The director of Miami's housing agency helped steer more than $1 million in city contracts to two companies that employed one of her ex-husbands, starting weeks after his 2004 release from federal prison, where he served time for cocaine smuggling, The Miami Herald has found.
Miami Community Development Director Barbara Gomez's department provided money to a troubled for-profit caterer and a tiny nonprofit social services agency that both employed ex-husband Ruben A. Santana.
While Gomez disavowed any relationship with Santana in a January ethics disclosure with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, records show she had been funding companies where he worked as an executive, granted him permission to pick up city checks and visited him in prison. The city currently covers his $60,000 annual salary.
Gomez's role in providing millions of dollars to developers who failed to build the projects they promised was revealed in a recent Miami Herald investigation of the city's troubled affordable-housing programs.
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But the latest revelations from her department extend beyond affordable housing into the realm of social services -- a cornerstone in City Hall's strategy to combat poverty in one of America's poorest urban areas.
Gomez says her funding of the two companies had nothing to do with her ex-husband working for both.
"I don't have anything to do with him, " she said, adding they had a son together before their brief marriage ended in divorce in 1978.
Her recommendations to help provide public dollars to the two companies has caught the attention of state prosecutors, who are already investigating Gomez's most recent ex-husband, Rene Rodriguez, for his dealings as director of the scandal-ridden Miami-Dade Housing Agency.
Though investigators declined to comment on either case -- which are separate investigations -- they have been focusing in recent weeks on records surrounding the city payments to the companies where Santana worked.
Mayor Manny Diaz said he was unaware of the loans and grants to Santana's employers.
"I'm extremely concerned, " he said late Monday.
For 2½ years, Gomez's agency has provided more than $1 million to the companies -- Judy's Catering, which prepared meals for the needy before it ran into financial trouble, and Sunshine For All, which also provides meals to the poor and inspects public housing for AIDS patients.
Santana, 52, past marketing director of the caterer and now executive director of the social services agency, said he has a "good relationship" with his ex-wife and that he landed the job at Judy's Catering because the owner, Judy Rodriguez, is a longtime friend.
"Barbara didn't play any role in helping [the companies] receive contracts, " Santana said in e-mailed answers to questions screened by his defense attorney, José Quiñon, who is also Gomez's attorney.
Neither of the companies received any city money before October 2004, when Santana, a former Sweetwater police officer and carpet salesman, was released from federal prison after serving six years on charges of smuggling more than 12 pounds of liquid cocaine into Miami in a shipment of tropical fish from Peru.
When Santana was arrested in 1995, the FBI raided his home and seized 11 guns -- including a fully automated, AR-15 machine gun. Before sentencing, Santana fled and was a fugitive for 15 months.
Within weeks of Santana's prison release in 2004, Gomez started making a series of recommendations that would start the flow of public dollars to companies where Santana held top jobs.
It began in December 2004 -- a month after Santana's hiring at Judy's Catering -- when Gomez placed an item on the City Commission agenda recommending that federal money be taken from a struggling nonprofit group and divided among three other recipients, including Judy's Catering, which received $40,000.
Judy's would later submit bids to receive more public dollars, despite records submitted to the city that show the company was struggling financially from 2004 to 2006.
The city's files show a curious timeline of events.
Gomez asked to place the item on the city agenda on Dec. 23 -- five days before Judy's Catering sent a letter formally asking for the money to expand and create eight new jobs in the city.
The letter stated that a Dec. 9 article in The Miami Herald reported the city was in danger of losing surplus federal funds if they weren't spent, and Judy's wanted some of the money.
The City Commission approved Gomez's request to give the caterer its first $40,000 check.
Over the next 16 months, with Santana as marketing director, Judy's would receive close to $700,000 from Gomez's department in loans and grants -- some of which were obtained through bids.
Even as the caterer was running into difficulties, the city continued to give it money, records show.
In May 2006, Gomez's department gave Judy's a $300,000 loan to buy new equipment and hire 20 additional workers because of several large contracts that Santana had secured.
But the company was already firing employees and asking workers not to cash checks at the time, said Jesus Gonzalez, a former cook for Judy's Catering.
In November 2006 -- six months after the loan was given to Judy's -- city inspectors couldn't find the owners and the company's phone was disconnected, records show.
