businesses, and that Rice was collecting bribes on the mayor’s behalf. At the time, Rice was also working as a $2,000-a-month consultant for three city vendors, including two garbage-collection firms.

While ethics investigator Karl Ross didn’t find enough evidence to recommend the filing of ethics or criminal charges against Hernandez, his findings suggest the mayor attempted to conceal his involvement in the city retaining Rice’s services. Hernandez did not return a message left with his secretary Thursday afternoon and his defense lawyer, Tom Cobitz, declined comment.

Ross began looking into the relationship between Hernandez and Rice on Aug.13, 2015, according to ethics commission records. The ethics investigator, along with a detective and a prosecutor with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, interviewed Hialeah Police Lt. Rick Fernandez and Hialeah firefighters union representative Eric Johnson. Both men accused Hernandez of “extorting” two local businessmen and claimed that Rice was the mayor’s bagman.

When Hernandez, who was a high-ranking Hialeah police officer before becoming a councilman, ran for mayor in 2011 and re-election two years later, Rice often engaged his political godfather’s opponents in public confrontations. Among the Hernandez detractors Rice accosted include former Mayor Raul Martinez and blogger ex-Miami Herald reporter Elaine de Valle, who first wrote about the ethics investigation on her blog, Political Cortadito.

Hernandez and Rice have since apparently had a falling out. “Lt. Fernandez stated Rice is no longer on good terms with Mayor Hernandez,” a March 30 ethics investigative report said. “[Fernandez] stated he knows Rice well, and that [Rice] might be willing to cooperate if issued immunity via subpoena.”

In a sworn statement last fall, Hernandez said Rice volunteered to be his campaign’s “ally,” “political informant” and “snitch.” But the mayor — despite being Hialeah’s top bureaucrat — said he did not know how Rice ended up overseeing the rollout of trash-collection services by Progressive Waste Solutions. “I think he volunteered,” Hernandez told investigators on Sept. 26. He then referred them to Armando Vidal, the city’s public works director, for more specifics. “I think he can better answer the question,” Hernandez said.

Mayor denies wrongdoing

The mayor also vehemently denied directing any vendors or local business owners to make payments to him via Rice. “He said he felt Rice ‘took a lot of liberties’ and ‘used the perception of influence’ to make money,” the close-out memo states.

On Feb. 3, Vidal gave a sworn statement contradicting the mayor. “Mr. Vidal advised that several of the jobs originated with Mayor Hernandez and that Rice’s involvement was expressly requested,” the close-out memo states. “He said the mayor wanted Rice to assist the public works department in monitoring issues relating to solid waste, and also to assist the city attorney in vetting a consulting firm.”

Additionally, Vidal said he believed Hernandez was aware that Rice was being paid through a legal services contract the city had with the law firm of Miami Lakes Councilman Ceasar Mestre, who told ethics investigators he has been friends with the Hialeah mayor since 1983. Rice was subcontracted to handle “relevant investigative duties.”

“[Vidal] said the mayor trusted Rice to provide an independent look at matters relating to City of Hialeah affairs,” the close-out memo said. The public works director also showed ethics investigator Ross invoices totaling $18,056 the city paid Mestre’s law practice. Two-thirds of the money was paid to Rice, according to ethics investigators. Vidal could not be reached for comment because he is on vacation this week.

On April 4, Mestre met with Ross and told him it was either Vidal or Rice who approached him about providing legal services and that the arrangement would include the former Hialeah police officer. (Mestre was also a city cop from 1983 to 1987.) “Mestre said he never considered that his law firm was being used as a way to conceal payments to Rice from public view,” the close- out memo states. “He said, ‘that was never discussed… Mayor Hernandez and I never talked about this until after the fact.’”

Mestre did not return a message left with his secretary or an email requesting comment.

When Ross contacted Rice, the ex-cop said Hernandez “was aware of these payments” through Mestre’s law firm. In an email response to Florida Bulldog, Rice did not comment on what is written about him in the close-out memo and other investigative reports. But he said Vidal told the truth.

“Armando Vidal may be considered to be brash and an a-hole by many,” Rice said. “But he is one of the most honorable men I’ve ever come to know and he DOES NOT and will not lie for anyone.”

Miami City Attorney’s Office in another fight – this time with the county ethics commission

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Ethics Commission wants to know if a Miami assistant city attorney lied to the city commission about a controversial megayacht marina and resort project planned for Watson Island.

Miami-Dade Ethics Commission wants to know if a Miami assistant city attorney lied to the city commission about a controversial megayacht marina and resort project planned for Watson Island.

A City of Miami senior assistant city attorney is trying to block the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust from reconsidering its decision six months ago to not sanction her for breaking local ethics rules.

In a recent petition filed with the appellate division of the Miami-Dade Judicial Court, Robin Jones Jackson claims the ethics commission doesn’t have the authority to reopen a closed complaint. The complaint alleged that she knowingly gave false statements to city commissioners two years ago when they approved changes to a massive Watson Island development project.

