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State Sen. Jason Pizzo temporarily cancels state audit of North Miami Beach amid racial tensions

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North Miami Beach City Hall

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org

Jason Pizzo, the Florida state senator representing portions of North Miami Beach, has backed off his request to have state auditors examine the embattled city’s operations and finances.

The reason? Michael Caruso, a Republican state representative from Delray Beach who’s the alternating chairman of Florida’s joint legislative audit committee, sent a March 9 letter to North Miami Beach elected officials that brought up the recent drama over failed quorums by the city commission during a two-month span.

North Miami Beach Mayor Anthony DeFillipo

On March 21, the seven-member body reached a quorum for the first time since early January when three commissioners, McKenzie Fleurimond, Daniela Jean and Michael Joseph, stopped attending meetings amid a legal fight over whether Mayor Anthony DeFillipo actually lives in North Miami Beach.

Fleurimond, Jean and Joseph, who are all black, interpreted Caruso’s correspondence to mean that they were being singled out because they are in opposition to DeFillipo and the city commission’s other three white members, Pizzo told Florida Bulldog.

Pizzo, a Democrat who alternates the committee’s chairmanship with Caruso, said he decided to postpone his audit request to allow the tensions to simmer down.

“The allegation was made that the audit request was racist, which is ridiculous,” Pizzo said. “I really didn’t want that to cloud or suggest anything else other than the pure intention of what the audit is meant for.”

Fleurimond, Jean and Joseph did not respond to Florida Bulldog phone messages and emails seeking comment.

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State Sen. Jason Pizzo, right, and State Rep. Michael Caruso

Pizzo said he plans to resubmit his request for Florida Auditor General Sherrill Norman to comb through North Miami Beach’s books in the fall when the committee reconvenes. And he blamed Caruso for unnecessarily bringing up the city hall political kerfuffle in his letter. “I was very upset,” Pizzo said. “He sends letters to everybody’s cities that [read] like a pending indictment.”

Caruso did not respond to a Florida Bulldog voicemail and a text message seeking comment.

ALLEGED CITY-ISSUED CREDIT CARD ABUSES

Pizzo’s office became aware of allegations regarding the misuse of city-issued credit cards by North Miami Beach elected officials and staff, including costs for travel without a clear public purpose, according to an agenda item summary for the March 13 audit committee meeting. The summary noted “concerns have also been raised in the local media relating to the distribution of Publix gift cards by city officials and staff prior” to North Miami Beach’s Nov. 8 election last year.

Former Commissioner Paule Villard, top, and Commissioner Jay Chernoff

Last Aug. 16, the city commission voted to allocate $225,000 for the purchase of 1,500 Publix gift cards worth $150 each, the summary states. “It was done through a COVID-aid-related resolution that directed the city manager to allocate the gift cards to residents in financial hardship,” the summary says. “The resolution also specified the distribution needed to be done within 45 days of that meeting.”

However, then-City Commissioner Paule Villard, who is black, waited until early October to give away her allotment of gift cards “just as mail-in ballots were arriving to city voters,” according to the summary. Villard “eagerly took credit” for the event and declared “It’s not taxpayer money” in a television interview with WPLG10, the summary states.

Villard lost in a Nov. 22 runoff election to her white opponent, Jay Chernoff. The audit is necessary to determine any malfeasance that took place under the prior city commission, Chernoff told Florida Bulldog. On March 21, with a full quorum present, the city commission voted 6-1 to fire City Manager Arthur “Duke’’ Sorey without cause.

“For two years, we had been under a manager who didn’t know what he was doing,” Chernoff said. “He sent money to three commissioners at will whenever they wanted. He let them abuse their purchase cards and never called them on it.”

On March 7, Pizzo formally submitted his request to the audit committee. The audit’s scope would include the use of city’s credit cards and documentation to support the public purpose of any purchases, as well as “any other areas the auditor general deems appropriate,” Pizzo’s request states.

PIZZO PUBLICLY CHASTISES CARUSO

Two days later, Caruso fired off his letter to the city’s elected officials that said Pizzo requested the audit based on the credit card abuse allegations. But Caruso also noted “certain commission members have not attended scheduled meetings reportedly based on advice from the city attorney.”

