Declaring her innocence, Miami’s city attorney has requested an ethics investigation into allegations that she improperly influenced the city’s handling of a controversial development application in Coconut Grove.
In an email obtained by the Miami Herald, Victoria Méndez contacted Joe Centorino, executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust, Friday morning to ask that his office look into a claim that she helped a developer cut red tape surrounding a request to split a 50,000-square-foot residential lot into five parcels in order to build five homes in the South Grove.
Commissioner Ken Russell, who made the accusation Thursday and tried to fire Méndez during a city commission meeting, also said she withheld emails over the summer showing her back-and-forth with a land-use attorney representing Palmcorp Development Group. Russell says he found the emails only when he requested them this month from the city’s IT staff.
It is my perspective that I have done nothing inappropriate and that once the investigation runs its course, I will be vindicated.
Victoria Méndez, Miami city attorney
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“Allegations have been made that impugn the integrity of my office,” Méndez wrote to Centorino. “It is my perspective that I have done nothing inappropriate and that once the investigation runs its course, I will be vindicated. The allegations or tactics appear to be part of a political agenda to undermine a previously issued opinion, which is amply supported by law and avoid[s] untold liability to the City.”
Specifically, Méndez’s staff opined that Palmcorp did not need to seek a special permit called a warrant in order to split up, or re-plat, its property at the corner of Battersea Road and Ingraham Highway. The opinion changed the stance of Miami’s zoning department on the issue, and followed persistent emails from Palmcorp attorney Javier Vazquez to Méndez arguing that the city’s position was wrong.
Avoiding a warrant application almost certainly allows Palmcorp to avoid appeals from angry neighbors upset about over-development, and Russell said Méndez was doing the attorney’s bidding instead of representing her client, the city. He laid out his gripes in a letter to colleagues Thursday, including a statement that Méndez had overstepped by overriding a determination by Miami’s zoning administrator.
Méndez and Vazquez, however, said the back-and-forth was nothing more than normal discourse among attorneys about the intricacies of zoning law. Méndez also said the initial email request she received from Russell’s office was vague and made with a rushed timeline, where his request to IT was more specific.
Méndez suggested Thursday that commissioners request an ethics investigation into the issue in order to put the dispute in the hands of an impartial party and save the city money, but they chose instead to vote later this month on hiring a private attorney. Méndez followed up on Friday with Centorino.
“Please investigate the allegations in the letter,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the ethics commission would not comment on whether it would initiate an investigation.