For a while now the city of Sweetwater’s payroll has resembled a guest list for a family party thrown by former mayor Manny Maroño. The list includes his wife, his mother, an uncle, at least one former employee of his private company, his company’s lawyer and a partner’s wife.
Perhaps this is why it is not surprising that commissioner José Guerra is also a former employee of a towing company owned by Maroño. From 2008 to 2010, Guerra was a supervisor at Southeast Towing, Inc., according to his own financial information. Maroño reported that he was the company’s only owner in 2009 and 2010.
Yet Guerra, elected to the commission in 2003, says that he did not know that his boss was Maroño, who was arrested in August in a federal case of public corruption.
“I never worked for Manny,” Guerra said this week. “The owner of that company is Pete Hernández.”
According to state registers, it was not until after Guerra ceased to work in Southeast that Hernández, Maroño’s former partner in other towing companies, became its owner.
Hernández did not respond a message from El Nuevo Herald on Friday. His wife, Zuly Hernández, also works for the city as director of Sweetwater’s Passport Office, according to several city sources.
Joe Centorino, director of the Miami-Dade County Ethics Commission, said he could not comment specifically on Guerra’s case. However, he made reference to a section of the county’s ethics code that forbids public officials to work in places that could “compromise their independent judgment in the performance of their public duties.”
Guerra said that there was no conflict of interest in being a commissioner who voted on measures presented by his boss, Maroño, because he did not know he was the owner of the company.
But Guerra is not the only commissioner with personal links to the former mayor. His mother, Isolina Maroño, has been on the commission since last year.
The connections of Maroño’s friends, partners and family members to the City of Sweetwater add to a broad federal investigation of the city’s police department. As part of that investigation, authorities are inquiring whether city officials or police officers received bribes in exchange for directing business to Southland The Towing Co., another towing company that Maroño previously owned.
El Nuevo Herald and CBS-4 have been reporting on these questionable connections since Maroño’s arrest.
For years Southland operated without a contract in Sweetwater, towing the vehicles of hundreds of people arrested under charges ranging from driving without a driver’s license to possession of drugs. Several of these vehicles ended either in Southland’s possession or were auctioned or donated to the city’s Police Department. Until early October Sweetwater authorities charged an administrative fine of $500 in cash to those who sought to recover their towed vehicles.
Gil Chez, a former employee in Maroño’s companies, including working as Southland’s manager, was hired in 2012 to manage Sweetwater’s vehicle fleet. He receives an annual salary of nearly $50,000 while his wife, Anny Chez, works as director of finance with a salary of about $75,000.
Jenny Muñoz-Maroño, the former mayor’s ex girlfriend and mother of his two children, works as the city’s coordinator of special projects with a salary of nearly $75,000. Shortly after Manny Maroño’s arrest in August, the couple married legally.
Antero Espinosa, Maroño’s uncle, resigned recently from his post of director of maintenance with a salary of close to $75,000. Also, the city attorney, Ralph Ventura, has worked as attorney for Southland and other companies that Maroño previously owned.
“When there is cronyism and nepotism in a government, things will be allowed to be hidden,” said Deborah Centeno, a community activist who ran unsuccessfully against Isolina Maroño in May’s elections. “Even if permitted by law, it is not ethical.”
El Nuevo Herald could only obtain Maroño’s and Guerra’s financial reports beginning in 2006. Before working for Southeast, Guerra said he had been a supervisor at Freeway Towing, a company owned by another family. However, in 2006 Guerra reported that he worked for Westbrook Motors, a company previously owned by Maroño, Hernández and Robert Muriedas, who is Southland’s current owner.
In his own financial information Maroño reported that he received an income from Westbrook in 2006. That year, only Hernández appears as the company’s owner, according to state registers. Maroño had ceased to be the owner in 2004.