Miami-Dade County

Misinformation or misunderstanding? Emails put Miami city attorney under a microscope

Attorney Javier Vazquez stands at a podium in Miami City Hall and defends himself and City Attorney Victoria Mendez (background).
Attorney Javier Vazquez stands at a podium in Miami City Hall and defends himself and City Attorney Victoria Mendez (background). dsmiley@miamiherald.com

At the behest of a lobbyist, Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez worked behind the scenes to help a developer fast-track a controversial residential project, then hid the extent of her involvement, a city commissioner has charged.

Commissioner Ken Russell called on his colleagues Thursday to fire Méndez and conduct an “independent inquiry” into her office’s handling of Palmcorp Development Group’s application to build five homes in South Coconut Grove. Russell said he had “lost trust” in Mendez after she withheld crucial emails from his office over the summer — documents he later acquired from a different department.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable,” he said. “For me, that alone is enough that I can’t work with my city attorney.”

Méndez was adamant that she did nothing wrong. She called the situation a misunderstanding.

“It’s unfortunate because a lot of things have been mischaracterized,” she said in an interview.

Her office works for this city, not for the developer and not for that attorney

Commissioner Ken Russell

Méndez kept her job Thursday, although it’s possible the commission will vote in two weeks to hire a private attorney to investigate the matter. But Russell’s allegations put her in a precarious position and illustrate the misgivings running rampant in the South Grove over a new wave of development.

The dispute on display during Thursday’s commission meeting originated with a controversial effort by Palmcorp developers Gus De Ribeaux, Carlos Tosca and Carlos Sosa to build five homes in South Coconut Grove by splitting one 50,000-square-foot property on the corner of Ingraham Highway and Battersea Road into five lots. The developers were told they would need a special permit called a warrant, which can be easily and cheaply appealed by neighbors.

But as Palmcorp pursued its project, South Grove neighbors were railing against the new development trend of splitting lots to build multiple homes. Eventually, Russell, who lives in the South Grove and represents the area, looked into the project.

His chief of staff asked Méndez for emails documenting her office’s discussions with the developer and city zoning staff. Then, when he began to suspect he hadn’t received the whole story, Russell said his office sought the same records from Miami’s IT department — a request he said yielded far more interesting results.

Among the emails obtained from IT: a series of exchanges between Méndez and Javier Vazquez, a land-use attorney with Berger Singerman, who persistently argued that the developer did not need a warrant. An attorney in Méndez’s office looked into the issue and agreed with the zoning department. Then, when Vazquez remained insistent, a different attorney came up with a determination favorable to Palmcorp.

Zoning administrator Devin Cejas changed his position Jan. 20, allowing the project to move forward without a warrant. “Thank you!!!!!” Mendez responded.

It’s unfortunate because a lot of things have been mischaracterized

City Attorney Victoria Méndez

The developer, however, still needed the City Commission to re-plat the property into five parcels. Typically, such requests are rubber-stamped by the City Commission. But Russell twice delayed a vote until Thursday’s meeting, when he unloaded on Méndez and Vazquez after a group of South Grove neighbors asked the commission to oppose the proposal.

Russell said Méndez “improperly” intervened in a zoning issue, reassigned an attorney who gave an opinion she didn’t like, and withheld public records from his office. Méndez, he said, “works for this city, not for the developer and not for that attorney.”

Vazquez shot back at Russell, saying he was disappointed in the commissioner’s tone and “exaggeration” of a standard back-and-forth between attorneys. “At no time has there been any request for a change of attorney or request for special favors,” he said.

At no time has there been any request for a change of attorney or request for special favors

Berger Singerman attorney Javier Vazquez

Méndez said she gave Russell the documents she thought he was asking for, and never hid anything from him, noting that his office asked her to provide the documents quickly ahead of a meeting with the developer. She suggested that if he wanted an independent inquiry into any “impropriety” — a term she surrounded with air quotes — he should ask the ethics commission for a review to save the city money.

“These emails took place a year before. I deal with thousands of issues on a daily basis for the city. Thousands,” she said. “Absolutely nothing was withheld.”

As for Palmcorp, commissioners delayed a decision on the re-platting two weeks, as well.

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