By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Miami City Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla seems like an unlikely candidate to provide ethical, professional stewardship of a semi-autonomous agency with a $66-million annual budget.
Since assuming office nearly three years ago, Diaz de la Portilla allegedly abused his elected position by meddling in police personnel and enforcement matters; is evading payment of a nearly $630,000 court judgment against him; and pals around with convicted felons who committed fraud, including a woman who currently works in his city commission office and a disgraced former city commissioner.
Yet, last month Diaz de la Portilla and three out of four of his city commission colleagues voted to make him chairman of the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) for the second time since 2020 after ousting him from his first stint last year.
Diaz de la Portilla reclaiming control of the Omni CRA will likely lead to disastrous results for the agency charged with providing affordable housing and fixing slum and blight in undeveloped areas of a now up-and-coming Miami neighborhood, government and ethics experts said.
City commissioners had previously stripped Diaz de la Portilla of the chairmanship after Jenny Nillo, the felonious female working in his commission office, was fired from her $53,000-a-year job at the Omni CRA that he got for her. Nillo, who has also received payments from political action committees supporting Diaz de la Portilla, rarely showed up for work during the 11 months she was employed by the Omni CRA, according to media reports.
Miami taxpayers, especially those residing within the boundaries of the Omni CRA, should be worried that Diaz de la Portilla is back in charge, Frank Schnidman, a retired Florida Atlantic University urban and regional planning professor with extensive knowledge of CRAs, told Florida Bulldog.
“His past history as CRA chair leaves one wondering because of the no-show employee who is his friend,” Schnidman said. “It really raises eyebrows.”
Robert Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University professor who teaches legal ethics, said Diaz de la Portilla’s chairman reappointment makes no sense. “There were real questions about the way he ran the CRA the first time,” Jarvis said. “If I was a taxpayer or voter in that city, I would be very concerned.”
A POLITICAL RESURRECTION
Diaz de la Portilla did not respond to four Florida Bulldog phone messages seeking comment.
Diaz de la Portilla is a member of one of Miami’s Cuban-American political dynasties. His lobbyist brother, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, was a state senator from 2010 to 2016 and served as a Miami-Dade County commissioner from 1993 to 2000. Another sibling, Renier Diaz de la Portilla, was on the Miami-Dade County School Board from 1996 to 1998 and 2006 to 2012 with a stint in the Florida House of Representatives in between, from 2000 to 2002. In recent years, Renier flamed out in separate bids for Miami-Dade County judge and commissioner.
For a decade, Alex Diaz de la Portilla was a fixture in Tallahassee. He began his state political career in the Florida House in 1994 and ended it in the Florida Senate in 2004, never losing an election.
After eight years out of office, Diaz de la Portilla lost his shine. When the Republican pol attempted a return to the state’s Capitol, he lost a House race to Democrat José Javier Rodríguez. His bids for a Florida Senate seat in a 2017 special election and for Miami-Dade County commissioner one year later also were unsuccessful.
In 2019, Diaz de la Portilla won his Miami City Commission seat after being forced into a runoff by second-place candidate Miguel Angel Gabela, a former Miami Planning and Zoning Board Member with little name recognition.
Amid his political resurrection, Diaz de la Portilla battled with lenders over mortgages owed on a commercial building he owns and a home he co-owns with his ex-wife, Claudia Davant. In April 2017, Wells Fargo filed a lawsuit against the former couple to foreclose on their five-bedroom duplex in Miami’s Shenandoah neighborhood. The complaint alleged Diaz de la Portilla and Davant owed $359,798 since 2012.
In October of the same year, Revocable HM Holdings sued Diaz de la Portilla to foreclose on a $500,000 loan that used his warehouse in Miami’s Allapattah neighborhood as collateral. The building is home to the Diaz de la Portilla’s family business, De’Mattress. The lawsuit was dismissed a year later. According to the dismissal order, the Diaz de la Portilla entered into a forbearance agreement.
The Wells Fargo litigation rages on. In January 2019, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Beatrice Butchko entered a final judgment of $628,545 against Diaz de la Portilla and Davant. However, the commissioner subsequently filed several motions to delay the date of the auction sale and to vacate the final judgment, court records show. A hearing on his latest motion to set aside the judgment is set for April 22.
ETHICAL LAPSES ABOUND
One of Diaz de la Portilla’s early wins at Miami City Hall was wrestling away the Omni CRA’s chairmanship from fellow city commissioner Ken Russell in 2020. Among his first acts as the agency’s de facto leader, Diaz de la Portilla requested that then-Omni CRA executive director Jason Walker hire Nillo, who previously worked as his legislative aide and a county commission aide for his brother Miguel.
In 2017, Nillo pleaded guilty to a federal charge of conspiracy to commit bank fraud for her role in a mortgage fraud scheme involving 16 other defendants. According to the indictment and other court documents, federal prosecutors alleged Nillo and her co-conspirators recruited unqualified buyers to purchase Miami-area condo units, made fraudulent statements to the unqualified buyers to induce their purchases and operated marketing companies that were used to launder fraudulently obtained loan proceeds.
