By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Dozens of North Miami Beach officials, including fired City Manager Arthur “Duke” Sorey III and three current city commissioners, racked up $1.4 million in unauthorized purchases on their city-issued credit cards between 2020 and the first three months of this year, according to a recently concluded investigation.
The credit-card abuse during the 27-month period included $296,211 of unexplained purchases from 67 employees on Amazon.com; retail store shopping sprees totalling $185,683; and $358,339 worth of items bought at hardware stores, according to a report prepared by Michael Pizzi, a private attorney hired by the city to analyze the purchases. Pizzi, an ex-Miami Lakes mayor who was acquitted of federal bribery charges in 2014, is also the personal lawyer for North Miami Beach Mayor Anthony DeFillipo, who was suspended from office in May after being criminally charged with voter fraud.
Sorey and his senior staff “facilitated these inappropriate expenditures,” states Pizzi’s 18-page report, which was sent to City Manager Mario Diaz and North Miami Beach’s elected officials on July 18. Sorey, who was fired in March, did not respond to a Florida Bulldog text message seeking comment, and his voicemail box was full.
Sorey denied any wrongdoing in a July 21 Miami-Dade lawsuit he filed against the city, DeFillipo, Vice Mayor Jay Chernoff and City Commissioners Fortuna Smukler and Phyllis Smith. The ex-city manager alleges Pizzi’s report is bogus, and that it is being used as a reason to deny him his severance package.
“The city commission engaged Pizzi to conduct an ‘investigation’ regarding Sorey after he had been terminated in a thinly veiled effort” to not pay him what he’s owed, the lawsuit states. “There is no truth to the Pizzi report as it relates to Sorey.”
Pizzi and Chernoff declined comment. Smukler and Smith did not respond to Florida Bulldog emails and voicemails seeking comment.
Commissioner Michael Joseph, who along with colleagues Daniela Jean and McKenzie Fleurimond, is named in Pizzi’s report as having misused their credit cards, blasted the credit-card investigation in an emailed statement to Florida Bulldog.
“Anyone of good conscience should strongly reject the sham report by Michael Pizzi,” Joseph said. “The report is full of baseless and malicious allegations that aim to smear and undermine the efforts by the commissioners such as myself who have been championing integrity and transparency.”
Fleurimond and Jean did not respond to voicemails and emails seeking comment.
POLITICAL TURMOIL AT CITY HALL
In last year’s November city election, victories by Chernoff, Smukler and Smith handed DeFillipo a majority slate on the city commission. Since then, those four elected officials have been locked in a bitter standoff with Joseph, Jean and Fleurimond, who backed Sorey and then-City Attorney Hans Ottinot. Ottinot today is Tamarac’s city attorney.
The feud began when Ottinot hired an outside law firm that conducted an inquiry into DeFillipo’s residency. That investigation concluded the mayor actually lives with his family in a $1.2-million house in Davie. DeFillipo claims he stays in a one-bedroom North Miami Beach condo listed in city records. Ottinot opined that DeFillipo had to vacate his seat, but the mayor refused.
In December, an anonymous complaint was filed with the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust to have DeFillipo disqualified from office. Fleurimond, Jean and Joseph did not show up to the city commission’s regular meetings in January and February, causing both hearings to be canceled due to a lack of quorum.
Also in January, DeFillipo filed a lawsuit seeking to allow the city commission to vote with just four members present even though the city charter requires at least five members to consider any public business. A judge dismissed the complaint, but ordered that all city commissioners must show up for the regularly scheduled meetings.
In March, Ottinot resigned and at the city commission’s meeting that month, with a full quorum present, the elected officials voted 6-1 to fire Sorey without cause. Two months later, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office charged DeFillipo with three felonies for voting three times in 2022 from a house he sold in 2021. Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended DeFillipo, who has pleaded not guilty.
