Miami-Dade County

New Miami-Dade task force to target state public corruption

In building a corruption case against ex-Miami Beach procurement director Gus Lopez two years ago, investigators began by combing through reams of bank records, city contracts and emails.

They didn’t stop there.

Detectives outfitted a cooperating conspirator’s car with a hidden video camera, capturing Lopez accepting cash in an alleged scheme to peddle sensitive information to companies bidding for city contracts. Prosecutors later flipped Lopez’s wife against him — at his upcoming corruption trial, she is expected to testify to helping him launder the ill-gotten money. The aggressive investigation is a model the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office aims to replicate with a new public corruption task force, one intended to cast a wider net on crimes against taxpayers across the county.

The formation of the task force comes nearly one year after what was once the largest police anti-corruption unit in the county, run by Miami-Dade police, was gutted in an money-saving reorganization. The budget-crunched county sent four detectives to a federal anti-corruption task force but the bureau’s breakup also sharply reduced scrutiny of public sector crime.

“We had to really regroup, restructure ourselves, rebuild ourselves,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle said. “We went to the various involved municipalities and said, ‘You need to help us. We need the manpower, the staff, the ability to go out and conduct these proactive investigations.’ ”

So far, Miami-Dade has assigned three detectives, two with public corruption experience. Miami and Miami Beach have each assigned two detectives and Miami-Dade Schools police has detached one to the force.

The task force also counts two state attorney’s office detectives: longtime corruption investigator Bob Fielder and the newly hired Mike D’Ambrosia, a former Florida Department of Law Enforcement supervisor who spearheaded the successful Miami voter fraud probe in the 1990s.

That adds up to 10 investigators, organized under veteran prosecutor Tim VanderGiesen, who was named head of Public Corruption in September. The group will be based exclusively at the state attorney’s office.

Although much of their work is secret, for now, at least one case has already been publicized: allegations of absentee ballot fraud involving suspended North Miami Mayor Lucie Tondreau, who also has been charged in a separate federal investigation into wire fraud. She has denied all charges.

In the Lopez case, the investigation began in 2012 when city officials discovered that the ex-procurement director was secretly trying to assemble his own development team for the massive Convention Center district redevelopment project. He ultimately was not charged in that probe — but reviews of his bank records led detectives to another alleged scam.

Prosecutors say Lopez had for years been getting cash from local businesses in exchange for inside information on city contract bids. Lopez has rejected a plea offer and vows to go to trial later this year.

The task force now permanently includes Miami Beach Detective Ricardo Arias, who led the Lopez probe.

“We need to battle public corruption. We’ve had a history of it in recent years and Miami Beach needs to be a part of the efforts to keep government clean and honest,” Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales said.

Investigators and prosecutors say the need for scrutiny will only grow — upcoming public works projects, which always carry the potential for thievery, total more than $3 billion.

That includes a $1.6 billion project to upgrade the county’s aging water and sewer system, a schools general obligation bond worth $1.2 billion and a bond issue in Homestead totaling $20 million.

“These types of cases are very complex and one agency can’t do it all,” said Miami-Dade Schools Police Chief Ian Moffett, who assigned one detective to the task force. “It just makes for good efficiency.”

The recent record on public corruption cases brought by the state has been mixed.

In 2011, the head of the public corruption unit, Joe Centorino, left to lead the county’s ethics commission. The permanent position remained unfulfilled for several years.

The same year, jurors acquitted Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones in one corruption case, a stinging blow to prosecutors. The office had to drop another case against Spence-Jones when a key witness — former County Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler — backtracked on her testimony.

Then in 2012, Spence-Jones filed a lawsuit against Fernández Rundle and Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, saying she had been the victim of vindictive investigation. The case churned on for more than a year until a federal judge, in a ruling highly critical of the former commissioner, dismissed the lawsuit in December.

There have also been some wins.

In October, Jeff Garcia — aide to U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, no relation — pleaded guilty to state absentee ballot fraud charges. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail and three months of house arrest.

In another election case, politically connected chiropractor Mark Cereceda last year pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign donations, a case that started when investigators began looking at a Miami-Dade judge who used her position to help him reinstate a lapsed business license.

There are also some big cases pending.

Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman is awaiting trial on charges that he secretly worked as consultant for a health clinic company that was seeking government approval for a construction project. Bateman has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

State prosecutors last year charged two former county employees in a complicated kickback scheme involving a technology contract that cost taxpayers more than $3 million. They are awaiting trial.

The state, for many years, has been aided by investigators from the county Inspector General’s office and the ethics commission.

Miami-Dade’s public corruption unit — which at times had been criticized as bloated and ineffective — was largely dismantled in July 2013, at the behest of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

Ten detectives, three sergeants, one lieutenant, three civilian analysts and an administrator were transferred to other units within the department, while four detectives and two sergeants were detached to the FBI’s anti-corruption task force.

Only one squad was left to target only county employees. Mayor Gimenez hailed the move as a way to beef up cooperation with federal agents.

With more than 22 officers from Miami-Dade, Miami and other law enforcement agencies, the FBI task force is the bureau's largest in the nation, targeting wrongdoing by politicians, officials and police officers in the county and its municipalities.

The feds have made a string of big busts, including the former mayor of Sweetwater and a handful of lobbyists, who are now doing prison time. The suspended mayor of Miami Lakes is also awaiting trial.

But state investigators worried that manpower had dwindled for cases that can only be prosecuted in state court.

The cuts in Miami-Dade’s public corruption unit have drawn condemnation from the police union, which continues to wage battles with Gimenez over funding.

“I have to applaud the state attorney’s office for at least picking up some of the slack and showing interest in public corruption,” Miami-Dade police union president John Rivera, who has been a frequent Fernández Rundle critic over the years, said of the new task force. “If the mayor won’t do it, at least somebody will.”