Caruso was referring to Fleurimond, Jean and Joseph, who had skipped out on the city commission’s January and February meetings to protest DeFillipo’s refusal to vacate his office. After the November election, then-City Attorney Hans Ottinot hired an outside law firm to investigate where the mayor resides. The inquiry concluded that DeFillipo lives with his family in a $1.2-million house in Davie, and not the one-bedroom North Miami Beach condo he lists in city records, according to various media reports. Therefore, DeFillipo had forfeited his position, Ottinot determined.

In December, an anonymous complaint was filed with the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust also alleging that DeFilippo doesn’t live in North Miami Beach, and should be disqualified from office. 

North Miami Beach Commissioners McKenzie Fleurimond, right, Daniela Jean and Michael Joseph

DeFillipo dismissed the investigation’s findings, and filed a lawsuit in January seeking to allow the city commission to vote with just four members even though the city charter requires at least five members to consider any public business. A judge dismissed DeFillipo’s complaint. The mayor did not respond to a Florida Bulldog phone message and email seeking comment.

On March 13, a week before he was fired, Sorey and Fleurimond flew to Tallahassee for the audit committee’s meeting. Pizzo assured them that it was not his intention to draw attention to the political dogfight with DeFillipo, and that it was completely unrelated to his audit request. As a result of Caruso’s letter, he was forced to have “some uncomfortable conversations that should have been unnecessary and should not have happened” with State Sen. Shevrin Jones and State Rep. Christopher Benjamin, who both also represent parts of North Miami Beach, Pizzo said during the meeting.

Jones and Benjamin “were understandably upset with me under the guise or auspices that I had anything to do with this letter or the contents thereof,” Pizzo said. “That is not who we are and what we do.”

Pizzo also addressed Sorey and Fleurimond. “I am sorry for this,” Pizzo said. “To be very candid, I think you and other people took this as me targeting black Democrats in North Miami Beach. That really hurts me.”

The senator also accused Caruso of putting the committee “in a really bad situation.” Caruso apologized to Pizzo, and pointed out that he “immediately responded with a retraction and an apology letter to the city.”

The committee then approved Pizzo’s request to withdraw and postpone his audit request.

PIZZO INSISTS AUDIT IS STILL ‘COMING’

Pizzo’s about-face rankled Chernoff. “I am unhappy with him,” Chernoff said. “I want the audit to go forward. Instead, he listened to McKenzie, who was one of the commissioners who wasn’t showing up for meetings. Why would [Pizzo] listen to one of the persons causing all the problems?”

The audit has nothing to do with the skin color of who’s sitting on the city commission, Chernoff added. “I don’t know why [Pizzo] would be offended by anything that they think,” Chernoff said. “They are not the majority on the city commission. We want the audit.”

Pizzo insisted that Caruso’s letter was “really inappropriate,” and noted Sorey, who would be a target of the audit, was terminated. Ottinot also resigned as city attorney, Pizzo said. ‘The effect of [proposing an audit] was immediate,” he said. “I was not surprised that the city attorney resigned and the city manager was fired.”

Nevertheless, he intends to follow through on re-submitting his audit request in a few months, Pizzo said. “Had it not been for all the unnecessary, factually irrelevant things [in Caruso’s letter], we would have proceeded with an audit in a clean and clinical fashion,” Pizzo said. “But it’s coming.”

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Latest comments

  • Incompetence does not matter when the race card is played. This is a big reason why local governments in certain areas are dysfunctional. Having the ability to govern requires more than skin color.

  • So sad that my tax dollars can be abused without consequence. Hope to see an audit coming soon so we can understand who is responsible for what and move to prevent future abuses.

  • Senator Pizzo will be bringing this back. It’s ridiculous that two of his colleagues had to make this a racial issue when it is an issue of fiscal responsibility. The former City Manager, Arthur H. Sorey III, was beyond irresponsible with the taxpayers’ money, and he needs to be held accountable. His race had absolutely nothing to do with his corruption, but that won’t stop him from playing the race card to defend his indefensible actions. The Mayor and Commissioners are expected to obtain a forensic audit and heads should roll when the results are made public.

  • We need the audit now more than ever. Yes, the damage is done but a few perpetrators remain. The audit is the only way to flush them out and prove to all that the corruption was real.

  • After discovering that he isn’t actually a resident of NMB, is DeFillipo still the Mayor?

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