New El Portal mayor’s messy divorce and questions about his qualifying paperwork threaten term

el portal
El Portal
New El Portal Mayor Omarr Nickerson, left, and former El Portal Interim Attorney Norman Powell

By Francisco Alvarado,

El Portal’s newly elected mayor Omarr Nickerson won his race handily after none of the small village’s 2,400 residents ran against him. But his term could be short-lived amid accusations by El Portal officials that Nickerson submitted false, incomplete and inaccurate information in his qualifying paperwork.

Nickerson, who’s been an El Portal council member for more than a decade, knowingly submitted a suspended driver’s license as proof of his village residency, has a different mailing address in Cutler Bay where he receives important court documents and failed to disclose any primary and secondary sources of income on his financial disclosure statement, according to a Sept. 28 legal opinion written by then interim village attorney Norman Powell.

Nickerson’s driver’s license was suspended on Feb. 2, seven months before the qualifying date, for failing to pay child support.

“My office has received requests from residents of the Village of El Portal to provide a written legal opinion regarding whether Omarr C. Nickerson legally qualified as a candidate,” Powell wrote. “For the reasons set forth more fully herein, it is my legal opinion that Mr. Nickerson failed to legally qualify as a candidate…because of an apparent violation of Florida law in connection with the submission of his qualifying papers.”

But Nickerson told Florida Bulldog that Powell’s legal opinion was a retaliatory move because he joined council members Anders Urbom and Luis Pirela in a series of votes that terminated Powell’s interim contract with the village. On Sept. 22, the trio voted to hire State Rep. Joe Geller’s law firm, Greenspoon Marder, as its permanent village attorney.

“This is a vindictive thing by Powell,” Nickerson said. “After we decided not to have him as the permanent attorney, he was upset about that and he started going through my paperwork. He did so just so he could put my personal business out there. It was a personal attack.”

El Portal picks

During two special meetings in October, the village council reconvened and voted to throw out the competitive process for a permanent village attorney, but still replaced Powell with Geller’s firm on an interim basis. Nickerson, Urbom and Pirela voted for Greenspoon Marder, but the previous mayor, Claudia Cubillos, and then-Councilwoman Vimari Roman did not.

Powell’s run as El Portal’s interim village attorney ended Oct. 19. He declined to comment.

Vimari Roman, a former El Portal councilwoman

Nickerson and former El Portal Councilwoman Vimari Roman confirmed to Florida Bulldog that Powell’s opinion along with supporting court documents were forwarded to the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust and the public corruption unit of the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office to investigate. Florida Bulldog also obtained an Oct. 16 email from Powell to Assistant State Attorney Johnette Hardiman in which he states, “Attached is the memorandum we discussed along with the documents referenced therein.”

Spokespersons for the ethics commission and the state attorney’s office said they could not confirm or deny that an investigation into Nickerson has been opened.

Messy divorce, suspended license

Nickerson has been engulfed in personal turmoil since his marriage fell apart three years ago. On Nov. 6, 2017 he was arrested for allegedly attacking his then-wife Barbara Gasaly. He was criminally charged with misdemeanor battery.

According to news reports of the incident, the estranged couple got into an argument over Nickerson accusing her of cheating on him. He told cops that she ran over his left ankle when he tried to stop her from leaving the house with their two kids. Gasaly informed the officers that he had grabbed her around the neck and pushed her to the floor causing minor scratches. Photos taken of Gasaly shortly after the incident show gashes across the side of her neck.

“Divorces can be nasty and messy,” Nickerson told Florida Bulldog. “I have always been respectful toward her even though I caught her cheating. I have done nothing wrong and I hope the best for her.”

State Rep. and El Portal interim village attorney Joe Geller

Four days after Nickerson’s arrest, Gasaly filed her petition for divorce and won a temporary restraining order barring Nickerson from coming within 100 feet of her and ordering him to surrender guns he owned. Gasaly and her divorce attorney, Hugo Acebo, did not respond to requests for comment.

Nickerson initially retained Geller’s law firm to represent him in his divorce proceedings when Geller was nearing he end of his 17-year reign as El Portal’s village attorney. On Nov. 29, 2017, marital and family law attorney and Greenspoon Marder partner Michael Alman filed a notice of appearance on Nickerson’s behalf. Two months later, however,  Alman and Greenspoon Marder withdrew as Nickerson’s representation in the divorce with the councilman’s consent. On Jan. 17, 2018, Nickerson was arrested a second time for felony aggravated stalking of Gasaly.

On March 5, 2018 the village council, including Nickerson, voted 4-0 to fire Geller over complaints he was too busy being a state legislator to effectively do his job as village attorney. The council replaced Geller with Powell. Nickerson did not comment to Florida Bulldog as to why, during the 2017 and 2020 council meetings relating to the village attorney matters, he did not disclose that he was briefly represented by Greenspoon Marder. But Geller told Florida Bulldog there was nothing untoward about the arrangement.

