With half of Miami’s elected officials under investigation, the city’s history is repeating

When two state law enforcement agents walked into Miami City Hall last week to arrest a city commissioner, their arrival was a very public reminder that the Magic City is once again awash in corruption allegations.

Now-suspended Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla is facing criminal charges that he sold his vote for $245,000 in campaign cash. At the same time, the FBI is separately investigating whether Mayor Francis Suarez worked behind the scenes to help a developer who was quietly paying him $10,000 a month. And local prosecutors have an open case prompted by old accusations that several of the city’s politicians — in particular Commissioner and former Mayor Joe Carollo — held improper influence over the police force.

All three men have denied wrongdoing, and Carollo says he’s never been contacted by investigators about the accusations made two years ago by a former police chief. But with half of Miami’s six elected officials under a cloud, the atmosphere hanging over City Hall is drawing comparisons to past scandals that turned Miami’s government upside down — and leading to new calls to clean house.

“I really was a bit shocked by what appeared to be — I don’t know — is arrogance the right word?” retired government administrator Merrett Stierheim said of the details laid out in Díaz de la Portilla’s arrest affidavit. “I mean, these are not dumb people.”

In Díaz de la Portilla’s case, investigators say that the longtime politician worked with a lobbyist to obtain nearly a quarter-million dollars in campaign contributions from a wealthy Miami couple seeking his blessing for a $10 million sports complex in a public park for their private school.

Two Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents leave Miami City Hall in Miami, Florida, on Thrusday, Sept. 14, 2023. Miami Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla was arrested on a host of corruption charges that include bribery and money laundering, according to the FDLE.

The case was overseen by the Broward State Attorney’s Office due to a conflict declared by Miami’s top prosecutor. The agency has also handled a case prompted by a former police chief’s allegations in 2021 that commissioners were exerting undue sway over the police department.

In particular, ex-Chief Art Acevedo’s claims focused on Díaz de la Portilla and Carollo, whom he said pressured police and city regulators to target business owners they didn’t like. The allegations generally echoed a lawsuit filed by club owners in Little Havana who convinced a federal jury to hit Carollo in April with a $63.5 million judgment for targeting their business.

“You have to put your integrity aside in the city of Miami,” Acevedo said while testifying during Carollo’s trial.

Now the police chief in Aurora, Colorado, Acevedo was recruited to lead Miami’s police force in 2021 only to be fired seven months later, after a memo airing his grievances leaked to the press. He had also told officers that the department was run by the “Cuban mafia,” a phrase often used by the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to describe Miami’s Cuban exiles.

Commissioners said they were offended, and Acevedo, a Cuban American, eventually apologized. But when Acevedo’s successor was being sworn in, Carollo — who has been in and out of power in the city over four decades — memorialized the moment by playing the theme song from the iconic mobster movie “The Godfather.”

Asked last week by the Miami Herald about the various scandals rocking City Hall, Acevedo said he usually doesn’t comment on ongoing investigations. “But in this instance I will. I told Miami so,” he said.

Embattled Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo reaches out to a small group of supporters, including members of the Miami Community Police Benevolent Association, at Miami City Hall after commissioners voted to fire him on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021.

The History

Fair or not, Miami City Hall has long been viewed skeptically by critics as a part of the region’s underbelly, given its penchant for erupting in controversy.

For instance, Stierheim, the retired administrator, was appointed to clean up City Hall nearly 30 years ago after a sting called Operation Greenpalm — a massive shakedown and public corruption scandal that involved yachts, extortion and bribery payments in the Caribbean.

When it ended, Miami Commissioner Miller Dawkins would be sentenced to 27 months in prison for accepting $30,000 in bribes. City Manager Cesar Odio would also spend a year in prison for trying to obstruct the investigation after finance director Manohar Surana flipped on him and wore a wire.

8/6/01 Al Diaz/Herald Staff--Miami--Fomer Finance Director of the City of Miami Manohar Surana pleads guilty to a conspiracy to commit extortion, bribery and money laundering. Here, Surana walks past the media in front of the federal court house.

Remarkably, the man elected to replace Dawkins also ended up behind bars. Before being stripped of his law license and going to prison in 1998 on voter fraud charges, Humberto “Bert” Hernandez was suspended twice by the governor from his commission seat.

Today, Hernandez is back at City Hall and once again shrouded in controversy as a lobbyist and one of Díaz de la Portilla’s closest allies. A lawsuit filed this month alleges that Hernandez worked with the commissioner in 2020 to try and rig a competition to rebuild the city’s Rickenbacker Marina. Hernandez has called the lawsuit “frivolous, non-meritorious and defamatory in nature.”

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Juan-Carlos Planas, the attorney who filed the complaint on behalf of a lobbyist who once represented the marina’s operator, said the city needs to address institutional corruption by increasing the number of city commissioners and blocking elected officials from holding outside employment. He suggested changes to the city’s charter, its founding document.

“This is the most serious issue since the 1990s,” during Operation Greenpalm, he said of the current climate at City Hall. “I think it’s time for a total cleansing.”

