Miami-Dade County

In Miami, MCM thrives on big county contracts. Now it faces the FIU bridge catastrophe

Last year, Florida was on track to spend $800 million for a new overpass in downtown Miami, a lucrative contract Munilla Construction Management failed to win from a state selection committee.

When MCM protested the Florida Department of Transportation’s award to rival Archer Western, the losing bidder gained a high-profile ally at the top of Miami-Dade’s government.

The County Commission in May unanimously instructed its lobbyists to urge Florida to delay the final decision allowing Archer Western to begin development of a long-awaited “signature bridge” project on I-395 that required no local dollars. Mayor Carlos Gimenez sent a letter to the state Transportation secretary arguing that the aesthetics scoring of the selection committee — which MCM won — “be the overriding factor in the final award decision.”

Florida still hasn’t resolved the disputed contract. Miami-Dade County’s siding with MCM continued a long string of victories from elected officials for the family-owned South Miami company — a legacy now facing its harshest test ever as the construction firm was behind the Florida International University pedestrian bridge that collapsed March 15 and killed six people.

The catastrophe threw a spotlight not just on MCM’s large projects, but on its ties to Miami’s political circles as well.

In past years, the company has hired both of Gimenez’s sons — Julio as a construction executive and C.J. as a registered lobbyist. The Munillas and the Gimenezes have family ties — the mayor’s wife, Lourdes, is a cousin to the Munilla brothers, and C.J. Gimenez has offered the firm pro bono communications advice after the bridge collapse, according to someone who has spoken to him.

In a statement, C.J. Gimenez said Sunday: “I have no official role with the company.” Asked the same question an hour later, MCM responded with a similar answer: “C.J. Gimenez has no official role with MCM.”

In an interview Sunday, Mayor Gimenez declined to directly confirm his son’s ongoing role in MCM’s response, but said he assumed the company reached out to C.J. Gimenez for advice.

“The Munilla brothers have known my son since he was born. They call him and ask him for advice,” Gimenez said from China, where he is leading a county trade mission.

“My son is a 40-year-old attorney. I don’t really know what he is doing for MCM,” Gimenez said. “They are calling him, and asking him for advice. He’s given them free advice.”

munilla photo
The Munilla family owns Munilla Construction Management, the South Miami firm that built the pedestrian bridge that collapsed March 15, 2018, at Florida International University. Pictured here are two of the partners, Pedro Munilla, left, and Juan Munilla, right. Pictured next to their husbands are wives Madeline Munilla and Laura Munilla. Kane Velasquez MIAMI HERALD FILE PHOTO

MCM said C.J. Gimenez only worked for the company as a lobbyist for a short time in 2015. Julio Gimenez left MCM about a year after his father became mayor in 2011, and Mayor Gimenez recused himself from MCM-related contracts during Julio’s employment there.

“I try to keep my distance, [and separate] my activities and those of my relatives,” he said. “I’m very aware of where the lines are drawn.”

He said he has spoken twice on the phone from China with Pedro Munilla, an MCM partner and the company’s primary representative on county matters, about the bridge collapse. “We treat MCM like any other company,” he said. “They win some contracts. They lose some contracts.”

signature bridge archer
The winning design for a signature bridge on I-395 created by Archer Western features a structure supported by fountain-like arches. Miami Herald file

The Miami Herald’s database on campaign contributions shows only a few MCM donations to Gimenez during his seven years as mayor, a contrast to the more than $100,000 to various incumbent county commissioners. The five Munilla brothers who run MCM — Fernando, Jorge, Juan, Pedro and Raul — have given far more in federal races: about $500,000, according to online records. The company has also won a string of federal contracts, making it one of Miami’s most successful construction firms.

In this year’s County Commission races, MCM has donated to each of the six incumbents facing reelection in August. That’s hardly a surprise — many large county vendors and contractors are reliable sources of campaign dollars, and it’s rare for incumbents to have big supporters who don’t also have business before the commission.

“MCM has earned an excellent reputation over 35 years working mostly on public sector projects including local, state and federal contracts,” MCM said in a statement Sunday night. “Virtually all projects are competitively bid and selection processes are completely transparent. Sometimes we are selected and sometimes not.”

