As Sweetwater continues to battle corruption within its ranks, officials terminated a long time employee Tuesday for his role in forming a company that billed the city for work done in the municipality without disclosing that he was the owner.
The company, Jor & G Services Corp., charged Sweetwater for jobs that authorities now suspect may have been done by the Maintenance Department’s employees.
Sweetwater paid the company $130,723 over 19 months for such jobs as repairing sidewalks, removing pieces of concrete, installing chain link fences and replacing a water sprinkler system.
What was not widely known was that Jor & G Services had been registered under the name of Jorge González, an employee of the Maintenance Department, barely a few weeks before the first payment was issued to the company.
El Nuevo Herald has learned that the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office has launched a public corruption investigation looking into the case. The office also has requested information on two people - Antero Espinosa, former head of the Maintenance Department and uncle-in-law of former Mayor Manuel “Manny” Maroño, and González, who has worked for the city since 1998.
On Tuesday, Mayor José Díaz fired González, after he admitted that he created the company in 2009. It was dissolved in 2011.
“What he did was illegal and unethical and we fired him for violating the public’s trust,” Díaz said.
González, 64, whose name and Hialeah Gardens address appear on the company’s registration, initially denied having set up the company, suggesting that someone else used his identity.
“I have never been the owner of that company,” he said. “ I don’t know what you’re talking about. My hands are clean.”
Espinosa, who resigned his $74,662 post in September as the 14-year head of the Maintenance Department, said he doesn’t remember how Jor & G Services was chosen and that he did not know who owns the business.
“Well, a guy used to come, an old man, to pick up the check,” said Espinosa, who approved the work and handed out payments. “He had a nickname. I believe he was called Juanito.”
Authorities now are trying to determine whether Maintenance Department employees did all or part of the work for which Jor & G Services was paid.
Documents reviewed by El Nuevo Herald indicate there was little oversight of the relationship between the city and the company.
According to dozens of invoices reviewed, the company charged Sweetwater between $700 and $3,499 for more than 40 projects. Because of the amounts – all under $3,500 – the Maintenance Department could avoid going before the City Commission and just get mayoral approval.
Espinosa, who is married to the sister of Commissioner Isolina Maroño, only needed the approval of former Mayor Maroño to assign the projects to the company. Then Maroño authorized payments.
In at least one invoice obtained through a public record request, a handwritten note indicated that a check that was over $3,500 had to be canceled and its amount broken down in two checks. It is not clear who wrote the note.
In 2006, Sweetwater obtained a Miami-Dade County grant totaling $357,000 for sidewalk repairs. Because the money paid to the company came from the county grant, the grants administrator also was required to approve it.
Espinosa suggested Monday that it was the responsibility of the grant administrator— who in 2009 was Robert Herrada — to review who was hired. Not so, said city officials.
“The responsibility of the administrator is only to make sure that the money requested is used for the purpose of the grant,” said Marcos Villanueva, chief of staff for Mayor Díaz.
Although Espinosa said he used to ask for quotes from three companies to determine the lowest price before hiring, the city could not produce records of a bidding process for the works that Jor & G Services performed.
“Bids were not required because they were miscellaneous things,” Espinosa said. “When we agreed on that person to do the job, it’s because it was the least expensive.”
At the time, the city did not require businesses to fill out a vendor’s application, so there is no information on file about Jor & G Services.
Espinosa suggested that city maintenance workers may have helped with repairs made by the private company. But he said he imagined the employees of Jor & G Services did the work.
“This was a long time ago,” said Espinosa.
Lance Dixon of the Miami Herald and Janey Fugate of El Nuevo Herald contributed to this story.