By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Elected officials in Miami Gardens routinely accept private donations from Tootsie’s Cabaret, Calder Casino, the Miami Dolphins and other nearby businesses and city vendors without publicly disclosing any potential conflicts of interest to their constituents.
Past and present Miami Gardens council members, including Mayor Oliver Gilbert III, have collected more than $500,000 from the strip club, the casino, the NFL franchise and more than a dozen others. The money is primarily used to fund charitable events such as laptop giveaways, science fairs, toy drives and distributing Mother’s Day gift cards to the city’s poorest residents.
However, a top ethics watchdog recently warned Miami Gardens’ top brass that the manner in which council members collect and spend private donations from individuals and companies doing business with the city lacks transparency and oversight, thus raising concerns about the city’s elected leaders being unduly influenced by people seeking to curry favor with them.
Jose Arrojo, the executive director of the Miami-Dade Ethics and Public Trust Commission, detailed the problems with Miami Gardens council members soliciting private donations in a five-page Nov. 26 memo to City Manager Cameron Benson and City Attorney Sonja Dickens following an ethics commission probe that took more than a year to complete.
Arrojo recommended that Miami Gardens adopt several reforms that would force council members to publicly disclose who they solicit money from and what the funds will be used for. But it doesn’t appear city leaders plan on regulating council members’ fund-raising practices. In a recent email response to questions from Florida Bulldog, Dickens said the ethics commission ultimately found no wrongdoing by council members and that the city is not obligated to comply with Arrojo’s recommendations.
“So long as the law is not violated, they are empowered to act as they see fit for the benefit of the residents of the City of Miami Gardens,” Dickens said. “The City is in receipt of the advisory opinion issued by Jose Arrojo and is taking it under advisement.”
Miami Gardens mayor responds
Gilbert, the only Miami Gardens elected official to respond to Florida Bulldog’s inquiries, said he is very public about raising money for his annual giveaway of laptops to 120 graduating seniors from three inner-city high schools, including two in Miami Gardens. The mayor said he announces that he is collecting contributions for the laptop giveaway at a public meeting and the city council passes resolutions approving his collecting and spending private donations for his annual event.
He provided Florida Bulldog with the minutes of the Feb. 13, 2019 Miami Gardens City Council meeting during which he announced the annual laptop giveaway would be in May. The minutes also state that Gilbert instructed anyone interested in donating to write a check payable to the city and reference the laptop giveaway in the memo line.
“I thank every person that supports the laptop giveaway publicly because they are helping young students become successful in life,” Gilbert told Florida Bulldog. “The ceremony is public as is my gratitude. Nothing is done secretly.”
Gilbert would not comment on whether he would support or sponsor legislation that would require Miami Gardens council members to submit disclosure forms that include the amount of donations, who contributed, if the donor has a matter that will be voted on by the council and an acknowledgement of the county’s conflict-of-interest code and county law barring exploitation of an official’s position for personal benefit — all recommendations made by Arrojo.
The ethics commission launched its probe on Sept. 5, 2018 after receiving information that Gilbert and his council colleagues have for years engaged in soliciting funds from individuals and companies doing business with the city or who were prospective vendors or consultants, according to an ethics commission investigative report obtained by Florida Bulldog. The information also alleged that “insufficient controls existed to ensure that funds raised from these private donors were being spent…in accordance with their intended purpose.”
The watchdog agency, which can forward possible criminal allegations to law-enforcement authorities as well as assist criminal investigations, opened the probe to determine whether any Miami Gardens council member had exploited their official positions for their own benefit and if they voted on matters in which they had a conflict of interest. Investigators closed out the probe without recommending any criminal charges or finding probable cause for ethics violations.
Ethics commission’s work
Ethics commission investigators poured over four years’ worth of bank account records for each of the seven council members. The time period covered from fiscal year 2014/2015 to fiscal year 2017/2018. The investigative report states most of the $522,690 collected during the four- year period came from city vendors, consultants, service providers and other Miami Gardens’ special interests.
In one instance, the Miami Dolphins, whose owner Stephen Ross also owns Hard Rock Stadium, the city’s largest property taxpayer, donated $5,000 to Gilbert’s laptop giveaway on March 15, 2017. A month later, Dolphins lobbyist Ron Book contributed $5,000 for the mayor’s computer gifts. The team also gave $1,500 on July 3, 2018 for a music festival put together by Councilman Erhabor Ighodaro. The ethics commission investigative report noted that the Dolphins had been seeking tax breaks totaling $500,000 a year for relocating the team’s practice facility from Davie to Miami Gardens.
Calvin Giordano and Associates, a Fort Lauderdale construction company that manages Miami Gardens’ $60-million general obligation bond projects and the city’s main public works contractor, donated $5,750 for Gilbert’s laptop giveaway in 2017. The firm also kicked in a total of $17,500 between 2014 and 2017 to then-Councilwoman Lisa Davis’ charitable events including book bag giveaways and toy drives. Davis did not run for re-election in 2018.
The top donor for all council members was Miami Gardens Square One, the holding company for Tootsie’s Cabaret, a strip club at 150 NW 183rd St. The company gave $11,000 to Gilbert’s laptop drive, $29,500 for Davis’ charitable endeavors, $5,500 for Ighodaro’s annual music festivals, $3,000 for science fairs put on by Councilman David Williams Jr. and $1,000 in 2014 for then-Councilwoman Felicia Robinson’s breast cancer awareness campaign.
At a Sept. 27, 2018 meeting between Arrojo and Miami Gardens administrators, Deputy City Manager Craig Clay explained that the private donations are spent at the sole discretion of the mayor and councilmembers, who determine what constitutes “a valid public purpose,” the investigative report states. Clay acknowledged there is little accountability as to how the donated funds were spent. “I wouldn’t know if it was somebody’s brother” who received gifts or benefits during the charitable events, Clay said, per the investigative report.
To be sure, not all the council members were hitting up city vendors and businesses. The report noted that Robinson, aside from the $1,000 Tootsie’s donation, raised only $46,331 from a large number of small donors, many of whom appeared to be ordinary citizens. Sitting council members Lillie Odom and Rodney Harris have collected less than $3,000 each during the four-year period. More than half of the $522,690 was collected by Gilbert ($154,209) and Davis ($145,960).
In his Nov. 26 memo to Benson and Dickens, Arrojo told them the solicitation of a gift by an elected official can create the perception of quid pro quo arrangements and conflicts of interest. He also noted that allowing councilmembers the sole discretion on how to use the donated funds without a public process can create the appearance that elected officials are using their public positions to extract special privileges.
The same day, Dickens fired off a defiant response. “Simply put, there was no allegation that any of the city’s elected officials misused their positions,” Dickens wrote. “That being the case, we are unclear as to why a report was even generated.”