By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
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.”
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.
“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.”