Builder of doomed bridge has friends in high places

When Pedro Munilla was angling to build Florida International University’s $14 million pedestrian overpass, he wasn’t shy about trumpeting his local bona fides.

“As a proud FIU alumnus, member of the Dean’s Council for the School of Business and recent Recipient of the Torch Award for Distinguished Alumni...,” the Munilla Construction Management president wrote in the first line of his letter to the school’s selection committee.

But MCM, now under scrutiny after the bridge collapsed onto Southwest Eighth Street, crushing cars and their occupants, is no mom-and-pop outfit. It has powerful friends in the nation’s capital and has scored lucrative military contracts, including one worth tens of millions at the Guantánamo Bay military base.

Florida lawmakers have feted the company on the floor of Congress, in statements and in fund-raising events.

So well-positioned was the Miami construction firm that it was among several firms that met last year with a powerful Chinese investor looking for U.S. acquisitions. None other than Paul Manafort, the president’s now-indicted former campaign chairman, had a role in the Chinese investor’s hunt.

MCM was not responding to questions Friday as crews struggled to try to extract the crushed cars. A recorded message at Munilla headquarters in Miami said: “Our family’s thoughts and prayers go out to everyone affected by this terrible tragedy. ... We’re all devastated.”

The firm is run by five brothers — Fernando, Jorge, Juan, Pedro and Raul — who collectively have given well north of $500,000 to federal candidates and more than $50,000 to state candidates, according to state and federal records.

Pedro and Madeline Munilla have appeared over the years at galas for charitable organizations. Orlando L. Garcia Special to the Miami Herald

Pedro — a former lawyer who gave up his law license in 2001 as part of a “disciplinary resignation,” according to a Florida Supreme Court filing otherwise devoid of details — has been the biggest giver, accounting for more than half of the federal total. He represented the brothers last June in a meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and leaders in the Cuban community before President Donald Trump’s Miami speech on Cuban policy. He also hosted GOP fundraisers for Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, in 2015, and Carlos Curbelo’s congressional campaign, in 2014.

Pedro is also a fixture on the charitable fundraising circuit, participating in galas for the Liga Contra el Cancer, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Miami Bridge, and the Miami exile museum.

Between them, the Munilla brothers have given more than $100,000 to the anti-Castro U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee and have anteed up more than $60,000 to committees supporting Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and roughly $50,000 to committees supporting Sen. Rubio.

The love has been returned.

In 2013, Diaz-Balart lauded the family on the floor of Congress in celebration of the company’s 30th anniversary.

“Having known the Munilla family for years, I can attest to their high degree of integrity, character and professionalism,” Diaz-Balart said at the time. “They have also become very close friends of mine and are truly one of the most exceptional, loyal, trustworthy, and caring friends I have.”

On Friday, a day after the bridge collapse, the congressman again offered praise for the Munillas.

“I have been friends with the Munilla brothers, particularly Pedro, for decades. Aside from our personal friendship, the brothers are very involved in the cause for a free Cuba, which is a paramount issue for me. MCM also employees hundreds of people across South Florida, helping drive our local economy,” Diaz-Balart said in a statement to McClatchy/Miami Herald.

Curbelo spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez said that the lawmaker has known the Munilla family since he was in high school, and that Curbelo had no role in the awarding of the federal grant or selection of contractors for the university’s bridge project.

Rubio did not immediately respond to questions about his relationship with the Munilla family. All three lawmakers have applauded efforts by the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate the cause of the bridge collapse.

Munilla Construction Management changed from Magnum Construction Management in 2008. In public records, it now goes by MCM Construction Management and Munilla Construction Management LLC.

The Department of Transportation picked up about $11 million of the tab in 2013 for the FIU project, through a U.S. Department of Transportation discretionary grant program designed to reward innovation in areas stuck in slow growth.

It’s called the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program, or TIGER, and since 2009, Congress has authorized $5.6 billion in nine rounds of grants. These grants do not come through the normal method of federal infrastructure funding via the Highway Trust Fund, and require significant non-federal commitment such as private and philanthropic funds.

In May 2014, a report by the U.S. General Accountability Office in May 2014 criticized DOT’s TIGER program, zeroing in on poor documentation of how it evaluated and selected projects.

“An absence of documentation of such decisions can give rise to challenges to the integrity of the evaluation process and the rationale for decisions made,” the GAO warned. The DOT accepted the findings and adopted new safeguards.

Diaz-Balart chairs the House Appropriations Committee panel on transportation. He said that while he supports the TIGER program, he didn’t play a role in awarding the grant. Members of the Appropriations Committee are senior lawmakers who have influence because their committee controls federal spending that has been authorized.

“Congress has no role in choosing grant awardees or the private sector companies they collaborate with for design, construction, and implementation. The decision to contract private-sector companies is completely handled by the local and state awardees,” he said, in this case FIU.

Munilla in 2016 won a lucrative $63.5 million contract from the Defense Department for construction of a school on the U.S.-controlled Guantánamo Naval Base in eastern Cuba.

The company has had about $130 million in defense contracts, according to federal contracting databases. It also won bidding for a Naval project in the Florida Panhandle, but no funds were recorded for the effort. Records also show Munilla secured a $7.9 million contract last year for repairs to the Peter J. Cobb Memorial Bridge in St. Lucie County.

Munilla’s online contracting profile shows that from 2016 forward it was qualified to bid on disaster recovery projects in Florida, Alabama, Texas and Puerto Rico. Officials in Puerto Rico and Alabama said there’s no sign the company actually worked there following hurricanes Harvey or Maria last year, and contracting records don’t show recovery work.

But Munilla was successful enough to be on a short list of companies being looked at last year by Chinese construction mogul Yan Jiehe for possible acquisition.

The billionaire founder of China Pacific Construction Group, which calls itself China’s largest private builder, was shopping for a U.S. presence, and Munilla was one of the companies that met with the global builder in July 2017. Ultimately it wasn’t a good fit, according to a person familiar with the meetings.

The meeting came about, McClatchy has learned, when former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, himself a real estate developer, reached out to the New York-based global architectural firm Perkins Eastman. The firm had worked with prominent Chinese companies in the past, although it had no relationship with Manafort. He was helping China Pacific shop for a possible takeover and arranged the meetings in New York between China Pacific and its potential acquisitions.

The meetings took place several months before a grand jury brought back indictments against Manafort and his business partner, Rick Gates, in the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia. It was a surprise when Manafort showed up at the meetings, which he was not expected to attend. His presence was captured in a photo that appeared on Aug. 31 in a largely unrelated article in the real-estate publication The Real Deal.

An electronic billboard in New York’s Times Square shows a quotation in English and Mandarin. It was placed there by China Pacific Construction Group, founded by Yan Jiehe, whose conglomerate was trying to acquire companies in the United States. At the time, his company was eying Miami-based Munilla Construction Management, now under scrutiny in the FIU bridge collapse, as a potential acquisition. China Pacific Construction Group/PRNewswire

A Perkins Eastman spokesman declined to comment. Other than the flirtation with the Chinese firm, there are no known formal connections between Manafort and Munilla.

China Pacific’s founder released an English-language book touting his personal philosophies and was pitching it to U.S. audiences last year. On PRNewswire last Oct. 25, the company released a photo of one of the founder’s quotes splashed across a large screen on Times Square.

Miami Herald staff writers Alex Harris and Carol Marbin Miller contributed to this report.

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