Miami-Dade County

Ethics report clears Miami-Dade mayor’s campaign finance chief

Rafael A. Garcia-Toledo, president of G-T Construction Group Inc., explains the CH2M Hill project he was hired for on a Miami-Dade contract.
Rafael A. Garcia-Toledo, president of G-T Construction Group Inc., explains the CH2M Hill project he was hired for on a Miami-Dade contract. Miami Herald file 2016

Ralph Garcia-Toledo violated no ethics rules when he helped a company pursue a Miami-Dade contract while he served as the mayor’s finance chairman during the 2016 campaign, investigators concluded in a recent report.

The head of Miami-Dade’s Ethics Commission cleared Garcia-Toledo in a probe sparked by a Miami Herald story outlining his tiny firm’s ties to large county contractors while serving a central role in Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s successful reelection effort.

“This investigation … did not yield any information suggesting Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez exploited his position on behalf of Garcia-Toledo or his associates,” read the report, signed by commission director Joseph Centorino.

In an interview, Garcia-Toledo said the May 15 report vindicates the argument he has made all along: that his relationship with Gimenez has no overlap with his longstanding role as a Miami-Dade contractor.

It came up with what I knew it was going to come up with. It said it on the front page: ‘Case closed.’ Nothing else to talk about.

Ralph Garcia-Toledo

“It came up with what I knew it was going to come up with,” he said. “It said it on the front page: ‘Case closed.’ Nothing else to talk about.”

Though it found no wrongdoing, the ethics report concluded with a broad critique of county contracting and lobbying intersecting with campaign fundraising. With lobbyists and contractors free to donate to elected officials in Miami-Dade, they’re some of the most reliable and prolific donors in the county.

There “is no doubt that the circumstances revealed by this inquiry could be considered damaging to the public’s trust in County government,” the report read. “Any time that there is a connection, real or perceived, between the County’s decision-making process on major procurement matters and the political fundraising activities of a lobbyist involved in that process, the public trust is damaged.”

Garcia-Toledo’s company, G-T Construction, is small enough to use a rented mailbox for billing. It has a warehouse in western Miami-Dade where Garcia-Toledo said he maintains an office, and also uses office space at the headquarters of CH2M Hill, a top county contractor. The engineering company agreed to pay G-T Construction up to $18 million over 12 years on a county sewer contract that Gimenez recommended to the County Commission in 2014.

Since the Herald’s 2016 story, Garcia-Toledo’s firm was on winning teams for two other county contracts — one for replacing buses, and the other for studying a possible transit expansion.

Both Gimenez and Garcia-Toledo defended their relationship as insulated from G-T Construction’s county work, which they note started well before Gimenez took office in 2011. They also point to contract recommendations from Gimenez that went against bidding teams that included Garcia-Toledo, such as a $90 million sewer contract that went to CH2M Hill rival, AECOM.

The ethics probe focused on whether Garcia-Toledo violated lobbying rules when he tried to help Cambi, a Norwegian alternative-energy firm, persuade Miami-Dade to hire it for recycling sewage waste. Garcia-Toledo attended a 2015 meeting on the proposal with Lester Sola, the county’s water-and-sewer director, Gimenez, and lobbyists and executives for Cambi.

Separately, according to the report, Garcia-Toledo also pressed a top water-and-sewer administrator to perform a laboratory test Cambi wanted to help prove that its technology for recycling “bio-solids” could save Miami-Dade money. Cambi planned to hire Garcia-Toledo’s firm on the contract, and Garcia-Toledo said his advocacy on the bio-solids matter was covered by him registering to lobby for G-T Construction.

“That’s my duty as a businessman,” he said, “to look for work for my company and my employees.”

The circumstances revealed by this inquiry could be considered damaging to the public’s trust in County government.

Staff of the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission

Manuel Moncholi, assistant director of the water-and-sewer department, was the primary official charged with reviewing Cambi’s pitch and he said Garcia-Toledo tried to emphasize how politics would influence the county’s ultimate decision.

“It was more pushing that they were going to make their way in there one way or another,” Moncholi said of Cambi, according to the report. “It was not just a technical push. It was a political push as well … He was quite clear that there was a political thrust behind it.”

Moncholi provided investigators with a brief text exchange he had with Garcia-Toledo, where Moncholi is apologizing for the delay in processing a sample he had discussed with Cambi and the company’s registered lobbyist, Alex Heckler. “Thank you, sir,” Garcia-Toledo wrote back to Moncholi.

Garcia-Toledo also copied Sola, the water-and-sewer chief, in emails he forwarded from Cambi executives to Moncholi. Garcia-Toledo said if his efforts on Cambi’s bio-solids technology was viewed as pushy, it was because he was “too enthusiastic” about its potential benefits.

Miami-Dade did not adopt Cambi’s proposal. The ethics report concluded that Garcia-Toledo was free to lobby on the bio-solids contract, as long as Cambi wasn’t paying him for it. Since Garcia-Toledo was registered to lobby for his own company, his contacts with Moncholi and other county officials did not violate any rules.

“While it may have appeared Mr. Garcia-Toledo was lobbying on behalf of Cambi Inc., in his dealings with [water and sewer] officials, Mr. Garcia-Toledo did not have a formal engagement with Cambi,” the report stated. Garcia-Toledo attributed Moncholi’s comments to bad blood between the two of them, saying other water-and-sewer administrators didn’t complain.

“He’s off on his own,” Garcia-Toledo said.

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