Miami-Dade County

Miami housing chief offered lesser position

Director Barbara Gomez was given the boot from Miami's scandal-plagued housing agency. Also fired was Miami Chief of Operations Mary Conway.
Director Barbara Gomez was given the boot from Miami's scandal-plagued housing agency. Also fired was Miami Chief of Operations Mary Conway. JORGE R. PEREZ/MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Miami City Manager Pete Hernandez suspended embattled housing director Barbara Gomez without pay on Tuesday, but she's not out of a job: She can take a demotion that would qualify her for a lucrative city pension if she sticks around one more year.

''I'm starting with a suspension, an indefinite suspension,'' Hernandez said. ``I believe a certain level of discipline is needed.''

Hernandez offered Gomez a $120,000-a-year position as assistant director of Miami's Neighborhood Enhancement Team, which handles street-level citizen complaints and calls for services. The post is considered a demotion because Gomez would take a $24,000 annual pay cut.

Gomez's seemingly successful tenure managing the city agency was derailed in recent weeks after The Miami Herald published investigative articles detailing financial mismanagement, cronyism and botched housing projects worth millions of dollars.

Pressure has been mounting on Gomez to step down after the city manager, the mayor and commissioners learned about contracts that Gomez had steered to companies that employed one of her ex-husbands and her son. Prosecutors are now investigating.

Asked why Gomez hasn't been fired, Hernandez said, ``We don't know where [the investigation is] going to go yet. . . . And I'm also trying to balance the good things she's done for housing in the city over the last three or four years with the troubling judgment errors she's made.''

Hernandez decided to suspend Gomez, 49, without pay after she missed a 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline to accept the demotion and pay cut.

Gomez did not return calls for comment, but she told The Miami Herald last week that city politicians not only knew about her deals but pushed them and that she may not go quietly.

Gomez, of Miami Lakes, has been taking unused leave since last week when reports first surfaced she was trying to negotiate an exit package that would have allowed her to qualify for the pension even though she was a year shy of vesting.

Gomez has worked nine years for Miami and would qualify for a pension that could pay upwards of $1 million over the course of her retired life if she completes a 10th year of city service.

That pension, based on vesting rules ratified by city commissioners, would be calculated based on the ''best, highest year'' -- meaning the $144,000 salary she currently earns as community development director, said Hector Mirable, deputy director of employee relations.

City leaders have been slammed on Spanish-language radio and in the op-ed pages for negotiating a golden parachute with Gomez rather than firing her outright.

In the past month, Gomez has been at the center of a scathing city audit into improprieties in affordable housing programs she managed.

Several Miami Herald articles highlighted millions in questionable housing deals and contracts steered to social service providers that hired one of her ex-husbands and her 30-year-old son.

Two companies received more than $1 million in city contracts shortly after they hired Gomez's first ex-husband, Ruben A. Santana, weeks after his release from federal prison in 2004 after serving time for cocaine smuggling. Another Miami agency received city funds shortly after hiring Ruben Santana Jr.

In both cases, The Herald reported, Gomez misled U.S. Housing and Urban Development administrators about the depth and breadth of the potential conflicts of interest involving the ex-husband and the son. After seeing the newspaper's findings, HUD reopened investigations into Gomez and the conflicts of interest.

Miami-Dade prosecutors also are investigating the payments between Gomez's department and the companies that employed her ex-husband and son.

Gomez has been trying to distance herself from the legal woes of her most recent ex-husband, Rene Rodriguez, former head of the scandal-plagued Miami-Dade Housing Agency.

Rodriguez is under criminal investigation for his role in doling out millions of dollars to politically connected developers who never built homes and, in some cases, pocketed the money.