Redemption and campaign contributions in North Bay Village

By Francisco Alvarado,

In North Bay Village, a tiny town with a big reputation for political upheaval, former commissioner Douglas Hornsby’s legal battle to redeem his reputation is creating an ethical dilemma for three current office holders whose campaigns he helped bankroll.

Hornsby and North Bay Village have tentatively agreed to settle one of his two lawsuits against the Miami-Dade town related to his removal from office in 2018 for failing to disclose he was an ineligible voter when he was appointed commissioner two years earlier. While the terms have not been disclosed, sources familiar with the proposed agreement told Florida Bulldog that North Bay Village will pay Hornsby, a radiologist, at least $100,000 and name a recently opened dog park after his recently deceased pooch.

All Hornsby needs is a seal of approval from the five-member city commission, including Mayor Brent Latham, Vice Mayor Marvin Wilmoth and Commissioner Julianna Strout. The trio formed a slate of reform candidates in the 2018 city election that received a combined $10,040 in individual contributions from Hornsby, his wife Mary Elizabeth Shute and his company Digital Radiology. Hornsby and Digital Radiology also kicked in $10,500 to a political action committee called New Horizons that supported Latham, Wilmoth and Strout.

Douglas Hornsby

Hornsby is counting on Latham, Wilmoth and Strout to vindicate him by authorizing the settlement, but he insisted that his campaign contributions were not meant to sway them to vote in his favor. “I supported the people who were for a cleaner government,” Hornsby said in a phone interview. “I did it to get rid of the corruption in our city. It has nothing to do with the settlement.”

Yet, at least one of the elected officials Hornsby backed is taking precautionary measures ahead of any vote involving the settlement. Latham told Florida Bulldog he has requested North Bay Village’s city attorney to obtain an opinion from Joe Arrojo, executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, on whether he has to recuse himself from voting on the Hornsby settlement.

‘Sick of the corruption’ in North Bay Village

“Yes, he did openly support me and two other change candidates,” Latham said. “The reason he and thousands of others in North Bay Village did so was because they were sick of the corruption by the previous [city commission].”

He added: “I have requested an ethics opinion on how to treat this matter in the hope that it puts to bed any false accusations [of a quid pro quo].”

North Bay Village Mayor Brent Latham, left, commissioners Julianna Strout and Marvin Wilmoth

Strout told Florida Bulldog that Hornsby and her campaign donors know that she will vote her conscience. “I am never beholden to anybody who made a contribution,” she said. “I would hope they voted for me solely for the betterment of our community.”

Wilmoth, who ran unopposed and returned $3,000 donated by Hornsby, Shute and Digital Radiology, did not respond to text and email messages requesting comment.

Hornsby’s removal from office

Since its heyday as a haven for snowbird mobsters in the mid-20th Century, North Bay Village has gone through numerous spurts of petty corruption and unethical shenanigans. Hornby’s turn in the seaside city’s barrel kicked off in December 2016 when then-Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps convinced three other commission colleagues to appoint him to an open seat. The pair were longtime friends, but their relationship unraveled when Hornsby allegedly refused to fire then-City Manager Frank Rollason as a condition of keeping his commission seat.

In 2017, Hornsby received an anonymous letter in his mailbox questioning his voter eligibility and a copy of his arrest for selling cocaine in Tennessee in 1989. Three years later, he was convicted of felony cocaine possession and another felony count for failing to appear for a court hearing after he relocated to Florida. The radiologist has since maintained the letter was a threat sent by a Leon-Kreps crony to intimidate him into voting to fire Rollason.

Connie Leon-Kreps

Leon-Kreps has denied being involved in any extortion attempt or directing Hornsby on how to vote. And a Florida Department of Law Enforcement probe was closed after investigators could not prove Hornsby was being blackmailed or that Leon-Kreps was involved. Rollason subsequently quit as city manager.

According to his Tennessee criminal case file and documents from the Miami-Dade Elections Department, Hornsby had been voting in Miami-Dade County elections for two decades despite his felony conviction. When he filed his voter registration paperwork in 1998, he checked a box that said he either had never been convicted of a felony or had successfully restored his rights after moving to North Bay Village, a town of less than one square mile. At the time, Hornsby said he had completed his sentence and believed his rights had been automatically restored.

It wasn’t until after he received the anonymous letter that he petitioned Tennessee courts to resolve his voter eligibility. By then, he had already served eight months as a village commissioner. In May 2017, the North Bay Village Commission took another vote to reappoint Hornsby due to concerns his original appointment was invalid. A group of residents then sued North Bay Village to have Hornsby removed when Miami-Dade Elections Supervisor Christina White purged Hornsby from the voter rolls and determined he had been ineligible to vote since 1998.

At a hastily called special meeting on Jan. 26, 2018, Leon-Kreps and three other commissioners voted to oust Hornsby based on the advice of then-City Attorney Norman Powell, who recommended repealing the two previous appointment votes. Three days later, Hornsby filed a whistleblower’s lawsuit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court against North Bay Village, alleging his criminal record was publicly disseminated by city officials in order to damage his reputation for speaking against Leon-Kreps and her clique.

In February 2018, he sued the village a second time, alleging his removal from office violated the North Bay Village charter and his constitutional rights.

Judges side with Hornsby

On July 24, 2019, a panel of three Miami-Dade Circuit Court judges ruled North Bay Village did not afford Hornsby due process because the city did not provide him with adequate notice of the special meeting to remove him. The panel invalidated the commission vote repealing his two appointments.

But the ruling did not address the underlying facts that Hornsby was not eligible to vote when he was appointed to the commission. The panel also did not make any recommendation as to whether Hornsby could reclaim his seat.

Fane Lozman, a North Bay Village activist and a Hornsby friend who has won two free-speech cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, told Florida Bulldog that the radiologist has made a strong case for North Bay Village to settle rather than continue fighting him in court.

“The city did not have the legal authority for what it did to Hornsby,” Lozman said. “He is not looking for any damages. He just wants North Bay Village to pay his legal bills. He already proved his point.”

Hornsby said the ordeal tarnished his reputation and caused him to lose a $36,000-a-month contract. “I will never get my name back,” Hornsby said. “When you search my name, people just remember that I got in trouble for a gram of cocaine 30 years ago.”

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