By Dan Christensen and Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
President Trump’s nominee to become the next U.S. Marshal in South Florida is the brother-in-law of Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera.
The nomination of Gadyaces Serralta, a Miami-Dade police major, for the $160,000-a-year job was sent to the Senate last week for confirmation.
Serralta is married to Lopez-Cantera’s sister, Monica. Florida Bulldog reported in 2014 that he’d previously come under scrutiny in a public corruption investigation by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office focusing on thousands of dollars in fees that were paid by Lopez-Cantera’s 2008 state House campaign to an electioneering business owned by the Serraltas.
Assistant State Attorney Howard Rosen concluded in his March 2011 close out memo that no crime was committed, but said, “While it may not look good to campaign contributors or to the general public that a company wholly held by the candidate’s sister and brother-in-law made a profit on the campaign, actual work was done by them and there is nothing to preclude them from profiting from their work.”
Still, Miami-Dade Police reprimanded then-Lt. Serralta for failing to tell his bosses he was moonlighting as a political consultant, according to his internal affairs file.
On Tuesday, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott, McKinley Lewis, said that Lt. Gov. Lopez-Cantera did not speak to anyone in the White House about his brother-in-law’s nomination. Attempts to reach Serralta via Miami-Dade police were unsuccessful.
Rubio appoints Lopez-Cantera
Lopez-Cantera is the statewide chair of Florida’s Federal Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC), the bipartisan group that traditionally has recommended to the White House finalists for federal judgeships, U.S. Attorney and U.S. Marshal. He was appointed last May by his friend and fellow Republican, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
Despite Lopez-Cantera’s denial of involvement, it is widely believed that he made a behind-the-scenes push to get Serralta the U.S. Marshal’s job. “What I don’t know is if he got into Rubio’s ear on this and said, ‘Hey, do me a favor. Here’s my guy,’” said a senior federal source.
Rubio could have torpedoed Serralta’s nomination by returning an unfavorable blue slip opinion about him to the White House. That apparently was not done.
Rubio’s office did not respond to requests for comment about whether he recommended Serralta to the White House.
Under President Trump, JNC rules in place since the mid-1970s were changed last year. The JNC no longer publicly vets candidates for U.S. Marshal and U.S. Attorney in Florida’s three judicial districts or short lists finalists for the president’s consideration. The vetting process included completing applications that were available for public inspection and public interviews.
“These decisions are now being made in the dark,” said a JNC member who spoke on condition of anonymity.
New rules this year
Florida’s two senators, Rubio and Bill Nelson, a Democrat, agreed on a new set of rules for the JNC in April 2017 that jettisoned reviews of candidates for U.S. Attorney and U.S. Marshal. Three JNC members interviewed by Florida Bulldog said the White House pushed for that change.
The Miami Herald reported last June that Republican Rubio, as the presiding senator for the JNC, imposed the change in favor of direct recommendations to the White House and Justice Department.
Nelson’s office also did not respond to a detailed request for comment. Nelson has a secondary role in the JNC, which includes selecting less of its members than Rubio, because Trump is a Republican.
President Trump forced out each of the nation’s 93 U.S. Attorneys a few months after taking office. Speculation about candidates for South Florida’s top law enforcement job have been rife ever since. Today, informed sources said the name of Miami-Dade Circuit family court judge Ariana Fajardo Orshan is now before President Trump for consideration. Orshan was appointed to the state bench in 2012 by Gov. Rick Scott, is a former assistant state attorney.
Candidates for positions other than federal judge were instructed to submit their resume, cover letter, desired department and “optional information” about their race, gender and political party online directly to the Executive Office of the President. How many individuals applied for the job of U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of Florida isn’t known. Also not known: how the President chooses a nominee. The White House did not respond to a detailed request for comment made on Monday.
The U.S. Marshal is responsible for protecting the federal judiciary, apprehending fugitives, transporting prisoners and protecting witnesses.
According to the Trump Administration’s press release announcing Serralta’s appointment, he is a 28-year veteran of the Miami-Dade Police Department who today serves as commander of the Palmetto Bay Policing Unit. Serralta was promoted to major in 2015 after a career working primarily in the Criminal Street Gangs Unit, Organized Crime Section and, as a lieutenant in charge of the Robbery Intervention and Narcotics Detail. He holds an undergraduate degree in criminal justice from Florida International University and a master’s degree in leadership from Nova Southeastern University.
High Ridge Consultants
On October 9, 2008, Serralta and his wife formed High Ridge Consultants, a company that went on to make $37,500 for campaign work on behalf of Lopez-Cantera’s then re-election campaign for state representative. At the time, the cop and his spouse did not have any experience in political consulting.
Four years later, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office opened its probe based on a citizen’s complaint alleging that “Lopez-Cantera misused campaign funds from his 2008 re-election campaign by siphoning out several thousand dollars through a fictitious company which did not do any real work for the campaign and which was owned by his family members.”
In a 2014 interview with Florida Bulldog, Nova Southeastern University law and ethics professor Robert Jarvis said the arrangement between High Ridge and the Lopez-Cantera campaign raised questions of impropriety since three other established political consulting firms were already on the job.
“It looks like featherbedding,” said Jarvis, referring to the practice of hiring more employees than are needed to do the job. “It looks like, ‘I’m going to take care of my relatives.’”
Nevertheless, investigators obtained bank records that showed High Ridge cut 46 checks totaling $5,760 to pay poll workers and the Serraltas provided receipts and invoices for $6,698 in campaign-related expenses. Lopez-Cantera would use High Ridge again in 2010, paying the firm $15,000.
Serralta also stirred up controversy as a gang unit detective. A 2012 Miami New Times investigation revealed that in 1996 Serralta failed to protect the identity of a 15-year-old confidential informant. According to the story, Bosco Enriquez wore a wire for Serralta and helped bring down members of a notorious gang called the International Posse. Serralta released Enriquez’s name in court documents that put the boy in peril. He was almost beaten to death during a gang fight and his house was shot up in retaliation by gang members.
In 2016, four officers under Serralta’s command in Palmetto Bay barged into a home where they shot and killed Ethan Rincon, a 25-year-old man who had been damaging cars in his neighborhood with a pick axe. The cops claimed Rincon lunged at them, forcing them to shoot him multiple times.