Miami-Dade County

Miami city attorney survives ‘kangaroo court’

City of Miami Attorney Victoria Mendez
City of Miami Attorney Victoria Mendez El Nuevo Herald

Miami’s embattled city attorney kept her job Wednesday, surviving an acrimonious hearing called to address a commissioner’s allegations that she improperly used her office to help a developer build a controversial project in Coconut Grove.

Victoria Méndez said little throughout the morning as a divided crowd debated for hours over whether she used back channels to help Palmcorp Development Group build five luxury homes on a single property, or was the subject of a “witch hunt.” Commissioner Ken Russell called the special meeting in order to remove her from office, but his effort fizzled when Miami’s other four commissioners declined to support him.

After the hearing, Méndez hugged and kissed friends, visibly relieved. She declined an interview, but issued a statement.

“I am happy with the outcome of today’s meeting, and it is a privilege to continue serving this commission and the city of Miami,” she said.

Méndez left City Hall Wednesday with her $214,000 job intact, if not her reputation. Russell, on the other hand, limped away from his first major clash as an elected official with some new bruises and enemies: Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, someone distributed text and email exchanges sent to and among his staffers, some of which included remarks disparaging other commissioners.

Russell noted the only critical texts in the bunch were written not by his aides but by anti-Walmart activist Grant Stern, and said he was the victim of a smear campaign. But, even knowing the results, Russell said he wouldn’t have backed off his effort to oust Méndez.

“I do not take back what I said, in terms of how I feel,” he said.

Russell has been at odds with Méndez since early September, when he said he discovered she had withheld emails showing her role in helping developer Palmcorp avoid a requirement to secure a special permit for its Battersea Woods project in South Grove. Méndez, he said, leaned on the city’s acting zoning administrator until he relented on a requirement that Palmcorp seek a restrictive warrant for a project opposed by neighbors.

Russell said he lost faith in the city attorney, and called on the city’s other four commissioners to oust her from the post she’s held since 2013. The effort won him plenty of applause in the South Grove and from activists who say the city habitually hides public records from critics in order to push through problematic real estate deals.

But Méndez is highly regarded among local lawyers, who rallied to her side and peppered Russell’s office with records requests for emails, texts and even smartphone chat strings his aides created during commission meetings. They claimed Wednesday that the records showed Russell was going after Méndez to appease shadowy supporters bent on removing her and setting up the city for costly litigation.

We need transparency across the board, not a shadow government.

Jose “Pepe” Herrera

“If we’re going to talk about transparency, we need transparency across the board, not a shadow government,” said defense attorney Jose “Pepe” Herrera.

Hector Lombana, who like Méndez is a past president of the Cuban American Bar Association, called Wednesday’s hearing “a kangaroo court created by one commissioner.” Others in the audience raised the specter of ethnic tensions.

Russell countered that his attackers were deflecting attention from Méndez’s missteps, and part of a “deeper, dark effort to smear me.” He said his issue with Méndez over Battersea Woods was part of a larger disagreement over transparency and liability that began almost immediately after he took office in November.

“Her first advice to me was which phone company I should use because it erases your text messages sooner — Sprint by the way. And my heart sank,” he said. “In her mind, this is protecting me.”

I’ve made more enemies these last two weeks than I knew I could.

Ken Russell

Regardless, Russell’s colleagues on the dais weren’t convinced. When he moved to fire Méndez, they sat silently. Commissioners Francis Suarez and Keon Hardemon, both lawyers, said they took allegations of attorney misconduct seriously but never questioned Méndez’s ethics. Hardemon began the meeting by referencing Stern’s text messages, one of which called him a “fool,” and ended it by questioning whether he should be concerned about Russell “sabotaging” the city.

“This was terrible. It’s one thing to fire someone. It’s another thing to assassinate somebody’s character and affect their ability to practice law,” he said in an interview.

Though Méndez survived Wednesday’s hearing, Russell’s allegations aren’t entirely resolved. The Miami-Dade ethics commission is investigating the Battersea Woods case after the city attorney herself asked them to launch an independent probe. Russell, meanwhile, may have some new enemies to contend with.

“Politically this wasn’t good for me,” he acknowledged. “I’ve made more enemies these last two weeks than I knew I could.”