Sweetwater officers’ bumps in rank called improper



The Sweetwater Police Department’s problems are not limited to missing cash or disappeared horses.

According to a grievance by the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), before leaving his post last month, Police Chief Roberto Fulgueira promoted at least four officers without meeting the union requisites for promotion exams.

Instead of using a test written by an educational institution, the police department wrote its own test to promote the officers to the ranks of sergeant, according to John Rivera, president of the PBA, Miami-Dade County’s police union.

“The evidence we found is clear: The test was written by the Sweetwater police and sent to an educational institution instead of the other way around, as is established by the rules,” Rivera said. “The integrity of the test was compromised, no doubt about it.”

Rivera asked Fulgueira on Oct. 10 to reverse the promotions after learning of the irregularities in the process from another Sweetwater police officer.

After Rivera presented his grievance, two of the four officers, Víctor Carril and Carlos Manuel Sordo, voluntarily resigned from the rank of sergeant. The other two, Jaime Richter and Jenna Méndez, have kept the rank and salary of sergeants. The four officers were the only ones to pass the test offered between March and April.

Sweetwater’s new mayor, José M. Díaz, suggested that the test results could have been affected by favoritism and that they would be offered again under appropriate conditions. Díaz became mayor after Sweetwater’s former mayor, Manny Maroño, was arrested in a federal public corruption case in August. Maroño pleaded guilty last week.

A call for order

“From now on, all city employees will be promoted on the basis of their merits and seniority,” Díaz said in a recent interview. “Not on cronyism or on some arbitrary decision by a supervisor.”

Fulgueira, who did not respond to a message on Friday, had dismissed the PBA’s complaint, arguing that the test had been administered by Keiser University, an authorized entity.

The former chief retired in late October in the midst of a broad federal investigation of the city’s police department. Detective William García was arrested in August, charged with identity theft and credit-card fraud, and at least two of his colleagues are under investigation by the FBI. García’s arrest took place two weeks after the FBI arrested Maroño.

Meanwhile, a series of other scandals have shaken tiny Sweetwater in recent weeks, from the discovery of a secret evidence room and a missing police horse on a former lieutenant’s property, to the disappearance of thousands of dollars in cash collected for administrative fees charged for the recovery of vehicles towed during arrests.

El Nuevo Herald and CBS 4 have been reporting on the questionable connections between Sweetwater’s towing procedures and a towing company linked to Maroño.

Jenna Méndez

El Nuevo Herald weeks ago requested access to the personnel file of Officer Méndez, the daughter of County Commissioner Lynda Bell, as well as the files of other officers.

However, police spokesperson Jorge Fernández de Lara said this week that “higher authorities had requested that police personnel files and other documents” be kept secured because they could become evidence in an investigation.

Fernández de Lara, who did not identify the “higher authorities,” said those documents are locked in the department’s evidence room despite the fact that they are public records.

Méndez’s family has also received other benefits from the city of Sweetwater.

In October of last year, the city gave a contract to Fence Assured LLC, a fence installation company owned by Méndez and her husband, Damian.

City officials could not specify on Friday how much money the city has paid to Fence Assured since the signing of the contract, but the company has installed several wire-mesh fences at several Sweetwater properties, including a piece of land on Northwest 17th Street that, according to images published on the company’s website, are used by two city helicopters.

In February, Bell promoted legislation at the county commission to lift a ban on wire-mesh fences at homes without revealing her daughter’s business in this field. The Eye on Miami blog first reported on the fencing company last week.

Méndez started working as a police officer for the city of Sweetwater in January 2011, less than a year after being fired from the Homestead Police Department. Méndez lost her job as a reserve officer in Homestead, where her mother had been mayor, after allegedly threatening her boyfriend with a gun in February 2010. Méndez’s lawyer argued then that it had been in self-defense.

Méndez did not answer phone messages on Friday.

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