Edison - Liberty City

Liberty Square investigation uncovers payouts, but no broken laws

Related Urban Development Group did not buy a rental car for Sara Alvin Smith, according to the inspector general’s office.
Related Urban Development Group did not buy a rental car for Sara Alvin Smith, according to the inspector general’s office. Miami Herald file

The affordable housing arm of residential developer Related Group spent several thousand dollars currying favor among public housing residents last year en route to winning a $300 million county contract to redevelop Liberty Square, a Miami-Dade Inspector General’s investigation has found.

But despite some “perceptually unseemly” payments, a close-out memo released Tuesday says that Related Urban Development Group broke no laws, and the money that flowed into one of South Florida’s poorest communities appears to be nowhere close to what was publicly alleged.

“While these practices might warrant further scrutiny in the future, especially as more complex public private partnership arrangements gain traction and become the norm of financing public improvements where community and stakeholder input is crucial … it is recommended that this case be closed,” Special Agent Dimitri Bernadotte wrote in a March 30 memo obtained by the Miami Herald.

The report — released less than 24 hours before a planned joint visit Wednesday to Liberty Square by HUD Secretary Ben Carson, county Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Related Group CEO Jorge Pérez — sheds new light on the hard-fought political battle to win a contract to rebuild Miami-Dade’s oldest and perhaps most notorious public housing project. It also somewhat validates allegations raised last May by County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson.

Edmonson, who represents Liberty City, alleged during a public meeting following Gimenez’s endorsement of Related’s proposed complex that she’d heard the developer was purchasing support within Liberty Square by sponsoring chicken dinners, buying false eyelashes for female residents and spreading cash around. During a subsequent hearing in which the County Commission approved the project, she suggested former Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones had received around $100,000 from Related to help influence the community.

I’m just happy to have it over with so that this community can be whole again and brought back together again

County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson

The expended money verified by the investigation wasn’t anywhere close to that amount. But financial records and sworn statements did prove that Related Urban Development Group paid out several thousand dollars to one member of the Liberty Square tenants council and to Eric Thompson, a vocal activist who once supported Atlantic Pacific, Related’s top competitor on the project.

Bernadotte, who noted that all confirmed community payments were made after a sensitive procurement gag order was lifted, found that Thompson received $3,000 to “help spread the facts” about Related’s project, and tenants group vice president Crystal Corner received $1,230 from a Related consultant to work for the developer’s Rise Up Street Team.

Both Thompson and Corner, the investigator said, were less than forthcoming during their interviews. Thompson failed to note in an initial interview that he’d been paid by Related, according to the memo. Corner allegedly lied and said she’d indeed written a letter published in her name in the Miami Herald that an email chain showed was originally authored by Spence-Jones.

In a footnote, Bernadotte also noted that prominent attorney and lobbyist Jorge Luis Lopez was copied on the chain discussing Corner’s letter to the editor, but a pdf of the emails initially provided to the Inspector General’s office redacted Lopez’s email address.

It clearly states that no laws were violated

Albert Milo, Related Urban Development Group’s senior vice president

Attempts Tuesday evening to reach Thompson, Corner and Lopez, who was not registered to lobby on the contract, were unsuccessful. Albert Milo, Related Urban Development Group’s senior vice president, issued a statement through a spokesman.

Related, he said, “is pleased that the [inspector general] report has been issued and that we were able to respond to all of the questions asked by the [inspector general]; moreover, it clearly states that no laws were violated.”

Though the investigation didn’t include Spence-Jones as a subject, Bernadotte noted that the former Miami commissioner’s Jambalaya Media Group was paid just $4,291 by a Related outreach consultant, and her brother, Kenneth Spence, received another $8,290. Spence-Jones’ work for Related Group was already public knowledge.

A rumor that Related rented a car for tenants council president Sara Alvin Smith, who also sat as a voting member on the developer selection committee, was unsubstantiated. The county is currently trying to evict Smith on the grounds that marijuana and scales were found by police inside her federally subsidized apartment. She denies that the items were hers.

Though the fight to award the project to a developer last year was hugely controversial, the acrimony dissipated long before the inspector general released its findings Tuesday. Early efforts are now under way, and Carson is expected to present an approved demolition letter Wednesday during his visit.

Edmonson, whose complaint launched the investigation, said the probe confirmed some of the problems that troubled her during the Liberty Square solicitation. But she said she’s now focused on moving forward.

“I’m just happy to have it over with so that this community can be whole again and brought back together again,” she said.