By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Even as Miami Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla was put in handcuffs Thursday for bribery and other charges, members of his city staff were the focus of a separate investigation that found they were part of a scheme in which they did paid campaign work for Diaz de la Portilla’s brother while on the taxpayer’s dime.
Yet, they won’t be facing criminal misdemeanor charges for violating a state law that prohibits government employees from double-dipping – engaging in political campaigning while on duty.
Their boss, on the other hand, is in deep trouble. On Thursday, Diaz de la Portilla surrendered to Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) agents after being hit with multiple felony counts, including bribery, official misconduct, money laundering and criminal conspiracy. Investigators also arrested lawyer and lobbyist William Riley Jr., who was allegedly in cahoots with Diaz de la Portilla in accepting $15,000 in unreported payments and $245,000 in concealed contributions to a pair of political action committees the city commissioner controlled.
The FDLE probe was initiated by a separate inquiry by the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, which also investigated Diaz de la Portilla’s employees.
In 2020, Anabel Castillo and Julio Guillen, a pair of community liaisons in Diaz de la Portilla’s District 1 office, along with Jenny Nillo, a then-staffer at the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) chaired by the city commissioner, were campaigning for his younger brother Renier Diaz de la Portilla during regular work hours, according to a recent Miami-Dade ethics investigative report obtained by Florida Bulldog. At the time, Renier made a failed bid against Miami-Dade County Commissioner Eileen Higgins.
In July, following a three-year inquiry, Castillo and Guillen agreed to pay ethics fines totaling $2,000 for failing to report their political side hustles with the city of Miami. But the pair will not be criminally charged.
After reviewing the evidence gathered by investigators for the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust, public corruption prosecutors determined it wasn’t enough to present a case, Ed Griffith, spokesman for Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, told Florida Bulldog in a Sept. 6 email.
“The ethics commission investigators did develop sufficient material to support a finding of ethical violations,” Griffith wrote. “The evidence discovered did not meet the level necessary to support the filing of a criminal charge.”
It’s the latest political caper involving Diaz de la Portilla staffers that ends with no one in jail.
Last year, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded a separate investigation without recommending criminal charges against Diaz de la Portilla for allegedly arranging a “no-show” position at the CRA for Nillo, who admitted in a 2021 sworn statement that she spent most of her day job hours running errands for the city commissioner and working Renier’s campaign.
Diaz de la Portilla refused to speak with a Florida Bulldog reporter about his city employees breaking the law to help propel his brother’s ambitions. “Why do you waste your time and, worse, mine?” Diaz de la Portilla said in a text a week before his arrest.
LONG TIES TO THE BROTHERS
Castillo, Guillen and Nillo all have long historical ties to the Diaz de la Portillas – Miami-Dade’s second best-known political family behind the Diaz-Balart clan. In addition to Alex and Renier, there’s Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, an environmental and land-use lawyer who served stints as a Miami-Dade County commissioner in the 1990s and a state senator in the 2010s.
Nillo, who was convicted of bank fraud in 2017 and served two years in federal prison, is now employed as District 1’s office coordinator at an annual salary of $53,000, city records show. Guillen earns $63,000 a year as a community liaison. Castillo, who resigned from her District 1 community liaison position last year, earned the same salary as Guillen.
Castillo, Guillen and Nillo also got paid a combined $53,277 by two political action committees that supported Renier’s 2020 bid, campaign finance reports show. The trio did not respond to Florida Bulldog’s email requests for comment. Renier did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment.
In two separate interviews with FDLE investigators in 2021 and ethics commission staff in 2022, Nillo recounted how she’s known the band of brothers since 1994 when she worked on Diaz de la Portilla’s successful campaign for state representative. In 2020, she landed a job with the CRA, reporting directly to the city commissioner instead of the agency’s then-executive director Jason Walker, Nillo recounted for investigators.
In 2021, Diaz de la Portilla immediately rehired Nillo when she was fired from the CRA after she was pulled over in her city-issued car on suspicion of driving under the influence. At the time, FDLE agents had her under surveillance as part of the department’s probe into Diaz de la Portilla.
Castillo landed her first government gig under Diaz de la Portilla nearly a quarter century ago. In 2000, she went to work as an aide in his Miami district office during the start of his first term as a state senator and kept the post until 2010, when Diaz de la Portilla left office due to term limits.
Castillo again went to work for Diaz de la Portilla in an official government capacity shortly after he won the District 1 city commission seat in 2019. In December of that year, he gave Castillo and Guillen jobs, city records show.
According to the ethics commission report, Castillo spoke with investigators in June of lastyear, telling them she enlisted with Renier’s campaign at the candidate’s request because “I love him.”
