Miami-Dade County

Federal housing probe roils Miami-Dade commission meeting

Audrey Edmonson speaks during a community meeting on Miami-Dade’s Mayor Liberty Square redevelopment plan in 2016.
Audrey Edmonson speaks during a community meeting on Miami-Dade’s Mayor Liberty Square redevelopment plan in 2016. skaestle@miamiherald.com

Miami-Dade commissioners met Tuesday for the first time after news broke of a federal probe into affordable-housing funds they oversee, putting some board members on the defensive and others on the attack.

Commissioner Audrey Edmonson pressed housing officials on why she had to learn about the investigation from the Miami Herald and whether developers identified in the report would be blocked from county projects as had happened in past probes. Edmonson later confirmed her remarks referred to the Related Group, a Miami developer that last year beat out her pick, Atlantic Pacific, for the county’s $307 million redevelopment of the Liberty Square housing complex.

“What will the plans be in the future?” she asked Michael Liu, head of Miami-Dade’s housing department. “The others were suspended once it became known they were under investigation.”

Related said it’s unfair to label the company as under investigation, and Liu said he is only aware of subpoenas issued for county documents related to a string of Miami-Dade projects by multiple developers, including Related. “We’ve been cooperating,” Adolfo Henriques, vice chairman at Related, said in an interview. “We are not the target of an investigation. We’ve been told that by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

I welcome all investigations.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro

Whatever the outcome, the current situation could complicate the Liberty Square project, which wasn’t named on the subpoena lists as being part of the probe. But Related still needs commission approval to proceed with development plans for a linked complex in nearby Lincoln Gardens.

Liu said his agency has ramped up scrutiny of the ventures under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but that there has been no need to take action against anyone involved.

“I can assure you we are monitoring all of these projects very closely,” he said. “The particulars of all of them are being reviewed by all of my division directors.”

The exchange captures the criss-cross of investigations into affordable housing in Miami-Dade and how the latest one has arrived particularly close to the County Commission. Atlantic Pacific bought projects from one-time development powerhouse Carlisle in 2013 as Carlisle came under a federal probe that eventually sent the company’s CEO to prison. One of the Carlisle county projects acquired was the Seventh Avenue Transit Village that Atlantic Pacific named after Edmonson amid the bitter fight with Related for the Liberty Square contract.

The village project was included on the project list covered by the recent subpoenas, which appeared to be a broad list of ventures receiving county money from a 2004 bond issuance for affordable housing. The property for Lincoln Gardens, currently vacant land, is also on the subpoena list to the county.

Edmonson noted that the administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez delayed a commission vote involving Carlisle when news first broke of the criminal probe in 2013. Liu, who wasn’t with the county at the time, responded that the county eventually approved a Carlisle deal during the probe after giving it extra scrutiny. Liu declined to commit to the same approach during the latest investigation.

We are going to monitor all of our projects extremely closely.

Miami-Dade housing director Michael Liu

“We are going to monitor all of our projects extremely closely,” he said. “We are going to keep you aware of any issues that we are concerned about.”

While Carlisle was caught up in a probe on alleged misuse of federal housing funds, the latest investigation looks at county money. That includes a $137 million fund set aside in 2004 for each of the 13 commission districts, with the individual commissioner allowed to recommend the recipient to the full board.

Bruno Barreiro, a commissioner now running for the Republican nomination to replace Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Congress, sponsored Related’s receipt of millions in county housing dollars for Edificio Piñeiro, a project named by the Herald as being of particular interest to investigators.

“I welcome all investigations,” Barreiro said Tuesday. “I hope all the developers cooperate. Turn over all the information as soon as possible. This casts a huge shadow over the entire affordable-housing issue.”

Commissioner Barbara Jordan said she recently asked county officials to review fund awards made in her district. Seeing that one of her district’s projects was on the subpoena list “gave me a lot of pause and concern,” Jordan said. But she also noted that one developer’s problems in a housing probe can mean a windfall for a competitor.

“Other developers throw other people’s names out there,” she said. “Anonymous sources can be someone else who has something to gain.”

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