By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
There’s no arguing that Miami Gardens Councilman David Williams Jr. is a big fan of Arline’s Soul & Seafood Restaurant.
City records show that from Jan. 1, 2014 to March 31, 2018, Williams’ city-issued “P-Card,” a debit card, was used to pay $1,821 for 58 visits to Arline’s at 2770 NW 167th St., Miami Gardens. That’s about a third of the $5,539 Williams spent during the same period dining out and ordering take-out.
The city-supplied purchasing card also funded Williams’ purchases of $13,945 of building supplies at Home Depot and Lowe’s, $13,690 of goods at wholesalers Costco and BJ’s and $4,750 of printing and school supplies at Office Depot and Staples.
In all, records show, Councilman Williams racked up a total of $68,033 in city debit-card charges from 2014 through the first three months of 2018. Where else did he shop? Publix, Winn-Dixie, CVS, Walgreens, Dick’s Sporting Goods, various gas stations and an exotic animal store called Strictly Reptiles. Williams, too, used his city card to pay for hotel rooms and fees for the annual Congressional Black Caucus in 2015 and 2017.
Williams’ city expense records, as well as those of his six colleagues on the council, are a focus of a wide-ranging investigation begun last fall by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC is trying to determine whether Miami Gardens improperly diverted funds from a $60 million general obligation bond issue authorized by the council in 2014.
The borrowing was intended to pay the costs of “remodeling, reconstructing, constructing, reconfiguring, retrofitting, furnishing and equipping city parks and parks facilities, purchasing crime prevention equipment for law enforcement assistance via electronic means, providing facilities for expanding community activities in parks, and renovating, constructing and purchasing parks facilities and land for new or expanded parks,” according to city records.
Miami Gardens taxpayers generally footed the bill for the purchases by Williams and the other city council members. But in a twist, three council members – Williams, Lisa Davis and Mayor Oliver Gilbert – said that some of those debit-card purchases were actually covered by private donations they raised to pay for various community projects. They said the donations went into a city-managed account that paid the bills.
An official purpose
In an interview, Williams said all his transactions served an official city purpose.
“Everything I use it for has a public benefit,” Williams said. “The billing statements can be misleading. I am questioned by the finance department all the time. It looks funny when a council member buys a bag of cement. But if they go and investigate, they will see that bag was used to pour cement at a school.”
Williams also defended his charges at local restaurants. “When I am talking to someone about donating money to the city or an event I am having, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for me not to pay for their lunch,” he said. “I may also have a lunch meeting with a principal about something relating to science or buy lunch for my volunteers.”
SEC Senior Regional Counsel Scott Lowry asked the city to turn over thousands of pages of records last September and December. Included in those requests were all documents and communications concerning expense reports for Gilbert, Davis, Williams, Vice Mayor Erhabor Igohodaro and council members Lillie Odom, Rodney Harris and Felicia Robinson.
On Jan. 10, the city produced a binder and a CD with the requested records, including four folders labeled “legislative expenses” for the fiscal years 2014-2017. Florida Bulldog made a public records request to obtain P-Card billing statements and expenditure reports for the entire council from 2014 through the first three months of 2018.
The documents show that council members and their aides, who also receive P-Cards, are liberally charging for goods and services later approved by the city’s finance department after the transactions have been debited. Interviews with current and former city officials reveal that council members are left to police themselves and monitor their own P-Card use.
What’s more, city funds have been co-mingled with unaccounted-for private funds that have been used to pay for council members’ transactions.
Council members must certify transactions
City spokeswoman Karen Clarke said it is the responsibility of each council member to certify the transaction is appropriate and meets a public purpose. She said single transactions are generally limited to $2,500 and monthly spending is capped at $5,000.
“There are instances where these limits may be increased depending on the nature of business conducted by our council members,” Clarke said.
For critics, P-Cards are an invitation for wrongdoing. J. Edwin Benton, a professor of local and state government at the University of South Florida, said P-Cards are traditionally handed out to municipal and state employees involved in purchasing decisions.
“A city council member doesn’t have to fix sewers or traffic lights, so what the hell do they need a P-Card for?” Benton said. “P-Cards were introduced as a way of saving time. The trade-off is you introduce the opportunity for mischief. You have to use common sense when it comes to who really needs them.”
Seven Miami Gardens city council members used their P-Cards during the same fiscal period to charge more than a third of a million dollars in purchases — $349,115, in fact.
