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South Miami police chief pleads no contest to ethics violations

The Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust agreed Thursday to settle an ethics complaint against South Miami Police Chief Orlando Martinez De Castro that accused him of steering city business to his wife’s auto tag agency, Airways Auto Tag, and soliciting business for his wife’s insurance company using his city email.

Under the settlement agreement, which evolved over months of negotiations, De Castro pleaded no contest to three of the four charges against him. He agreed to pay $2,000 in investigative costs and receive a letter of instruction. The fourth charge, relating to the insurance company, was dropped as part of the settlement.

The chief violated a section of the city’s ethics code, which bars city employees from doing business with immediate family members who have a financial interest with the city. Willful violation constitutes malfeasance and results in forfeiture of office.

A local blogger known as The Straw Buyer first reported the police department was doing business with Airways in March 2012.

“There is substantial evidence to show that De Castro was, in fact, well aware that his department did business with his wife’s company,” according to the probable cause memorandum written by the ethics commission’s advocate, Michael Murawski.

His memo states the city did business with Airways Auto Tag in February, June and October 2011. The 2011 transactions totaled $1,251.

Murawski said Thursday the only reason to proceed to hearing on the case would be to show that the business was conducted willfully by the chief.

“I don’t think we need to go that far,” Murawski said.

The draft final order written by Murawski states the commission “specifically made no finding as to whether the violation was or was not ‘willful.’”

That draft order has not yet been adopted by the commission, and each side will present draft final orders for the ethics commission to consider next month.

De Castro has maintained that he did not know about the transactions. His wife told investigators that she does not discuss her business with her husband or anyone, according to the memo.

Murawski’s memo presents an interview with Lt. Dan Salerno (now retired from the police department) who asked De Castro in 2011 whether his wife could help obtain titles for vehicles forfeited to police after being used in felonies. Salerno said the chief answered “yes” and gave Salerno his wife’s phone number.

“Salerno was taken aback when he was advised that De Castro claimed to have no knowledge of Airways’ business transactions with the city,” the memo states.

“COE staff claims to have evidence sufficient for a full conviction, they have evidence of an extensive conspiracy to cover up the Chief’s responsibility, and yet they drop one charge entirely and do back flips to minimize the other three charges,” South Miami Mayor Phil Stoddard wrote in a statement to the Miami Herald.

“What the COE accomplished today could have been done 16 months ago with no investigation and without taking a single deposition. Who can explain to the citizens of Miami-Dade County how this action addresses ‘public trust’ part of the Commission on Ethics and the Public Trust? It’s just another example of what blogger Al Crespo calls the ‘Friends and Family Plan’.”

Stoddard wants the chief fired. However, if the chief were to be fired without cause, the city would have to pay out the remainder of his five-year contract, which ends in October 2015.

The ethics commission meeting drew a crowd of more than a dozen, including South Miami’s three commissioners and Vice Mayor Joshua Liebman who all spoke during the public comment session.

Commissioner Bob Welsh asked the commission to reject the settlement agreement and take the case to a public hearing. Welsh noted that Airways Auto Tag is 11 miles from South Miami, and that another tag agency is 100 feet outside the city limits.

Commissioner Walter Harris said that if the commission knew that the chief committed the violations willfully but overlooks it, “then you are in grievous violation of the very ethics that you’re up here to protect.”

Commissioner Valerie Newman called De Castro “the best chief South Miami has ever had,” and said that she had personal knowledge the chief was not involved in the day-to- day operations of his wife’s agency.

Liebman also spoke in support of the chief, saying he believed the police department went to Airways because it received better service there.

“How far would you drive for better service?” Liebman asked commission members.

Liebman also decried the dysfunction of the city commission and a culture of instability, citing the city’s very high turnover rate for city managers.

South Miami resident John Edward Smith echoed Liebman’s concerns about dysfunction, but went even further saying, “This is nothing but a witch hunt conducted by a few individuals within the city that is ongoing and detrimental to the well-being of our community. It involves the termination of city managers so that the will of the commission to terminate the chief can be effected.”

De Castro refused to comment on the case, and referred questions to his attorney, Simon Steckel.

When asked if he believed the chief’s job was sufficiently protected, Steckel replied, “based on the settlement agreement, absolutely.”

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