Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade tax-appeals board appoints attorney once caught up in investigation

In a scramble to hire a new attorney, Miami-Dade County’s Value Adjustment Board members selected a replacement lawyer this week — though they apparently didn’t Google him first.

Manuel Blanco was caught up in a 2009 investigation by the Miami-Dade Inspector General that, though targeting other people, also found he had erred as a special magistrate deciding property-tax assessment appeals.

The investigation concluded Blanco in 2008 allowed a clerk-of-the-courts employee to influence his decision on a commercial property’s value. Blanco recommended a larger tax-assessment reduction after the employee — a friend of the property owners — spoke to the magistrate outside of the appeal hearing, in violation of hearing rules.

Blanco maintains he was hoodwinked.

“I had no idea that anybody was trying to deceive me,” he said Friday.

There was no mention of the investigation Monday when the Value Adjustment Board met for two hours to interview four finalists for the attorney’s job, a part-time position that pays $175 an hour.

But Friday afternoon, interim counsel Robert Tischenkel sent board members a memo outlining the investigation and asking them if they would like to meet again. Otherwise, Tischenkel would proceed with the hiring of Blanco, who hasn’t signed a contract yet.

The board and its hearings have been subject to scrutiny recently as scores of assessment reductions have resulted in less tax money flowing to local government coffers. A longtime VAB attorney retired abruptly a few months ago.

Tischenkel said Friday he didn’t know about the incident involving Blanco. Two of the five board members, County Commissioner Juan C. Zapata and School Board member Carlos Curbelo, said the same thing.

The third elected official on the panel, Commissioner Lynda Bell, did not respond to a request for comment, though it seems unlikely she would have been aware of the investigation, either.

Yet the two private citizens on the board, Anibal Duarte-Viera and Hani Jardack, were already members in 2009, when the incident took place. Neither brought it up Monday.

Duarte-Viera couldn’t be reached Friday. But when asked if he thought of the 2009 investigation during Monday’s selection, Jardack said, “Not really.”

“I really don’t think it would have affected my vote,” he added. “I thought he was more qualified.”

The board should proceed with Blanco’s hiring, Jardack said. “I don’t think, in my opinion, that he did anything wrong.”

According to the investigation, Blanco concluded following a morning hearing that the $574,000 assessed value of the property in question should be decreased by about $32,000.

At the end of the day, following some 60 hearings, Blanco spoke to the clerk employee, who approached him with a property-appraiser document that purportedly applied to the case. That prompted Blanco to lower the assessment by another $48,000, for a total reduction of about $80,000.

“Special Magistrate Blanco admitted that it was an error in judgment to have listened to [the clerk] and to have allowed her to influence him to change his initial decision,” the Inspector General’s report said.

The clerk employee who orchestrated the incident and was the principal target of the investigation was fired. A property-appraiser employee was also fired, but then reinstated. Another appraiser staffer was disciplined.

The Value Adjustment Board ultimately approved Blanco’s original assessment-reduction recommendation — the first one he filed — and suspended him pending completion of a review of his conduct. He was reinstated as special magistrate seven months later, after telling the board that he was unwittingly caught up in the rogue employee’s plot.

“I had no reason whatsoever to doubt documentation that was presented to me, and I had no reason whatsoever to doubt when [the employee] came to me and said, Manny, you missed this,” Blanco told the board, according to a transcript from the reinstatement hearing.

Board members at the time agreed, noting Blanco had 17 years’ experience as special magistrate and never had a problem.

Blanco said Friday he expected the issue to come up at Monday’s attorney selection and was prepared to answer any questions.

“I think this is all political,” he said of the investigation re-surfacing after his appointment. He wouldn’t go into detail, but suggested a finalist who didn’t get the job might still be “sore.”

A string of appeals agents at Monday’s meeting opposed the appointment of one of the finalists, a team of two politically connected lawyers. Joseph Ruiz, the property appraiser’s general counsel, and Robert Fernandez, an elections attorney, ultimately didn’t get the job. Neither did the other finalists, Paul Lester and Robin Willner.

Board members voted unanimously for Blanco, highlighting his combination of experience in both property valuation and assessment appeals.