After Gilbert ($89,082) and Williams ($68,033), the biggest spenders during the same period were Robinson ($49,000), Davis ($44,000), Ighadoro ($38,000), Odom ($34,000) and Harris ($27,000).
Lax oversight appears to have led some Miami Gardens council members to use their P-Cards to shower their constituents with freebies. For instance, on May 11-12, 2017, Davis bought Publix gift cards to hand out on Mother’s Day according to her expenditure report. She spent nearly $550 in three separate transactions, but the number of gift cards purchased is not on the report.
In July, Davis spent nearly $350 for VIP tickets to the EB Sweet Butter Pop-Up Dinner Show in Overtown. Her expenditure report does not state who received the VIP tickets or how it was related to official city business.
Davis’ records also show that from Jan. 1, 2014 through March 31, 2018 she made 47 trips to Walmart, using her P-Card to spend a total of $12,755. During the same period, her card was used 12 times to spend $5,322 at Target.
In an email, Davis defended the transactions as gifts to Miami Gardens residents: “Please note that the events that are referenced in your email are all for the constituents of the City of Miami Gardens, whether it be for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Toy Giveaways, book bag giveaways, or events for the elderly and foster parents who work so hard in this community.”
Davis argued that buying gift cards for local moms and toys for local children is one way the city invests in the lives of its residents. “To be a part of giving back to the lives of our people makes our society better,” said Davis, who did not run for re-election this year. “Funding for these events are either allocated by the City Council, paid out of my charter allocation or supported by outside sponsorships and they have all been for valid public purposes.”
Billing statements for Mayor Gilbert show his P-card is primarily used to cover his extensive travel schedule to national conferences, including $11,000 for airline tickets and nearly $20,000 for hotel stays between Jan. 1, 2014 and March 31 of this year.
Gilbert’s billing statement shows he liked swanky hotels, including the Grand Hyatt, Marriott Marquis and Westin Georgetown in Washington, D.C. In New Orleans, his choice last year was the Hyatt Regency; in Orlando, the Marriott World Center.
In all, Gilbert’s P-Card was charged for $89,082. Gilbert’s junkets included annual travel to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the African American Mayors Association Conference and the Black Congressional Caucus Conference.
When out of town, Gilbert often uses Uber and Lyft to get around. His billing statements show 101 charges from the ride-sharing services totaling $3,171.
Mayor’s staff uses his P-Card
Gilbert said by email that his P-Card is primarily used by his staff to pay for items budgeted by the city. “My travel is for official business representing the city in my capacity as mayor,” Gilbert said. “Many elected officials travel with staff and security details. Most often my travel is alone and one other person may go depending on what has to be accomplished for the business at hand.”
Gilbert added that his use of ride-sharing services can be cheaper than renting a car, paying for gas and parking. He noted that his spending for 101 Uber and Lyft trips “average out to $31 per ride and two rides per month.”
Gilbert’s biggest P-Card purchase was for $15,899 at Best Buy on May 6, 2014. The mayor said it bought laptops donated to graduating seniors at Miami Norland, Carol City and Miami Northwestern high schools.
“Every year I give laptops to seniors graduating from high school that are going to college,” Gilbert said. “The money is raised mostly from private donations. I don’t go to Best Buy to make a purchase. Staff handles the transaction electronically with a corporate representative to negotiate the best price.”
Aside from covering travel expenses and retail goods, some council members have used their P-Card to make unexplained payments to individuals who are not city vendors or employees.
On May 18, 2017, Vice Mayor Ighodaro’s P-Card was used to make two PayPal payments totaling $2,029 to Henrietta Lacey, a woman who was investigated in 2012 by the Miami-Dade ethics commission and Florida Department of Law Enforcement for allegedly being involved in absentee ballot voter fraud.
Investigators determined Lacey was a convicted felon who had voted in 16 elections during a 10-year period without having her rights restored. Prosecutors, however, took no action against Lacey, according to a September 2012 ethics commission report.
Ighodaro is currently the target of a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation in connection with two Africa trips he took in 2016 and 2017. He did not respond to emails and phone messages requesting comment.
Former councilman Andre Williams, a real estate attorney who ran against Ighodaro in the Aug. 28 primary, said the council members’ P-Card use is alarming. Ighodaro soundly defeated both Williams and another opponent.
“Clearly the P-Card was not intended for these type of uses,” he said. “It is intended only for incidental costs associated with city-related business. I can’t imagine any scenario where someone is spending tens of thousands of dollars at Walmart or The Home Depot for city use. This is an abuse of taxpayer dollars.”