After about eight months of being suspended with pay following an incident when she was accused of spying on a resident, Coral Gables police Major Theresa Molina will resign.
Molina, 45, who has been with the department for more than 20 years and served as an interim police chief in 2014, was suspended as the department conducted an Internal Affairs investigation. At the Sept. 28 commission meeting, as a resident texted a commissioner, asking for an opportunity to speak, Molina took photos of the resident’s cellphone and told her to stop texting.
After that investigation wrapped up earlier this year, Police Chief Ed Hudak sent out a memo on May 1 recommending that Molina be fired. City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark and staff members disagreed with that recommendation and proceeded to draft a separation agreement with Molina and her attorney, Brian Tannebaum.
“I am rejecting your recommendation to terminate but I fully accept and agree with your conclusion that Major Molina violated, without debate, police and city personnel rules related to conduct unbecoming and customer service,” Swanson-Rivenbark’s memo said.
Commissioners decided Tuesday not to act on Hudak’s recommendation, which allowed the separation agreement to proceed.
“I’m glad Major Molina was able to end her career in the way she wanted to,” Tannebaum said.
The September incident took place during a presentation and discussion of the city’s neighborhood safety aide program and police efforts in the North Gables. Maria Cruz, a resident who has often expressed concerns about the police department’s leadership and filling vacant positions, said that while she was texting Commissioner Vince Lago, Molina was watching her.
Cruz did eventually address the commission, including revealing what Molina did. Molina can be heard in a video recording of the meeting saying, “Stop texting the commissioners.” Cruz said she felt like she was “under surveillance” and later filed a complaint.
The investigation also showed that Molina took at least six photos of Cruz’s cellphone. Molina defended her actions and said she thought Cruz was violating the Florida Sunshine Law by texting Lago.
City Attorney Craig Leen said there was nothing wrong with residents texting elected officials and called Molina’s actions inappropriate. Lago said that he had no problem with residents reaching out to him during meetings.
“Major Molina exceeded her legal authority when she photographed complainant Maria Cruz’s cellphone text conversation with two city of Coral Gables commissioners,” Hudak wrote in his memo.
However, city commissioners said Molina’s veteran experience outweighed last year’s incident.
“I want to punish the bad act but at the same time we want to recognize the good work,” Commissioner Frank Quesada said.
Molina had no previous violations or Internal Affairs investigations in her personnel file.
Molina will work from home for about three weeks, and the settlement will allow her to use about 200 hours of comp time and about 415 hours of accrued sick and vacation time to stay on the payroll. Her last day with the department will be Nov. 8.
Lago said the agreement wasn’t punitive enough and moved to terminate Molina as of Tuesday’s meeting. Ultimately that motion failed with a 3-2 vote. Commissioners Michael Mena, Patricia Keon and Quesada voted no while Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli and Lago were in favor of firing Molina.
“Although some share different perspectives, all have acknowledged the severity of Molina’s actions,” Lago said. “We need to be held to a higher standard.”
Staff members estimate that Molina, by not entering the early retirement program, will lose anywhere from $700,000 to $800,000 through the agreement. Molina would have to have 25 years in the force to enter the program. She will, however, begin to receive pension payments a month after her last day with the department.
Cruz said she was disappointed with the decision and said the commission should have sent a “clear message” that no one is above the law.
“It’s a sad day in Coral Gables. Instead of punishment, she got rewarded for doing wrong,” Cruz said.