Nine months of salacious intrigue came to an abrupt end Tuesday when the Coral Gables city manager pulled the plug on a threat to fire her police chief for attending a pool party and taking a picture with more than a dozen of his female officers frolicking in a pool wearing swimsuits.
With dozens of supporters packing City Hall's chambers hoping to defend Chief Ed Hudak, City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark quashed her years-long attempt to remove him.
"I've decided to rescind the reprimand in the best interest of the city," Swanson-Rivenbark said in a brief statement to the crowd, which broke into loud, spontaneous applause.
Hudak, a 28-year veteran with a largely unblemished reputation, could barely contain his emotions during equally brief comments on an investigation he said had been tough on his family and the female officers in the party snapshot. As he spoke, many of them crowded the chamber's front row to show their support.
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"I appreciate the manager revisiting the issue today," said Hudak, who has been chief since 2014. "I'm very proud to be your police chief."
Still, the manager's announcement wasn't enough to quiet the crowd. Some had shown up early or been forced to stand in the small chamber in hope of having their voices heard, and Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli decided to give 60 people who had signed up to speak each a minute at the microphone.
Speaker after speaker spoke up in support of Hudak, lambasting a six-page memo the city manager wrote in which she threatened to fire Hudak if he didn't take corrective action.
“That memorandum was an embarrassment,” said Faustina Gomez, a 32- year resident and friend of the police chief.
"Chief Hudak is the best employee the city has," former Gables commissioner Jeannett Slesnick said outside the chamber.
Others spoke in support of the 14 female officers whose images went viral.
“I came here to support the wrongly accused female officers,” said David Bernhardt, vice president of Florida's Fraternal Order of Police, calling them victims of cyber bullying.
Drawing whistles of support from the crowd, Miami businessman Raul Mas Canosa called out the elephant in the room: bad blood between the city manager and the police chief, a division he said the commission must address at some point. Earlier Mas Canosa had said the manager's actions were interfering with Hudak's running of the department.
“Stop kicking the can down the road,” he implored the commission.
The loggerhead between two of the city's top administrators drew enough ire from usually placid Gables residents that some of them showed up prior to the meeting and protested outside City Hall. They briefly chanted, "Hey hey, ho ho, Cathy Swanson needs to go," and held up signs telling commissioners, "If Ed goes, so do you."
The relationship between Swanson-Rivenbark and Hudak has been sour since she left Hollywood for the top administrative post in Coral Gables in 2014. Almost immediately after becoming city manager, Swanson-Rivenbark tried to create a system of two police chiefs — one who would run operations, the other investigations — under the guidance of Frank Fernandez, the former chief in Hollywood whom she persuaded to join her in Coral Gables. The plan was shot down by the city attorney.
Some contend the bad blood between the two surfaced more than a decade ago when Swanson-Rivenbark was the head of economic development in Coral Gables and Hudak led an internal affairs investigation against Swanson-Rivenbark's friend Maria Menendez. Hudak, who said he did investigate Menendez, said Tuesday he couldn't say if his probe into her friend incensed the city manager.
Whatever the case, their relationship worsened in 2016 when Hudak recommended firing police Maj. Theresa Molina after she ordered a resident to stop texting a commissioner during a meeting. The city manager instead pushed for a settlement agreement. The major eventually resigned.
Then came the July 19 pool party. Hudak said he decided to attend the party at the Homestead home of the police department's public information officer, Kelly Denham, after one of the women at the party called and asked him to show up as a surprise to his troops.
It was the next 20 minutes that got the chief into trouble.
During that time, he agreed to take a picture with the women. Hudak said he got their thumbs-up before the picture was taken. That shot of the chief, in full uniform seated behind the 14 officers in swim attire in the water made its way to Instagram. Someone using the moniker dmannow256 posted it. An internal affairs investigation has been launched into the person's identity. The post claimed the women didn't know that Hudak was going to show up and that sex toys were passed around.
Two weeks later, the city received an anonymous letter accusing the chief of misconduct. The women were ridiculed on social media sites. Swanson-Rivenbark launched an investigation. Then she hired a former cop from Pennsylvania named Charles Skurkis to investigate the incident. His report noted that none of the women in the photograph — he interviewed them all — said they had a problem with the chief's presence and that Hudak hadn't broken any department rules or regulations. Skurkis also refuted the allegation of sex toys being passed around. He said there was one bottle opener with a wooden handle shaped like a penis.
"He was an invited guest and, based upon individual statements and available photographic imagery, he appeared welcome by all attendees," Skurkis wrote.
But his 93-page report also noted that the chief's actions may have shed a bad light on the department.
Swanson-Rivenbark seized on that part of the report and wrote her own six-page memo threatening to fire the chief if he didn't clean up his act.
"Failure to take the necessary corrective actions laid out for you in the reprimand and failure to consistently practice more professional and mature judgment moving forward will result in further disciplinary action, including termination," the city manager wrote in the reprimand two weeks ago.
Still, Swanson-Rivenbark's reversal wasn't enough to appease some Hudak supporters. Political adviser Freddy Balsera, who a day earlier issued a scathing letter warning commissioners to leave Hudak alone, said even if Hudak retained his job, the feud would continue and removing the city manager might be the only way to restore order.
"This is truly a political witch hunt," Balsera told the Miami Herald. "I certainly think it challenges his [Hudak's] ability to do his job."