Planas, who is also representing a candidate seeking to unseat Díaz de la Portilla, puts the current spate of controversies above even an imbroglio in late 2009, when Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones was suspended and charged with steering a $50,000 grant to family members at about the same time that Commissioner Angel Gonzalez resigned as part of a plea deal after getting his daughter a “ghost job” with a city contractor.

Court bailiff Mabel V. Calderon, left, fingerprints former commissioner, Angel Gonzalez, after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge.

The case against Spence-Jones would ultimately fall apart. But the ousters left the city with so few politicians that November that it was unable to conduct official City Commission business for about two weeks.

The city was desperate enough that then-Mayor Tomás Regalado urged then-Gov. Charlie Crist to appoint someone to one of the empty seats. When Crist refused, Regalado took the more desperate measure of asking Gonzalez to return for an emergency meeting. (He, too, refused.)

During that chaos, which also prompted special elections to fill the vacancies, Spence-Jones won her seat back only to be suspended a second time — a possibility facing Díaz de la Portilla, who is seeking reelection.

“Obviously,” Crist said of the current state of things in Miami, “this situation is unfortunate.”

Former Miami City Commissioner Humberto “Bert” Hernandez

‘Be careful who you vote for’

Miami is far from the only community in Florida to struggle through scandal. The state took over Opa-locka’s nearly-bankrupt government in 2016 after the FBI raided City Hall in the north Dade community. Other cities like Sweetwater, North Miami Beach and Hallandale Beach have seen mayors prosecuted and suspended or removed from office over the past decade.

But the bar for notable controversies is high in Miami, the only city ever charged twice by the Securities and Exchange Commission for cooking its books to cover cash shortfalls and misleading bond investors.

The current mayor, Suarez, knows this well. He was only 20 when a judge threw out his father’s victory in the 1997 mayoral election, finding that it was tainted by fraud. His own 2013 mayoral campaign ended prematurely after prosecutors opened an investigation into unlawful absentee-ballot requests that ended with several arrests.

The younger Suarez was cleared of wrongdoing by investigators and his father, Xavier Suarez, wasn’t implicated in the fraud-marred 1997 mayoral election. But the sagas still come up from time to time, like when Carollo — who was installed as Miami’s mayor in 1998 after a court threw out tainted mail ballots — went out of his way to mention them during a grievance-filled 2017 election-night speech.

Today, the younger Suarez is mayor, and under investigation by the FBI following the Miami Herald’s reporting that a developer facing regulatory issues with a real estate project told his staff he sought the mayor’s help with permitting problems. Records show the mayor’s office helped the developer, Location Ventures, change a city zoning determination that would have set its project back. Suarez is adamant that he did not pull strings for his client.

Instagram posts by developer Rishi Kapoor’s URBIN Condos brand, show Miami Mayor Francis Suarez (center left) and former commissioner Ken Russell (second from the left) at the groundbreaking for the co-living project in Coconut Grove. Suarez was paid $10,000 a month by the developer

Suarez, who has two years left on his second and final term as mayor, isn’t on the ballot this November. But with voters in the city’s first and second districts set to go to the polls to elect commissioners to new four-year terms, the scrutiny of Miami’s politicians is quickly becoming a campaign issue.

“We’ve witnessed one scandal too many, and it’s abundantly clear that the time for change is now,” District 2 Commission candidate James Torres wrote in a campaign email sent Saturday afternoon. “Join me in our mission to Shake Up City Hall as we unite to combat corruption and firmly apply the brakes on the powerful special interests and lobbyists that have held sway over our local government for far too long.”

Díaz de la Portilla’s opponent, Marvin Tapia, referred in a campaign statement to the suspended commissioner’s arrest as “part of a larger history of corruption.”

“The people of Miami deserve a leader who will walk into City Hall to represent them with their head held high, not out the back door in handcuffs,” he said.

Díaz de la Portilla, who ultimately turned himself in after ducking out of City Hall last week before state law enforcement agents could take him into custody, has called the case against him “a work of fiction.”

Commissioner Manolo Reyes, who is also running for reelection, stressed that people accused of a crime are innocent until proven guilty, and cautioned voters from making sweeping allegations against the entire city government. Reyes, among the commissioners accused by Acevedo of tampering with police affairs, has denied the allegations.

“There are a lot of dedicated people working in the city, and we shouldn’t be generalizing,” said Reyes. “There are dishonest mechanics and dishonest doctors, but that doesn’t mean that all mechanics and all doctors are dishonest. We keep working. We keep picking up the garbage.”

But he offered words of caution for voters: “When you go vote, be careful who you vote for, and demand that they work for the people.”

Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.

District 4 Commissioner Manolo Reyes speaks during a commemoration event at the Bay of Pigs Memorial Park on Wednesday, April 12, 2023, in Miami, Fla. Reyes unveiled a new monument to honor the Cubans who participated in the Bay of Pigs Invasion and showed improvements made to the park.