“It wasn’t a long representation,” Geller said. “I don’t necessarily see that as a conflict.”

Divorce finalized

In July 2018, Nickerson’s divorce was finalized. According to the final judgment, Nickerson was required to attend reunification therapy with his kids and get a psychological evaluation. Gasaly was awarded full custody, and any visits with his children were to be supervised. The judge also granted an indefinite restraining order. “The court finds that the wife is a victim of domestic violence and maintains a reasonable fear of imminent bodily harm,” the final judgment states.

Three months later, on Oct. 16, Nickerson pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor charge and received probation on the condition he complete a batterers’ intervention treatment program. He finished his probation on Jan. 1, 2019. Later that month, a jury found him not guilty on the aggravated stalking charge.

Post divorce, Nickerson is still holding a grudge against his ex-wife. On Dec. 31, 2019, Nickerson filed a handwritten motion requesting that his driver’s license not be suspended because he had not paid child support. He alleged that Gasaly listed a job he was fired from as a result of her “having him falsely arrested for a felony that I was found not guilty for.”

“She has deceived the court [about] the amount of child support that should be collected,” he wrote. “I humbly ask the court to apply a new monthly child support amount based on my current payment scale. I would humbly ask that the court not suspend my driver’s license as the child support information has been incorrect by the petitioner, Ms. Gasaly.”

The court docket reflects that no hearing or decision was ever rendered on the motion.

However, Nickerson did not attach any documents showing what his current income is. He also requested a paternity test “as both paternities have always been in question.” His driver’s license was suspended and his request for a hearing is still pending, according to a driver’s license check and court records.

Nickerson said he didn’t know his driver’s license was suspended until he read Powell’s Sept. 28 legal opinion. “When I asked for the hearing, it still wasn’t suspended,” Nickerson said. “I didn’t know they would go ahead and suspend it. Secondly, in order to run, you have to be a resident of the village and a qualified voter, which I still am. There is nothing that says I have to be able to drive.”

Geller weighs in

In a phone interview, Geller said Powell’s opinion is rife with irregularities, noting the document should not be enforced. “The time for challenging [Nickerson’s] qualifications is past,” Geller said. “And the village attorney has no role in determining the bonafides of the qualification documents. It is not his jurisdiction.”

Geller took over as interim village attorney on Oct. 20. The other discrepancies Powell cited such as Nickerson’s Cutler Bay address and his blank financial disclosure statement are not enough to disqualify El Portal’s next mayor from running, Geller added. “What is improper about giving a family member’s address to receive important court papers?” Geller said. “He didn’t list a source of income because he doesn’t have any. There is no requirement that you have to be a current wage earner.”

Juan Carlos Planas, an attorney specializing in election law, agreed with Geller. “It’s not something that is under a village attorney’s purview,” Planas said. “Once a candidate qualifies, that’s it. A village attorney can’t make that determination.”

Juan Carlos Planas

Planas also said that Powell’s opinion appears to mistakenly claim that knowingly using a suspended driver’s license as proof of residency is the same as being pulled over while knowingly driving with a suspended driver’s license, which is a criminal offense. “It is not a disqualifier at all,” Planas said. “For a municipal attorney to make that type of judgment call is improper.”

Still, Vimari Roman, who has not sought reelection to the village council, said Powell’s opinion was the result of residents’ concerns about Nickerson after he qualified on Aug. 18. Two weeks earlier, during a Zoom meeting with residents, Nickerson, Pirela and Urbom said they planned to run for their current seats, Roman said.

“I know of one particular resident who signed the petition so Nickerson could qualify and believed the petition was for him to run as a council person,” Roman said. “The resident was surprised that he ended up qualifying for the mayor’s seat. Since it’s a very small village, questions about it started going around. I never discussed it with [Powell] though.”

Another resident, Amy Mehu, reached out to Powell the day after he wrote his opinion asking about Nickerson’s qualifications. Mehu’s Sept. 29 email to Powell, which was obtained by Florida Bulldog, states “When you have a moment, could you provide clarity on residency requirements for elections in the village?” Mehu, who did not respond to Florida Bulldog requests for comment, explained that she came across several listings in a Google search showing Nickerson’s address is outside the village.

“As you’re aware, we have 2 vacancies and no one who opposed Mr. Nickerson,” Mehu wrote.  “I’m an advocate for a vibrant and competitive election process and would like to ensure it can happen whenever possible.”

As she reverts to life as an average villager, Roman said, Powell’s findings concerned her: “That’s why I forwarded the opinion to the ethics commission.”

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