Clearly angry that his court case had become political theater, a judge on Tuesday removed himself from the case of a Miami city commissioner who is seeking a third term in office.
Ignoring pleas from attorneys to be heard, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jorge E. Cueto stormed off the bench after reading a four-page ruling recusing himself from the case involving Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.
Cueto barely looked up as he read directly from the ruling he wrote to exonerate himself from claims he should have bowed out of the case earlier because of a conflict of interest. Last week, the judge ruled that Spence-Jones could not run for her commission seat a third time because the city charter limits commissioners to two terms in office.
Spence-Jones’ attorney, Bruce Rogow, filed a motion Monday afternoon claiming that in 2007, Cueto, then a public-corruption investigator in the state attorney’s office, took sworn statements in a case the state was trying to make against Spence-Jones. The case involved allegations that the commissioner had demanded kickbacks in exchange for a vote in a high-profile Coconut Grove development plan. The case fell apart, the development died and no charges were ever filed.
Cueto also took issue Tuesday with a Miami Herald story last week that said by not disclosing his connection to a prior Spence-Jones case, the judge may have ignored a Supreme Court rule regarding conflicts of interest. And he said he was bothered because The Herald received a copy of Rogow’s recusal motion a day before the court itself got it.
“After reading and hearing allegations in the media impugning this court’s judicial ethics without any party having the courtesy to serve any paper or motion on the court prior to one and one-half hours ago, this court moved… this morning to disqualify itself from any further action in this case, to avoid any taint of impropriety in the process,” Cueto wrote.
As Cueto left the courtroom, Rogow made his way to the lectern to tell the judge that he had filed the motion online Monday at 3 p.m. But the judge was gone, and Rogow was reduced to getting it on the record with the court reporter.
Though Cueto removed himself from the case, he did not vacate his decision last week that Miami City Attorney Julie Bru was mistaken when she interpreted the city charter to say Spence-Jones could run in November for a third term. The charter, Bru said, provided Spence-Jones two full terms in office, and she had only served a portion of her second term as she successfully fought felony charges of misusing her office.
Courts spokesperson Eunice Sigler said another judge will be randomly assigned the case by computer in a day or two. The new judge will have to decide whether to leave ruling intact, modify it or hold a new hearing.
The term-limits case ended up in court after the Rev. Richard P. Dunn II, a long-time political foe of Spence-Jones, sued to keep the commissioner off the ballot in the District 5 race, in which he’s running.
Spence-Jones was out of office for 21 months, from January 2010 through September 2011, after Gov. Charlie Crist suspended her when she was charged by the state. The commissioner was acquitted of one of the charges; prosecutors dropped the second charge.
Dunn’s attorney, J.C. Planas, sent an email to Rogow back in March, before the hearing in which the judge ruled in Dunn’s favor, saying that Cueto had worked as a state prosecutor in public corruption cases in 2007.
“I bring this up because, while it is not an issue for my client or I imagine for the city of Miami, Mr. Rogow’s client has a lawsuit against the state attorney and I do not want any last-minute motions that will delay this hearing,” Planas wrote to Rogow.
Later that day Rogow responded to Planas saying “It will be my position that there is no reason to move for disqualification and it has never been an issue.”
In his statement Tuesday, Cueto said he had no recollection of the Spence-Jones case, and that he wasn’t aware of any connection until being contacted by a reporter last week. He said he then contacted the former public corruptions chief, who also did not recall Cueto’s involvement in the case. But records show that in 2007, Cueto took sworn testimony during a contentious Mercy Hospital development case, from then City Manager Joe Arriola and Commissioners Marc Sarnoff and Tomás Regalado, among others. Cueto was elected judge in 2008.
The judge also criticized Spence-Jones for not bringing up earlier in the case the issue of his involvement as a prosecutor. He said she must have known because she wrote a 2009 Miami Herald opinion piece thanking the state attorney for reaching the right conclusion on the development case.
“Spence-Jones, being the intelligent, smart and seasoned politician she is, must have been aware through her attorneys of the full scope, content and participants in the investigation before writing such a laudatory statement,” Cueto wrote.
After Tuesday’s hearing, Rogow called the judge’s statement “absolutely absurd. There was no reason for us to sit back. He should have known.”
Whatever the new judge in the case decides, it’s unlikely to end the case. Both sides have vowed to appeal.