By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert says his reelection campaign is under investigation for making a $14,000 donation to a company that shares office space with his private law practice.
In a recent email to a Florida Bulldog reporter, Gilbert declined to answer questions about the large expenditure his reelection campaign made the day before the Aug. 30, 2016 election. A campaign finance report shows the money was donated to Champion Learning, a tutoring, mentoring and after school services company which has the same Miami Lakes address as Gilbert’s Eden Law Services of South Florida
Records filed by Gilbert’s campaign identify Champion Learning as a nonprofit. State corporate records list is as a for profit entity. The campaign’s Aug. 31, 2016 finance report lists the purpose of the $14,000 as “donations of funds to a 501(c)3 firm.”
Gilbert cited the ongoing investigation as his reason for declining comment. He would not say which agency is handling the probe or if he has retained an attorney in the matter. “I intend to fully cooperate with the investigation,” he said. “Hopefully others will cooperate with the investigation also.”
Kendra Bulluck-Major, Champion Learning’s president, also declined comment when reached by phone. “I am not interested in answering any questions for an article,” she said.
Ethics commission investigator
A former city official who requested anonymity said he was recently interviewed by an investigator from the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust who is trying to determine if the $14,000 donation violated campaign finance laws. “There’s something about it that doesn’t smell right,” the ex-official said. “The ethics investigator also wants to take this to the state attorney in order to determine where the funds were ultimately deposited. Gilbert definitely has reason for concern.”
Ethics commission Executive Director Joe Centorino said that he would be unable to comment on the existence of any pending investigation. A criminal or ethics inquiry into Gilbert would mark the second time in 10 months that a politician Miami-Dade’s third-largest city is in the crosshairs of corruption watchdogs.
Last August, The Miami Herald reported that the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office opened an investigation into how Miami Gardens Vice Mayor Erhabor Ighodaro paid for two trips to Africa that he claims were for city business. Florida Bulldog has reported that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is conducting a broader investigation into allegations the city has misspent proceeds from a $60-million general obligation bond issue, including using those monies to cover expenses for the mayor, vice mayor and five other city council members.
Mayor Gilbert’s Eden Law Services of South Florida and Champion Learning share Suite 102 in a drab four-story office building at 6175 NW 153rd St. in Miami Lakes. No signs announce the presence of either Eden Law or Champion, and no one was present when a reporter recently visited.
Bulluck-Major also listed the same address in 2013 as treasurer for a defunct for profit corporation called Citizens for Progress and Accountability. Its president was Sandra Pierre-Paul, Gilbert’s former executive secretary who is now the information officer for the Miami Gardens Park and Recreation Department.
While Champion Learning is a for profit company, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ records identify it as a fictitious name for Sisters for Abundant Living Ministries, a federally tax exempt 501(c)(3) organization that also operates out of the Miami Lakes office. State records, however, show that fictitious name registration expired five years ago.
The charity changed its name to Sisters for Abundant Living Inc. in June 2016.
On its website, Champion Learning states it is able to accept donations on behalf of Sisters for Abundant Living Ministries.
Kinley Tuten, an agriculture department spokesperson, said Florida law allows a for profit organization to solicit funds for a nonprofit arm as long as those funds are then used for the nonprofit.
Federal income tax records show that Sisters was established in 2005. Its president is Gardenia T. Bulluck, who in 2016 was paid $10,000. Kendra Bulluck-Major, Gardenia’s daughter, was listed as Sisters’ executive director and earned $73,000. Sisters’ reported total revenue that year of nearly $1.1 million and expenses of $892,000. The charity received $1.064 million in government funds, the principal source identified only as an unspecified state grant “to help with the outreach program of the youth and adults in Broward and Dade counties.”
Sister’s most recent state registration application says it uses that money “to hold seminars, to provide health services, educational services, mentoring and counseling of women and disadvantaged youth.”
Gardenia Bulluck could not be reached for comment.
The Gilbert campaign’s itemized $14,000 expenditure to Champion Learning appears problematic for other reasons, too.
Election law violated?
According to Roger Austin, a University of Florida political science expert on campaign finance, Gilbert’s reelection campaign may have violated Florida law governing how to use surplus campaign funds because the gift was made before Election Day.
“He does not appear to have followed the law,” Austin said. “The fact he spent the money before Election Day is troubling because any money spent up to Election Day should be for getting votes…I am not sure how that expense would generate votes.”
The mayor’s reelection campaign may also have to explain why Champion Learning was identified as a nonprofit entity, when it is not.
“Florida law doesn’t allow giving surplus funds to for-profit companies,” Austin said. “Although many organizations and entities have a complex structure that allow them to sort of route money wherever they want, this one could have a for-profit division, a nonprofit division and a charitable division.”
The $14,000 donation warrants further inquiry, Austin said.
“Having done this for many years as a lawyer, a campaign finance consultant and as someone who wrote his dissertation on campaign finance reform, this looks and smells like there is something shady going on,” he said. “It is definitely worth checking into.”