Nillo was sentenced to 36 months in prison, but was released early in November 2019. While still on probation, she worked as an Omni CRA community liaison from April to March 2021. Walker terminated her amid a criminal investigation that she was not showing up for her job. At the time, Diaz de la Portilla told reporters that he wanted Nillo at the Omni CRA to act as his “eyes and ears” because he “discovered some improprieties.”
According to a WPLG news story, the criminal probe revolved around allegations Nillo was using her taxpayer-funded position and a city-issued automobile to do the commissioner’s personal bidding. Within hours of Nillo getting fired, Diaz de la Portilla gave her a new job in his city commission office doing community outreach, WPLG reported.
The sordid controversy was enough for the city commission’s two other Cuban-American members to briefly turn against Diaz de la Portilla. During a March 2021 meeting stripping him of the Omni CRA chairmanship, commissioners Joe Carollo and Manolo Reyes joined colleagues Ken Russell and Jeffrey Watson in voting Diaz de la Portilla out. At one point, Carollo and Diaz de la Portilla exchanged insults with the former saying, “You make me want to vomit.”
By the fall of 2021, the three amigos had mended fences to form a united front against then-Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo, the outspoken Cuban-American lawman who was fired in October after making comments about the police department being run by the “Cuban Mafia.” Acevedo also publicly accused Carollo and Diaz de la Portilla of interfering with personnel decisions and attempting to use cops to go after business owners the two men perceived as enemies.
In a federal whistleblower lawsuit filed in January, Acevedo alleges that in April of last year Diaz de la Portilla’s assistant cc’d him in an email to City Manager Art Noriega listing 10 bars that the city commissioner alleged were engaged in illegal activity and that he wanted investigated without offering evidence of any crimes.
Acevedo also accused city commissioners of attempting to pressure him into reinstating Luis Camacho, a police officer he relieved of duty. Camacho had been one of their sergeants-at-arms. Diaz de la Portilla also allegedly offered Acevedo political power. During a private meeting, Diaz de la Portilla allegedly said he would support Acevedo if the chief ran for Miami-Dade sheriff in 2024, the lawsuit states. In exchange, Acevedo had to reinstate Camacho.
“I run campaigns and will get you in,” Diaz de la Portilla allegedly said, according to Acevedo’s complaint. “That’s assuming you do the right thing on Camacho and get him back.”
OMNI CRA GRAB
On Feb. 9, the day before he reclaimed the Omni CRA’s chairmanship, Diaz de la Portillla was at the center of another embarrassing spectacle. The city commissioner was having lunch at Morton’s Steakhouse in Coral Gables when Carlos Gimenez Jr., son of Miami Congressman Carlos Gimenez, slapped Diaz de la Portillla in the back of the head and called him a “pussy.”
Among the witnesses to the alleged assault was Humberto Hernandez, a former Miami city commissioner who was Diaz de la Portilla’s lunch companion. In the 1990s, Hernandez was twice removed from office following his federal indictments for money laundering, bank fraud and voter fraud.
Hernandez was convicted of a misdemeanor in his election fraud case and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bank fraud. He served three years for his crimes and was barred from practicing law in Florida.
Despite Diaz de la Portilla’s ongoing controversies and the dubious company he keeps, city commissioners Carollo, Reyes and Christine King voted in favor of regiving him the Omni CRA’s throne on Feb. 10. The lone no vote was from Ken Russell, who was the agency’s chairman.
In his first act as chairman, Diaz de la Portilla asked Walker, the CRA executive director who got rid of Nillo, to resign. Last week, the city commission as the Omni CRA board, approved a mutually agreed upon separation agreement with Walker. Commissioners named Deputy City Attorney Barnaby Min as interim executive director until March 11.
Under the agreement’s terms, Walker can only receive his severance package on the conditions he doesn’t file a whistleblower lawsuit and agrees to “fully cooperate” with the CRA and the city by providing information about any “external investigation, audit or inquiry that he has knowledge of.”
Walker did not respond to a Florida Bulldog email and phone message seeking comment.
Jarvis, the ethics law professor, said the separation agreement suggests Diaz de la Portilla and his enablers on the city commission want to muzzle Walker, while at the same time squeeze him for intel.
“It is very disheartening that they gagged him,” Jarvis said. “That shows you the city is not willing to clean up the real source of the problem and is looking to point fingers to those outside the city and the CRA.”
Schnidman, the CRA expert, said Diaz de la Portilla’s resumption of chairman duties is emblematic of the dysfunction at Miami City Hall.
“There is a lot of concern not only about him but other members of the city commission as to their ethical character,” Schnidman said. “The lack of collegiality that exists among city commissioners should give everyone cause for concern as to whether they are governing because they are only interested in their own power and future.”