State attorney, SEC close probes of Miami Gardens officials with no criminal charges or sanctions

By Francisco Alvarado, 

After being probed by local, state and federal authorities for more than a year, Miami Gardens officials have come out mostly unscathed after the two investigations.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission notified the city this month that it was not taking any enforcement action after concluding its investigation into allegations Miami Gardens officials misappropriated funds from a 2014 $60-million bond issue for capital projects.

Over the summer, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office quietly closed its probe into how Councilman Erhabor Ighodaro paid for three trips to Nigeria in 2015, 2016 and 2017 without filing any criminal charges.

Investigators in both probes focused part of their inquiries into the use of so-called “P-cards,” debit cards issued to the seven members of the city council and city employees. A Florida Bulldog report last month detailed how council members routinely use their P-cards to rack up thousands of dollars in purchases at Target, Walmart, The Home Depot and other major retailers as well as for personal travel expenses to national and international junkets.

Miami Gardens spokeswomen Tamara Wadley provided Florida Bulldog with the following statement: “The City of Miami Gardens has consistently taken the position that the proceeds from the 2014 general obligation bonds were appropriately used in accordance with the bond ordinance and the city has always used sound accounting principles with funds entrusted to its care.”

In a phone interview, Ighodaro said the state attorney investigation into him was politically motivated by his critics, including his election opponent, Andre Williams, an attorney who served on the council in the early 2000s. “I believe I have been a responsible elected official,” he said. “The people overwhelmingly re-elected me. That is an indication of their trust in my leadership.”

FDLE still investigating

Yet, Ighodaro may not be completely in the clear. Jessica Cary, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which worked the case with the Miami-Dade state attorney, said the agency has not closed its part of the investigation into the councilman. She declined further comment.

“I don’t know what the FDLE is doing, but it is clear from the close-out memo I got, that the investigation is closed,” Ighodaro said. He declined further comment.

Councilman Erhabor Ighodaro

Williams said the investigation into Ighodaro was warranted. “Clearly there is a pattern with respect to his conduct that is generating these investigations,” Williams said. “This is not an isolated or single incident.”

Ighodaro provided Florida Bulldog with the July 25 close-out memo  written by Assistant State Attorney Johnette Hardiman that he insists exonerated him. However, City Manager Cameron Benson told investigators that Miami Gardens has no official business or ties with Nigeria, according to the memo. In order for council members and staff to use their P-cards, they must attest the purchase is for “a valid public purpose in their official capacity.”

The close-out memo states that Ighodaro used his P-card to cover his 2015 trip, but the funds used to pay the expenses were from private donations. The city covered all his travel expenses for the 2016 trip and one expense for the 2017 trip. Hardiman concluded that “very broad language” in the city’s internal policy manuals and forms made it difficult to prove the three trips were contrary to municipal rules. “It follows that it would certainly be impossible to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” Hardiman wrote. “There is simply insufficient evidence as a matter of law to prove the crime of theft by Mr. Ighodaro.”

Lack of accountability?

After reading the memo, Williams said the P-card rules make it easy for council members and staffers to abuse them. “Clearly, there is a lack of accountability with respect to P-card use,” Williams said. “I firmly believe the council members are using them for personal expenses. The rules are written without any specificity and allow these questionable transactions to go on and on.”

As part of its broad investigation into the city’s $60-million bond program, the SEC had requested Miami Gardens turn over all expense records, including P-card transactions, for the city council members and Benson between 2014 and 2017. Why the SEC decided to take no enforcement action is unclear. Spokesman Ryan White and Scott Lowry, the SEC’s senior counsel in the Miami regional office, both declined comment.

Since initiating the probe on Sept. 27 of last year, Lowry notified Miami Gardens officials twice that the city was “non-responsive” in providing documentation he requested.

According to his most recent correspondence on May 3, Lowry said the city has provided incomplete documents relating to bank accounts and failed to produce all city communications related to the budgets for capital projects in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, among other unfulfilled requests for documentation.

Five months later, on Oct. 1, Miami Gardens received a letter from SEC Assistant Director Thierry Olivier Desmet stating the agency had finished its investigation. “Based on the information we have as of this date, we do not intend to recommend an enforcement action,” Desmet wrote. However, the letter noted that “the notice must in no way be construed as indicating that the party has been exonerated or that no action may ultimately result from the staff’s investigation.”

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