Judge tosses lawsuit filed by ‘disgruntled’ ex-Miami commissioner

12/20/2013 3:54 PM

12/20/2013 10:29 PM

As Miami city commissioner, Michelle Spence-Jones amassed political power when she defeated two high-profile corruption charges and handily won reelection despite her legal troubles.

But that got her nowhere in federal court, where a judge on Friday slapped down a lawsuit in which she accused her political enemies of conspiring to wreck her career.

U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks flatly rejected Spence-Jones’ complaint against Mayor Tomás Regalado, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle and two of Fernández Rundle’s assistants. In his 64-page ruling, he dismissed Spence-Jones’ allegations as nothing more than a “political manifesto” that was “full of political intrigue” but lacking in legal merit.

“It is full of self-serving hyperbole, personal attacks, and formulaic, implausible conclusions,” the judge wrote.

At the heart of Middlebrooks’ ruling was a key tenet of the judicial system: that prosecutors should be able to investigate and charge politicians without fear of retribution.

Public corruption cases are difficult enough to make, what with popular defendants, partisan politics and public pressure to contend with, for prosecutors to also have to worry about defendants later trying to counter-sue them for monetary damages, the judge wrote.

He called Spence-Jones, who was termed out of office last month, a “disgruntled” defendant whose actions demanded an investigation and whose attempt to settle political scores through the court was baseless.

“The decision whether or not to bring charges or, as happened in this case, to dismiss charges when a case cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt must be made without regard to personal legal consequences,” Middlebrooks wrote. “And the unseemly conduct involved in this case unquestionably deserved the prosecutors’ attention.”

Spence-Jones declined to comment. She said she was in Disney World with her family and was unaware of the judge’s ruling.

“We disagree with the Court’s opinion,” one of her attorneys, Ilann M. Maazel, said in a statement. “We firmly believe Michelle Spence-Jones was wronged by these defendants. She deserves her day in court before a jury of her peers.”

Spence-Jones sued a year ago after her triumphant return to office. She was suspended 21 months while she fought the corruption charges and later argued she should have been allowed to seek a third term as a result. A court disagreed.

Her chosen successor, Keon Hardemon, was sworn in last month to represent Overtown, Liberty City, Little Haiti and Miami’s Upper Eastside.

In her lawsuit, Spence-Jones accused Regalado and Fernández Rundle, along with lead prosecutor Richard Scruggs and investigator Robert Fielder, of plotting to torpedo her career and smear her reputation by landing her in handcuffs.

She claimed the prosecution ignored and fabricated evidence and misled witnesses to get her charged, and Regalado, her political nemesis, conspired to kick her off the dais so he could appoint an ally.

Spence-Jones was acquitted at trial of soliciting a $25,000 bribe in 2006 from developer Armando Codina, using a commission vote to pressure him to donate to a nonprofit she ran from her office. Codina has insisted that he did not expect anything in return for his generosity.

Codina, during the trial, testified that Scruggs had misled him during the initial investigation into thinking he had contributed to a sham charity, for an event that never took place.

On Friday, the judge pointed out that the charity existed at the time only as a bank account and was totally controlled by Spence-Jones using her city staff and resources.

A second grand-theft charge against Spence-Jones was dropped after a key witness changed her testimony.

Spence-Jones’ mentor, former Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Carey-Schuler, initially told prosecutors that she never wrote a letter re-directing $50,000 in county grants to a company run by Spence-Jones’ family. Spence-Jones at the time was an aide to former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz.

But after one of Spence-Jones’ attorneys found a draft letter with Carey-Schuler’s handwritten notes, Carey-Schuler admitted she may have written the memo. Prosecutors’ case unraveled.

But neither Codina’s nor Carey-Schuler’s testimony indicate there was any misconduct, Middlebrooks wrote, noting that prosecutors had from the start deposed both witnesses with their attorneys present.

“The idea that Mr. Scruggs could bamboozle two sophisticated witnesses, each represented by counsel, into concocting false testimony about the Plaintiff seems highly unlikely,” he wrote.

And even if prosecutors mess up, the judge added, they have “breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments.”

Middlebrooks had indicated his displeasure with Spence-Jones’ complaint at an October hearing in which Fernández Rundle’s attorneys, Sandy Bohrer and Scott Ponce, argued Spence-Jones had no evidence to back up her allegations.

In a statement Friday, Fernández Rundle said she was confident all along that her team had acted properly.

“These frivolous and baseless attacks were distracting and were clearly intended to inhibit prosecutors, particularly public corruption prosecutors, from doing their jobs,” she said. “The court agreed.”

As for Regalado’s involvement, Middlebrooks noted that just because Regalado may have had an interest in seeing Spence-Jones go and mentioned that to others does not imply he was guilty of anything under the law.

“The fact that the Mayor, or anyone else interested in Miami politics, might predict legal problems for Commissioner Spence-Jones, or even opine, incorrectly as it turns out, that she might go to jail does not point to involvement in a conspiracy,” he wrote.

Regalado praised Middlebrooks for sending “a strong message that you can’t just accuse people with lies.”

“It’s a great Christmas gift,” the mayor said. “I feel vindicated.”

Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.

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