South Miami drops towing company linked to convicted ex-Sweetwater mayor

 

msanchez@elnuevoherald.com

Another city in Miami-Dade County has ended its agreement with a towing company that once belonged to Sweetwater’s former mayor, Manuel “Manny” Maroño, and is now under federal investigation.

South Miami City Manager Stephen Alexander said he canceled what appears to have been a verbal agreement with Southland the Towing Company in early November, after learning that the FBI was investigating the company’s operations in Sweetwater amid allegations that it had taken possession of vehicles unlawfully seized by police.

Alexander said the city now plans to seek proposals from towing companies to replace Southland in a formal bidding process.

The cities of Sweetwater and Doral, as well as the Miccosukee Tribe, have also ended their agreements with Southland in recent months.

“[The owner] has lost so much business simply for being associated with the city of Sweewater,” said attorney Alexander Fox, who represents Southland’s owner, Roberto Muriedas. “This has affected his business terribly.”

Muriedas, a longtime business associate and friend of Maroño’s, appears as the only owner of Southland on state records. Maroño, who pleaded guilty in a separate public corruption case two weeks ago, had been an owner of the company until 2009 — although he lobbied on behalf of the company in Doral a year later.

While the federal probe is focused on Sweetwater, sources familiar with the case say authorities are also looking into Southland’s operations in South Miami and examining whether city officials or police received kickbacks in exchange for directing business to the company.

South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard says he has spoken with the FBI about Southland.

Alexander said Southland was the only towing company that responded to police calls in recent years, but he can’t find a formal contract.

“Once we realized things didn’t look right, we ceased doing business with Southland,” said Alexander, who was hired for the manager’s job earlier this year. “We’re still trying to figure out how this all got started.”

City financial records show that Southland began paying South Miami in 2009, but it’s unclear what those payments were for. The city has received some $13,000 in cash payments from Southland and Southwest Transport, another name for the company.

“We have money coming in but I don’t know why I got what I got,” Alexander said.

Through an attorney, the city’s former police chief, Orlando Martínez de Castro, who was dismissed from his post in August, said he recalled that there had been a formal contract with Southland signed sometime between 2005 and 2006.

On Wednesday, city officials found a document indicating that South Miami had started but canceled bidding process for towing services in 2005, and that Southwest Transport was one of the two companies that had initially submitted a proposal. But city officials have not found evidence that another bidding process was started or that a contract was ever given out.

Martínez de Castro, who previously worked as a part-time police officer in Sweetwater, said he had no influence in the decision to give Southland a monopoly on towing services.

Unlike in Sweetwater, where until recently the city charged a $500 administrative fee for vehicles towed during arrests, South Miami does not charge an administrative fee for the recovery of vehicles.

According to police, about 100 cars are towed after arrests or car accidents a year in South Miami, but the city’s towing records are incomplete. For example, nine cars that were towed during a DUI checkpoint in 2010 did not appear in the towing logs.

In that case, a group of Sweetwater police officers assisted in the operation. Maroño also showed up at the event, according to an after-action report. Southland Towing donated food and drinks.

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