Now MCM faces the challenge of proceeding with government business under the pressure of multiple investigations — including ones by Miami-Dade police and the National Transportation Safety Board — into the collapse of the 950-ton bridge on Southwest Eighth Street.

The same bidding team that won the $9 million contract from FIU in late 2015 — a group that includes MCM as the general contractor and Figg Bridge Group as the designer and engineer — is protesting Florida’s I-395 award, with a decision from the state expected later this year. The procurement fight now presents the administration of Florida Gov. Rick Scott with the choice of endorsing the Archer Western contract or rethinking hiring the FIU bridge team to build a far larger structure in Miami.

signature bridge mcm
The proposal for a “signature bridge” on I-395 in Miami as proposed by the team that included Munilla Construction Management, the firm behind the collapsed pedestrian bridge at Florida International University. In 2017, Florida’s Transportation Department scored the MCM 395 proposal second, behind Archer Western’s proposal. MCM is protesting the contract award, with help from Miami-Dade County. MIAMI HERALD FILE

Last year, Miami-Dade’s elected officials seized on the role of a committee of county and city officials appointed to weigh in on the design proposals from the bidders for what was billed as a “signature” bridge designed to make an architectural statement as well as open up the streets and sidewalks below in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood.

The Aesthetics Review Committee — made up of a county transportation official, the head of Miami’s downtown development authority, the director of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, and County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson — gave higher scores to MCM’s proposal. The Technical Review Committee, made up of five government engineers, gave higher scores to Archer Western’s proposal, and the combined scores were enough to leave MCM in second place.

Sally Heyman, the county commissioner who championed the May resolution opposing the Archer Western award, said the issue centered on Florida’s promise to prioritize community opinions on the bridge design. As for MCM, Heyman said it’s far too soon to contemplate how the collapse of the FIU bridge might affect the company’s county contracts.

“I think it’s in bad taste to start assessing blame,” she said.

MCM’s broad county portfolio highlights just how large a player the company is when it comes to public works in Miami-Dade. MCM has won major contracts with the county’s airport, seaport, Metrorail system, public housing arm, Water and Sewer Department, the county’s general construction arm, and others.

Between 2015 and 2017, Miami-Dade paid Munilla Construction Management LLC nearly $70 million for its various contracts, according to the county’s online checkbook. Its crews recently finished the new MSC Cruises terminal at PortMiami, and last year had its construction contract at Miami International Airport extended.

MCM won the contracts while it was engaged in a legal dispute with Miami-Dade over its work as the builder of the tracks needed to test Metrorail’s new trains. The yard was supposed to be finished by 2014 under MCM’s $25 million contract. But it wasn’t completed until 2016. Miami-Dade blamed MCM, and began fining it $3,000 a day for a total of about $2.2 million. MCM blamed the county for the delays and is fighting the penalty as well as claiming its own $2.5 million in damages from the delays, according to the county attorney’s office.

Gimenez said Monday he instructed the county’s legal team not to agree to a settlement with the company. An arbitration hearing is set for April. In its statement, MCM said its administration of the contract saved the county millions.

Transit administrators said the delayed track didn’t hold up the delivery of the new trains, which is behind schedule now because of problems on the manufacturing side.

MCM is among the developers competing to build a new Miami-Dade civil courthouse. MCM and Figg also are pushing an ambitious effort to privatize the toll operation on the Rickenbacker Causeway and use higher tolls for motorists heading to Key Biscayne to fund a replacement of the aging Bear Cut Bridge and create protected bike lanes and crossovers.

Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who represents Key Biscayne, said he attended a private briefing on the proposal last year with MCM partner Pedro Munilla. Touted as a public-private partnership — or “P3” — the Rickenbacker effort would require Miami-Dade to endorse boosting tolls by as much as 100 percent. Eugene Stearns, a lawyer and longtime advocate for replacing the Bear Cut bridge, said the FIU catastrophe makes it extremely difficult for MCM to pursue existing projects.

“They’ve been working on a P3 [on the Rickenbacker] for a couple of years,” said Stearns, who represents Brightline, an MCM rival for the courthouse project. “This is a tough story. With P3s, you have to sell them to the public. And you have to sell them to the commission. This is tough for them”

In its statement, MCM said its efforts are centered on unraveling what caused the FIU bridge failure. “Right now our focus is working closely with NTSB investigators to help them figure out what caused this accident,” the company said.

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