By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
As Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert III enters the homestretch of his Miami-Dade County Commission race, public corruption prosecutors recently revealed unsavory conduct on his part during his previous campaign for elected office.
According to a May 5 Miami-Dade State Attorney close out memo, Gilbert personally used his septuagenarian mother’s credit card to settle a $4,689.49 luxury car rental bill that he initially intended to pay with funds from his 2016 mayoral campaign.
Gilbert is currently locked in a heated campaign to succeed by termed out County Commissioner Barbara Jordan. Gilbert has raised $438,755 while his lone opponent, Sybrina Fulton has raised about $367,000. Fulton is the mother of Trayvon Martin, the Miami Gardens teen killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford in 2012. Fulton is endorsed by high profile Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and N.J. Sen. Cory Booker. The election is Aug. 18.
During the state attorney’s two-year criminal probe, in December 2018, the elderly Kirklyn Gilbert gave a sworn statement that her memory wasn’t good but insisted that she knew nothing about her credit card being used to pay his lease of an Infiniti QX80. Two months later, she recanted by submitting a written statement to prosecutors that she had indeed authorized Gilbert to use the credit card and that he repaid her the money. She did not provide any proof of the repayment.
His mom’s foggy memory and contradictory statements led the state attorney’s public corruption unit not to pursue criminal charges of grand theft and fraudulent use of a credit card against Gilbert, according to the close out memo.
‘Troubling’ Gilbert lease
Still, Assistant State Attorney Nolen Andrew Bunker noted there was something off about the rental deal.
“Ms. Gilbert’s amendment to her testimony, unsupported by any documentation of the averred repayment, further added to the troubling circumstances surrounding the payment of the Infiniti QX80 rental,” Bunker wrote.
The 15-page memo, obtained by Florida Bulldog last week, details how investigators from the state attorney’s office and the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust dug into the finances of Gilbert’s 2016 mayoral campaign. They were investigating allegations by former Miami Gardens City Council member Andre Williams that Gilbert had misused campaign funds, according to a related county ethics commission investigative report.
The prosecutor’s close-out memo states that due to insufficient evidence, prosecutors would not be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Gilbert violated campaign reporting laws, made a false statement and engaged in money laundering.
Gilbert, a lawyer whose public financial statement lists a negative net worth of $41,054 and says his annual salary as mayor is $42,000, did not respond to emails requesting comment. Instead, his criminal defense attorney H.T. Smith accused a reporter of being a “tabloid hitman for Andre Williams.”
‘Mayoring while black’
“It is patently clear that you are not on a search for truth, but rather targeting my client for “MAYORING WHILE BLACK,” wrote Smith. “Mayor Oliver Gilbert is 100% innocent of any and all accusations of ethical or criminal conduct leveled against him by his political enemy.’’
According to the ethics commission memo, Williams told investigators on April 20, 2018 that he believed Oliver Gilbert made an improper payment of $14,000 to Champion Learning. The funds were distributed on Aug. 29, 2016 and marked as a donation to a nonprofit “501(c) (3) firm” on Gilbert’s finance campaign report. Williams noted Champion’s Learning was actually a for profit company that appeared to be located in the same building as Gilbert’s law practice. He also pointed out Champion Learning’s president Kendra Bulluck-Major was also the registered agent for Gilbert’s law firm.
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services records show Champion Learning is able to accept donations on behalf of Sisters for Abundant Living, a non-profit run by Bulluck-Major’s mother.
On May 29, 2019, Bulluck-Major gave a sworn statement under a grant of limited immunity. By then, investigators had determined Gilbert’s campaign had made three other payments to Champion Learning in addition to the $14,000. In 2015, her firm received $4,100 for web services and two other payments for campaign related work totaling $15,000 in September and December 2016.
Bulluck-Major was able to provide invoices from a web designer she contracted to help her build Gilbert’s campaign website for $2,700 and told prosecutors that she had kept half of the $4,100 for her role.
She explained that the $14,000 on Aug. 29, 2016 were funds used to cover expenses for the mayoral election the following day. She said she withdrew the money and gave it to mayoral campaign consultant Dewey Knight III, who was to pay poll workers. The cash was placed into individual envelopes and after the election Knight gave her handwritten sheets of paper with the printed or signed names of the poll workers indicating they had been paid.
The donation mistake
The campaign treasurer and deputy treasurer also told investigators that the $14,000 was listed as a donation by mistake.
While Gilbert won the Aug. 30, 2016 election, his opponent, former Opa-locka Police Chief James Wright, contested the results and a judge ordered a new election for December the same year.
Bulluck-Major told investigators that Champion Learning received another $12,000 in December that was used to pay poll workers again in the same manner. However, she was unsure of the remaining $3,000 her company received.
“Ms. Bulluck proposed that the $3,000.00 may have been to pay for a car for Mr. Gilbert from Luxury Automotive Transportation Services, LLC,” the close-out memo states. However, bank records show a $2,616 check she provided Luxury Automotive was never cashed because she did not endorse it. “I didn’t realize that the check had not cleared,” she said. “I don’t remember giving it back. I think I forgot about it.”
According to the memo, Luxury Auto is associated with Warren Henry Auto Group, which operates an Infiniti dealership at 2300 NE 151 Street in Miami Gardens. According to state attorney interviews with employees and dealership owner Henry Zinn, Gilbert and Knight made arrangements to rent the QX80 for $500 a month in early June 2016. The car had been previously used for free by Don Shula, the former Miami Dolphins head coach who recently passed away. At the time, Shula was Warren Henry’s celebrity spokesman.
“Luxury Auto’s records show that Mr. Knight acted as the primary point of contact, and that there was an expectation on the part of Luxury Auto that the vehicle was being procured as part of the 2016 Gilbert mayoral campaign,” the close out memo states, noting a series of emails stated the $500 monthly fee “can be billed via the campaign’s credit card if it has one or if necessary a check can be remitted.”
The final rental agreement shows a total charge of $5,189, of which $500 was covered by a Champion Learning check that Bulluck-Major did not forget to sign. According to the memo, Gilbert personally came by the office and paid the balance of $4,689.49 with his mother’s credit card. A Luxury Automotive employee told investigators she had to make repeated attempts to collect the bill until Gilbert came in person.
Smith, Gilbert’s attorney, refused to answer why his client had to use his mother’s credit card instead of his own, why he chose to rent an Infiniti, why the rental was going to be initially paid by Champion Learning and the nature of his relationship to Bulluck-Major, among other questions.
“One thing I can assure you of is that my client and I will not help you shovel the dirt,” Smith wrote. “To be clear, what you appear to be attempting is a media lynching of a public servant who has been completely exonerated of criminal and ethical wrongdoing.”