The judge who ruled that Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones cannot seek a third term is a former state prosecutor who once investigated her, but he did not disclose that sensitive detail before issuing his decision this week.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jorge E. Cueto’s lack of disclosure about his past role as an assistant state attorney who investigated Spence-Jones in a public corruption case could affect the outcome of his ruling issued Tuesday.
Spence-Jones’ lawyer, Bruce Rogow, said he knew that Cueto was a fomer prosecutor. But he said he only learned Wednesday that he had worked on the state attorney’s 2007-08 investigation into allegations that the commissioner shook down a developer seeking approval for a condo-tower project near Mercy Hospital. No criminal charges were ever filed in that case.
“I am very disappointed that he did not disclose it,” said Rogow, who is considering asking the judge on Monday to disqualify himself because of the “propriety of his sitting on the case.”
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Spence-Jones said she was “shocked and surprised,” because the judge “never disclosed that he worked on my case. ... The judge should have done the right thing and recused himself.”
Cueto ruled that Spence-Jones, who had been suspended from office for almost two years while she successfully fought felony charges in other corruption cases, cannot run for a third term in November. His decision was the result of a lawsuit filed by longtime political foe, the Rev. Richard P. Dunn II, who had filled Spence-Jones’ vacant slot from January 2010 through September 2011.
Earlier this year, Dunn challenged an opinion by the city attorney that declared Spence-Jones could run for a third time in District 5, covering Overtown and Liberty City, because she didn’t serve two full terms. Cueto said the city’s charter limits her to two terms, because she was “elected and qualified for two consecutive full terms.” The judge cited the charter language.
“Qualified” candidates are those who meet the requirements for running for office.
Rogow said he plans to appeal the judge’s decision. But before he does that, he could seek to disqualify Cueto from further involvement with the case and even ask him to vacate his ruling.
Cueto could deny the request. Or he could step down, meaning the Spence-Jones case would be taken over by a different judge.
Cueto could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Dunn’s attorney, J.C. Planas, said that he had emailed Rogow on March 18 to ask if he or his client had an “issue” with Cueto’s involvement in the case. Planas noted his past career as a state prosecutor before he became a circuit judge in 2008, and that Spence-Jones also has a pending federal lawsuit against Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.
Rogow responded in an email: “I will confirm this with my client, but it will be my position that there is no reason to move for disqualification and it has never been an issue.”
Planas said Thursday that he found it “unbelievable” and “extremely disingenuous” that Rogow would raise the issue now, in the aftermath of the judge’s decision against his client.
“They are trying to create a situation that does not exisit,” Planas said. “He’s a very ethical judge.”
But Rogow countered that he has no problem with Cueto’s past as a proseutor — only with his role in the investigation of Spence-Jones in connection with the Mercy condo project. Cueto worked on the criminal investigation with the state attorney’s then-chief public corruption prosecutor, Joseph Centorino.
Cueto participated in questioning during sworn statements taken from several Miami commissioners regarding that case, including Tomas Regaládo, the current mayor, and Marc Sarnoff. Rogow said he was reviewing transcripts “to see what action to take.”
Rogow, a prominent South Florida lawyer who specializes in appeals, said he believes the judge had an obligation to disclose his prior role, citing Florida’s code of judicial conduct.
A key provision states: “A judge should disclose on the record any information that he or she believes the parties or their attorneys might consider relevant to disqualification, even if the judge believes there is no real basis for disqualification.”