Shortly following DeFillipo’s removal from office, the city commission voted 3-1 at its May meeting to remove Joseph from the dais by claiming he had forfeited his seat by failing to show up for consecutive meetings. Last month, Miami-Dade Judge Peter Lopez reinstated Joseph, ruling the city commission has no authority to remove members.
Meanwhile, Pizzi was busy collecting credit-card records and interviewing city finance staff after the city commission voted in April to hire him to investigate the purchases. The city retained Pizzi after a state legislative audit committee, co-chaired by State Sen. Jason Pizzo, who represents North Miami Beach, postponed an inquiry into the city’s finances after receiving complaints about credit-card abuses by city officials.
In his lawsuit, Sorey alleges Pizzi “clearly had a conflict of interest and an appearance of impropriety” because he is DeFillipo’s criminal defense lawyer, and represented the mayor in the civil lawsuit to allow the city commission to hold quorum with only four members. The city paid Pizzi and two other lawyers, Ben Kuehne and David Reiner, $111,513 for handling DeFillipo’s complaint, the Miami New Times reported.
FINANCE STAFF CONFIRMS ABUSE
Sorey alleges the city has paid him only $51,849, “representing only a fraction of the severance benefits” that he is owed.
Marcia Fennell, North Miami Beach’s chief financial officer, allegedly gave a statement that “she was systematically bullied and pushed to the side in order to prevent proper oversight and accounting practices in the area of expenditure of taxpayer funds,” the Pizzi report states.
Fennell did not respond to a Florida Bulldog voicemail seeking comment. The report does not include transcripts of statements made by Fennell and other finance staffers. It is unclear whether the employees Pizzi interviewed provided sworn affidavits. The lawyer’s report states that Fennell allegedly told Pizzi that “certain public officials and commissioners would spend excessively on their P-Cards and not provide the receipts.”
“P-cards” is another term for the city-issued credit cards. “Marcia Fennell asked Sorey to take the commissioners’ P-cards away and he refused,” the Pizzi report states. “Marcia Fennell sent out many emails asking for receipts for P-Card charges and she was largely ignored. Commissioners violated a multitude of P-Card policies with no consequences.”
Fennell allegedly told Pizzi that Joseph made “a partisan political donation, which was against the policy,” but that Sorey “ignored it even though his then-chief of staff” warned that “Joseph is going to get us all in trouble.”
When Fennell continued to email Arthur Sorey asking him to obtain receipts from the commissioners and his staff, he allegedly complained that “Finance was holding up the city, asking for too much,” Pizzi’s report states. Sorey also allegedly ignored Fennell’s advice that food purchases “must serve a public purpose.”
Juliet Pennant-Allen, an accounts payable supervisor who’s been employed by the city for 20 years, is in charge of paying invoices and reviewing credit card expenditures, the Pizzi report states.
“She advised that there have been multiple incidents of misconduct over the past two years since Arthur Sorey became the city manager,” the Pizzi report states. “Ms. Pennant-Allen worked under Sorey’s finance director, Agnew Jean-Pierre, who told her to ‘stay in her corner’ and to ‘mind her own business.’”
Pennant-Allen, who also did not respond to a Florida Bulldog voicemail seeking comment, allegedly told Pizzi that spending under Sorey was “was excessive compared to all prior administrations.”
“As for Sorey’s P card expenditures, Ms. Pennant-Allen would never get the detailed bills or see the receipts,” Pizzi’s report states. “For months, he ignored her many requests for detailed invoices and bills, and she was unable to close out the year end due to his refusal to cooperate.”
Pennant-Allen allegedly claimed that she was “black balled” and “written up” for “asking for too much information,” Pizzi’s report states.
Pizzi recommended that the city of North Miami Beach present his findings to Miami-Dade’s ethics commission, inspector general and state attorney’s office for further investigation. He also advised the city to revoke all the city-issued credit cards, and issue new cards that should only be used for travel purposes.
In an email statement, interim City Manager Diaz said he and his staff are reviewing Pizzi’s report: “The city continues to look to improve its internal auditing process and is taking steps to reinforce the proper use of tax-payer dollars.”