On July 13, the ethics commission voted 3-2 to rehear Jackson’s case after weighing new information presented by Coral Gables-based attorney Samuel Dubbin, who represents Stephen Herbits, a community activist who filed the complaint against the assistant city attorney.

Herbits has been locked in a long-running legal battle with the city to stop a megayacht marina and resort project on Watson Island being developed by Flagstone Property Group. In 2014, the city commission approved a restructured lease agreement with the developer. Herbits claims Jones Jackson was untruthful when she informed city commissioners that Miami was on the hook for $58 million in damages if the deal didn’t go through.

Herbits maintains the city had no liability and that Jones Jackson made her recommendation knowing that the amended lease agreement violated the city charter, thus making the new deal with Flagstone null and void.

“The ethics commission recognized there were serious questions about the quality and objectivity of a staff investigation, so it voted to revisit it,” Dubbin told Florida Bulldog. “No county law prohibits [the commission] from doing so. Otherwise, the commission has no authority over the integrity of the complaint process.”

Miami Senior Assistant City Attorney Robin Jones Jackson

Miami Senior Assistant City Attorney Robin Jones Jackson

Jones Jackson is challenging the ethics commission at a time the City Attorney’s Office faces accusations it’s beholden to developers. Last week, four city commissioners rejected their colleague Ken Russell’s attempt to fire Jones Jackson’s boss Victoria Mendez over her handling of a zoning matter in Coconut Grove. Russell said he lost confidence in Mendez because she withheld public records from him that showed she helped a developer’s attorney bypass a city board’s approval on behalf of his client.

Ethics commission executive director Joe Centorino and ethics commission advocate Michael Murawski, who presents cases to the board, declined comment for this story. Jones Jackson and her lawyers, Joseph Serota and Laura Wendell, did not respond to emails and phone messages requesting comment.

According to Jones Jackson’s petition, the ethics commission lacks jurisdiction to reopen closed investigations that ended in findings of no probable cause. On March 29, the ethics commission found no probable cause to Herbits’ complaint. Her attorneys argue that four months later Dubbin was allowed to make his case in an unusual public session as to why there is probable cause.

The ethics commission acted after Dubbin successfully lobbied his point that Herbits was entitled to present his arguments because he was a personally aggrieved party. Dubbin said the county ordinance governing the ethics commission allows complainants to show they have been personally affected by the alleged violation.

“Irreparable injury”

“The actions of the ethics commission departed from the essential requirements of law, deprived Jones Jackson of her right to due process and confidentiality,” her petition claims. “And its decision has caused and will continue to cause irreparable injury.”

The case shows how difficult it is for citizens who file complaints to prove public officials committed ethics violations. According to a transcript of the July 13 meeting, Dubbin assailed the ethic commission’s practice of adjudicating cases without allowing complainants to present evidence that help prove their allegations or dispute Murawski’s recommendations of no probable cause. Cases are decided in sessions closed to the public and in which only Murawski and attorneys for the accused are permitted to address the board.

Dubbin said he analyzed every complaint adjudicated by the ethics commission from July 2014 to July 2016. He found that Murawski has recommended no probable cause in 66 percent of those cases, and that the ethics commission approved 98.5 percent of Murawski’s recommendations.

Dubbin said Murawski never asked him or his client for documents they had showing Jones Jackson was well aware that Flagstone had already defaulted on its lease and could not sue the city.

“For whatever reason, the advocate never asked for that information, never,” Dubbin told the ethics board. “Some of it was in their file and it was ignored by the advocate.” The lawyer also accused Murawski of “making subjective determinations about Mr. Herbits’ credibility based upon collateral information and incorrect information.”

Dubbin told ethics commissioners there is no county law that prevents them from reversing an earlier decision. “There is nothing in your rules that precludes you from reconsidering it or from sending it back for a reinvestigation,” he said. “And anything that is not precluded, I would submit is allowed.”

Murawski, a former prosecutor, countered that the ordinance creating the ethics commission doesn’t allow for the board members to reconsider cases. He also warned them they would be opening the door to other complainants demanding that their cases be reheard. “From a practical standpoint, I would ask you to take a good hard look at whether or not you want to set a precedent of having … people come back and say, ‘No, no, Murawski screwed up, he didn’t do a good investigation,’ ” the advocate said. “There should be a certain finality for all of the parties involved that’s based on what we have done here and the conclusions that we’ve made.”

However, ethics commission board member Marcia Narine Weldon said she would not have made the motion or voted in March to find no probable cause against Jones Jackson had she seen the documents Dubbin presented.

“The reason I was so troubled with this the last time is I think you ought to be held to a higher standard if you are the city attorney,” Weldon said. “As attorney for the people and attorney for the city, she has to be held to a higher standard.”

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