When reached by The Miami Herald, co-owner Manuel Rodriguez said the firm is in financial straits and fending off creditor lawsuits. Its Allapattah warehouse is shuttered.
"I have a series of personal problems, " he said. "A bankruptcy lawyer told me not to talk to anyone. . . . These are delicate things."
Records show the city declared the $300,000 loan in default as of Nov. 30.
With Judy's business crumbling, Santana took a job as executive director at a related nonprofit agency, Sunshine For All Inc., in late August 2006, records show.
Judy's "had financial problems, and I sought new employment. That's how I ended up at Sunshine For All, " Santana said in a statement.
Sunshine, which was founded by people with ties to Judy's Catering, was receiving city funds to provide meals to people with AIDS, Gomez said.
Since Santana became executive director, the city has given nearly $300,000 to the nonprofit group and has promised another $200,000 this year.
Records show city funds approved by Gomez pay Santana's entire $60,000 salary at Sunshine.
In January, after city auditors began questioning her department's bid policies and procedures, Gomez wrote a letter to HUD asking whether it was a conflict of interest to be financing Sunshine while Santana was top director.
"Mr. Santana and I have had no business relationship or any type of relationship for the past 30 years except for having a 30-year-old son together, " Gomez wrote in the Jan. 16 letter to HUD.
However, she did not tell HUD about her financing of Judy's Catering for the past two years while Santana worked there, nor did she disclose she authorized Santana to pick up city checks in 2005 and 2006.
At first, HUD ruled that it was a conflict that had to be publicly announced and remedied.
"Employment of Mr. Santana as executive director of Sunshine For All Inc. is a conflict of interest prohibited by HUD's regulations, " wrote HUD's Maria Ortiz-Hill, director of the community planning and development division.
After the ruling, the city considered cutting off Sunshine's funding. But a few weeks later, City Attorney Jorge Fernandez issued an opinion disagreeing with HUD -- based partly on Gomez's contention that she had no relationship with Santana before he worked at Sunshine.
Sunshine's attorney, Susan Bozorgi, urged HUD to change its opinion, and HUD reversed its earlier ruling in May.
Now, in light of the latest findings, HUD's Miami chief, Armando Fana, said he's going to reopen the case.
The state attorney's office is examining several boxes of city files on Sunshine For All, said Joe Centorino, chief of public corruption probes.
TIMELINE OF GOMEZ-SANTANA DEALINGS
Miami Community Development Director Barbara Gomez helped steer more than a million dollars to two companies that employed her ex-husband, Ruben A. Santana, starting weeks after his release from prison, where he served six years for smuggling cocaine. Here's how it unfolded:
1978: Barbara Gomez and Ruben A. Santana divorce.
1995: Santana arrested on charges of smuggling liquid cocaine.
1997: Santana fails to report to prison, becomes a fugitive.
1998: Santana captured, begins prison sentence.
1998-2004: Gomez visits Santana in prison several times.
Oct. 27, 2004: Santana released from prison.
November 2004: Santana lands marketing director job at Your Chef Inc., also known as Judys Catering.
December 2004: Sunshine For All is incorporated.
December 23, 2004: Gomez places item on the City Commission agenda requesting the transfer of $40,000 to Judys.
December 28, 2004: Judys Catering sends Gomez an official letter asking for the money.
January 2005 to June 2006: Gomezs agency gives or loans almost $700,000 to Judys Catering.
Summer 2006: Judys Catering loses key contracts.
August 2006: Santana leaves Judy's Catering, becoming executive director at Sunshine For All Inc. -- a firm that used to subcontract its meals through Judy's Catering.
November 2006: City inspectors find Judy's Catering closed, with phones disconnected, and declare a $300,000 city loan that was supposed to create 20 new jobs in default.
January: After city auditors start asking questions, Gomez asks HUD whether its a conflict of interest to be funding Sunshine, because her ex-husband works there.March: HUD says the situation is a conflict.
May: After Sunshine For All attorneys intervene, HUD reverses its decision.June: HUD says it will reopen the case.
August 2006 to present: Since Santana's arrival at Sunshine For All, city approves more than $500,000 in four separate grants.