The FBI is investigating former Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño’s connections to a towing company and its dealings in his own city and Doral.
FBI agents have questioned local officials, police officers and others about Southland The Towing Company, which Maroño once owned while he was serving as mayor, focusing on whether there has been any official misconduct related to the towing of cars and payment of fines.
The FBI’s Miami regional office declined to comment about the existence of an investigation.
Southland, which public records show was formerly owned by Maroño in 2009, struck an “oral agreement” that year to tow cars in Sweetwater, although city has been unable to provide any records about this deal.
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Records show that Maroño also represented Southland The Towing Company during negotiations with the city of Doral, where the towing business operated through a pilot program that began in July 2009 and ended just weeks after his August arrest in a federal corruption case.
The former Sweetwater mayor said on Wednesday through his mother that he has had nothing to do with the company since 2009. On Monday, Maroño said he was never involved in the business. But in March 2010, Doral’s manager at the time, Yvonne Soler-McKinley, wrote a letter to Maroño confirming the details of the city’s agreement with Southland.
Maroño “was probably just helping Robert [Muriedas] get business,” said attorney Alexander Fox, who represents Muriedas, the company’s current owner.
Maroño wasn’t a registered lobbyist in the city of Doral.
The director of the Miami Dade Commission on Ethics, Joe Centorino, said he couldn’t comment on whether Maroño’s involvement with Southland was a conflict of interest, because he doesn’t have all the facts.
Soler-McKinley said this week that she didn’t know Maroño was involved with the company when she agreed to give it business towing cars in Doral through the pilot program.
“I don’t remember when I learned that Manny was involved in that company. That was three years ago,” she said. “I don’t know whether he had stock in the company or was its president.”
Although Soler-McKinley wrote the letter to Maroño, it was Muriedas who signed off on the terms.
El Nuevo Herald and CBS-4 obtained a copy of the letter on Wednesday, a day after Doral City Manager Joe Carollo unleashed a series of allegations against mayor Luigi Boria during a city council meeting.
Among Carollo’s accusations: Boria knew that Maroño was a “silent partner” in Southland when, in May, he introduced Carollo to a company representative who “was complaining that he was not getting sufficient towing” jobs in the city.
The mayor “wanted us to resolve that situation and to make sure he got sufficient towing from the city of Doral,” said Carollo, who suggested that he contacted authorities about Maroño’s involvement in the company after the May meeting.
Boria said he did not know the Southland representatives who showed up at his office one or what they wanted. He also said he didn’t know about Maroño’s involvement in the company.
“I am not really interested in people’s personal businesses,” Boria said on Wednesday. “What I did was take them to Carollo’s office and tell him that these gentlemen were looking for something.”
Doral canceled its pilot program on Aug. 29, three weeks after the FBI arrested Maroño, Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi and two lobbyists on corruption scharges.
Ricardo Gómez, Doral’s former police chief, said the city had initially sought bids from local towing companies through a “request for proposals” process several years ago. However, after some problems with the RFP, the city decided to piggyback off a city of Miami contract with another company, Freeway Towing.
At some point, though, Soler-McKinley decided to split the work between the two companies, Gómez recalled.
“She thought we should have at least two towing companies,” the former chief said. “She suggested Southland because of its contracts with other cities.”
Soler-McKinley denied having suggested Southland.
“I never recommended anybody,” she said. “I thought we should divide the business so that nobody thought we had given one company preference.”
Carollo said that Doral hasn’t made a penny off the vehicles towed away by Southland.
State records show in 2008, Maroño, Peter Hernandez and Southeast Towing Inc. of Princeton registered the name Southland The Towing Company. Maroño, who had worked in the transport and towing business for years with his father, was Sweetwater’s mayor at the time.
By October 2010, Muriedas’ was the only name that appeared on Southland’s records. Muriedas was a partner in two other businesses with Maroño until 2010. The registered agent for Southland is Ralph Ventura, who also is the city attorney for Sweetwater.
Despite the company’s connections to Maroño and Ventura, the city of Sweetwater kept giving it business.
Centorino sent an email to Ventura on Oct. 9 saying that there was no conflict of interest in the city attorney’s involvement with Southland, since the company didn’t have a “contractual relationship with the City”.
Unlike in Doral, Sweetwater made money when vehicles were towed within its limits.
In 2001, city commission members established a $300 fee for the recovery of vehicles towed during arrests, a measure proposed by Maroño, a commissioner at the time, and then-mayor José “Pepe” Díaz. The fee was raised to $500 in 2008. It’s one of the highest fees in Miami-Dade County.
Last year, Sweetwater reported about $168,000 in revenues from these fees.
Sweetwater suspended its “oral agreement” with Southland in February after the city’s police chief, Roberto Fulgueira, said he’d gotten several complaints about the company. Fulgueira was in charge of choosing the companies that would tow for the city, he told CBS4.
Ventura, the city attorney, said he did not know about Southland’s “oral agreement” with Sweetwater until 2011, when he received a call from a lawyer representing someone whose vehicle had been towed.
At that point, Ventura said he recused himself from the case to avoid “the appearance of a conflict of interest” because of his own role in the company.
Ventura said he wasn’t responsible for making “business decisions” for his clients at Southland. He said he couldn’t talk about any advice he gave Maroño or Southland regarding the agreement, citing attorney-client privilege.
“I am comfortable that I did what I had to do,” he said.
CBS4 reporter Lauren Pastrana contributed to this report, which resulted from a collaboration with Sandra Antonio, a CBS4 producer.