Miami-Dade County

Miami's housing chief loses job and pension

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

Embattled Miami housing director Barbara Gomez was fired Thursday after spurning a demotion and a $24,000 pay cut that would have allowed her to qualify for a lucrative pension in a year.

Gilbert Cabrera, an executive advisor on City Manager Pete Hernandez's staff, confirmed the firing late Thursday.

In addition to Gomez, who was at the center of recent affordable-housing and contract cronyism scandals, Hernandez also fired Chief of Operations Mary Conway, weeks after nearly a dozen city employees she used to supervise were arrested and charged with performing private work on city time. Prosecutors say the accused moonlighters even gave their private venture a catchy name: ``The Firm.''

Gomez, who ran the community development department since 2003, was fired in the wake of a Miami Herald series of investigative articles that detailed botched affordable-housing projects, loans that went unpaid for decades and cronyism in the way social services contracts were awarded by her department.

Pressure had been mounting on Gomez to step down after the newspaper reported that she had steered more than $1 million in city contracts to companies that employed one of her ex-husbands within weeks of his release from federal prison, where he served six years for smuggling cocaine and jumping bond.

The newspaper also reported that Gomez funded another nonprofit agency that employed her 30-year-old son. In both instances, she misled the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development about key details regarding the potential conflicts of interest.

HUD and Miami-Dade prosecutors are now investigating.

City leaders initially offered Gomez a $24,000 pay cut and a demotion to an assistant director's post in the Neighborhood Enforcement Team office, which responds to street-level citizen complaints and requests for services.

The job offer became a lightning rod. City leaders were slammed on talk radio, on television and in newspaper editorials for offering a lucrative retirement package to Gomez -- who has said that elected leaders supported the controversial deals she cut.

If she had taken the demotion and held it for a year, she would have completed 10 years of city service and been vested for a pension that could have paid out upwards of $1 million in her retirement years.

That all became moot by July 3, when Gomez failed to respond to the offer and Hernandez suspended her without pay. Now that she has been fired, Cabrera said, all she will receive is the money she had already contributed toward the pension during her nine years of city employment. That figure -- believed to be in the $100,000 range -- will be parceled out in installments once Gomez, 49, reaches age 65.

''Basically, she's paying herself,'' Cabrera said. ``Whatever she's getting is money she put aside throughout the years of employment with the city of Miami -- not a penny more from taxpayer money.''

Gomez could not be reached for comment late Thursday night. Earlier Thursday, she said she had heard ''rumors'' that the city had sent her a registered letter announcing her dismissal.

''Apparently, it's going to get here tomorrow,'' she said of the letter. ``That's the rumors everywhere.''

Conway, who didn't qualify for a pension because she had worked for the city only since 2003, received her dismissal letter Thursday.

''I got a registered letter today that I was terminated,'' she said, declining to comment further.

Even though she played a significant role in an internal city investigation that eventually led to a grand jury indicting nearly a dozen of her own employees, Conway's standing at City Hall was tarnished with the arrests of ``The Firm.''

She supervised most of the people arrested in her previous job as director of the Capital Improvements department, which oversees such projects as street repairs.

Earlier this week, The Miami Herald reported that Hernandez had asked Conway to resign on June 21, the same day prosecutors unsealed the indictment. Conway refused.

Still unclear on Thursday: whether Conway would be offered a severance package, and who would replace her.

The embarrassment was only the latest difficulty for Capital Improvements, where most of The Firm members worked. The department has repeatedly received criticism for shoddy work, delays and cost overruns. Allegations of favoritism in awarding contracts further added to its woes.

Some blamed Conway for department shortcomings. But City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff disagreed, saying Conway ''was always available for solutions to very difficult problems.'' Sarnoff expressed regret over her dismissal.