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Official's legal help scrutinized (Published: 04/25/08)

Embattled Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones is now facing an ethics complaint after allegedly failing to disclose $46,000 in free legal work she received from a law firm with close ties to Mayor Manny Diaz.

An advocate with Miami-Dade County's ethics commission said Spence-Jones did not pay the firm of Lydecker, Lee, Behar, Berger & de Zayas for more than a year -- and then paid only $392 toward the $46,168 bill. She also failed to file forms listing the legal work as a gift, according to a complaint made public Thursday. In January 2006, Spence-Jones hired the Lydecker firm -- where the mayor has worked part time as a nonpartner -- to defend her in a Florida Election Commission probe of her 2005 campaign.

Spence-Jones faces one count of violating the county's gift disclosure law, which could bring a $500 fine and a public reprimand. The ethics commission must still hold a hearing before making a final ruling.

Spence-Jones said Thursday the legal work was not a gift, and she plans to pay the bill. Her attorney, Richard Lydecker, said she believed she didn't have to disclose the debt because the information was protected by attorney-client privilege.

"I would never accept a gift like that, " Spence-Jones said.

She said she was not directed to the Lydecker firm by Mayor Diaz, who first hired her as a City Hall staffer and later became a major supporter when she ran for City Commission.

Diaz told The Miami Herald he has no ownership interest with Lydecker's firm, nor a say in how it's managed. "This is something that's between Michelle and Richard and his firm, " he said.

The ethics complaint is just one of several legal problems for the commissioner, who is already under investigation by the Miami-Dade Police Department and the state attorney's office over allegations of influence peddling while serving as commissioner and during her earlier stint on the mayor's staff.

Part of the case focuses on the commissioner's pastor, Gaston Smith, who told investigators that Spence-Jones helped steer a grant to a nonprofit he ran before he paid her $8,000 in consulting fees, records show. Smith was charged in January with stealing $10,000 in grant money from the nonprofit.

Earlier this year, Spence-Jones settled her case with the state election commission by agreeing to pay $8,000 in fines for violating five campaign laws.

In the county ethics investigation, Lydecker lawyer Carlos de Zayas submitted a sworn statement saying the firm extended credit to Spence-Jones "based on her promise to pay for legal services."

But the ethics advocate, Michael Murawski, noted that Spence-Jones had no written contract with the firm, nor did she pay a retainer.

"There was nothing in writing to establish that Commissioner Spence-Jones had any intention of paying for these legal services, " Murawski wrote in his complaint.

The Lydecker firm worked for Spence-Jones without getting paid from January 2006 to March 2007, the complaint says. In July 2007, she filed financial disclosure forms without mentioning a debt to the firm.

A few weeks later -- with the ethics investigation underway -- Spence-Jones paid $392 to the law firm in four sequential checks, all written on the same day.

She then amended her city financial disclosure form, adding a $41,000 debt to the firm. The ethics investigator said those actions were an attempt "to get around the fact that she had been receiving unreported, free legal service for over a year."

"It seems highly unlikely that Commissioner Spence-Jones simply forgot that she owed the Lydecker firm more than $40,000 in legal fees when she first filed her disclosures in July 2007, " the complaint said.

In October, developer Martin Margulies, a Spence-Jones supporter, opened a legal defense fund on her behalf.

Spence-Jones has agreed not to solicit donors for the fund, which had raised $13,500 through January, records show.

Miami Herald staff writer Michael Vasquez contributed to this report.