A few days after interviewing Castillo, investigators met with Guillen, who relayed that he “always worked” on Diaz de la Portilla family campaigns, the report states. For at least 26 years, he took on a variety of responsibilities, including putting together yard signs and driving the brothers to campaign events, Guillen said.
REPORTING AT THE ‘MATTRESS FACTORY’
Alfredo Dominguez, a Miami Beach resident who was unemployed when he landed a job as a driver for Renier’s campaign in 2020, was among 14 witnesses interviewed by investigators, the ethics commission report states.
Seven days a week, he reported to Renier’s campaign headquarters at the “mattress factory,” a warehouse in Miami’s Allapattah neighborhood that is home to the Diaz de la Portilla family business, De Mattress Inc. Dominguez ran into Castillo and Guillen regularly at the factory during the campaign, the investigative report states.
“[Dominguez] said this ‘Anabel’ reported to the campaign headquarters daily and spent a full day or longer working on campaign-related business,” the report states. “He said this included ‘driving people around to different locations’ for campaign purposes and that she would do this using her City of Miami vehicle.”
Dominguez also told investigators that Guillen “helped around the campaign office” by picking up food for campaign workers, as well as driving U-Haul trucks used to distribute food at giveaway events during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, including at a Miami Beach senior public housing building.
In her interviews with FDLE and ethics investigators, Nillo “advised that during the time she was employed by the Miami Omni CRA, she spent a considerable amount of her time working on [Renier’s] campaign,” the report states.
From June 2020 through the November election that year, she reported to the mattress factory, where she spent five to six hours a day at a work station with a desk and a computer, Nillo told investigators. Her primary responsibility was preparing voters’ lists for canvassers, and that she handed them out to team leaders, including Castillo and another District 1 staffer whose name is redacted in the report. Nillo also saw Guillen setting up campaign events and delivering and picking up campaign checks, the report states.
“Ms. Nillo indicated that much of the time that she and [Diaz de la Portilla] staff were at the [mattress factory] coincided with regular District 1 office hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” the report states.
NO RECORDS, LITTLE OVERSIGHT
In her interview with ethics investigators, Castillo conceded that she campaigned for Renier during regular city hours, the report states. She claimed that she would make up her city hours on weekends and in the evenings during the week. But she did not keep a log of when she worked for the city and when she worked for Renier’s campaign, the ethics report states.
“Why do I have to keep a record?” Castillo said, according to an interview excerpt. “We worked 24/7…It’s true, sometimes I went to do some things for [Renier] at two o’clock and then I [made] it up on Saturday.”
Castillo claimed that she did not discuss campaigning for Renier with Diaz de la Portilla, her direct boss at city hall. “No, I don’t have to seek permission,” Castillo said. “I’m sorry. I just do it because I like [Renier] so much.”
Guillen also admitted to ethics investigators that he performed some campaign duties during office hours, but that “I always did my 40 hours of work” for the city, the report states. Like Castillo, Guillen did not maintain a written log and would keep track of his hours “in my head.”
Another witness, District 1’s then-chief of staff Alexander Barrera, told investigators that he provided nominal oversight of some employees who mostly took direction from Diaz de la Portilla, including Castillo and Guillen. “He had little knowledge of their whereabouts most days,” the report states. “Mr. Barrera stated that he did eventually learn that several District 1 staff members were regularly spending time at [Renier’s] campaign headquarters.”
Ethics investigators also confirmed with the Miami city clerk’s office that Castillo and Guillen never requested time off during the months they spent working on Renier’s campaign, and that neither of them submitted forms stating they had outside employment. In addition, the District 1 office had not kept any records such as timesheets documenting hours employees worked.
Outside employment forms are an essential component of Miami-Dade’s ethics and conflict-of- interest law, Caroline Klancke, executive director of Tallahassee-based Florida Ethics Institute, told Florida Bulldog.
“It is imperative for fairness and transparency when it comes to a public employee engaging in outside and paid employment relationships,” Klancke said. “These facts potentially implicate [Castillo, Guillen and Nillo] with misuse of public resources for a purely private purpose; that of a campaign which is a private undertaking of the commissioner’s brother.”
Another expert, Nova Southeastern University ethics law professor Robert Jarvis, told Florida Bulldog that Diaz de la Portilla should also be in the crosshairs of investigators for abusing his official position by either condoning or turning a blind eye to his government employees working for Renier’s campaign.
“Certainly, the commissioner should have been keeping tabs on his workers,” Jarvis said. “This is a requirement that happens at every level of government. You are not supposed to mix politics with your normal elected office job. Your constituents are not interested in footing the bill for your campaign or anyone else’s.”