Miami Beach’s building director is under investigation as to whether he accepted a gift from a hotel that received approvals from his department.
Public corruption investigators from the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office are looking into whether Mariano Fernandez, the Beach’s building director since May 2013, accepted a free hotel stay from a hotelier who received permits from his department. Some city employees have received subpoenas.
Fernandez confirmed an investigation on Monday when he told the Miami Herald he has spoken with the state attorney’s office, but he declined to comment further.
Following the publication of this article online Monday evening, City Manager Jimmy Morales sent the Herald a statement saying he received an anonymous complaint with allegations against Fernandez earlier this year. He notified Beach police, who took the matter to the state attorney.
Morales also announced he had placed Fernandez on leave Monday.
“Today, in an abundance of caution, I placed Mr. Fernández on administrative leave without pay pending the outcome of any possible investigation,” Morales said. “Although I do not know the current status of any State Attorney´s investigations, I wanted to ensure that any issues regarding Mr. Fernández would not reflect on the city´s building department moving forward.”
Ana Salgueiro, the city’s deputy building director, will lead the department in the interim.
Earlier on Monday, state attorney spokesman Ed Griffith said he could “neither confirm nor deny any investigative activity” as a matter of policy.
City law prevents any employee from accepting gifts, regardless of value, from any people or entities that have business with the city or are planning to apply for approvals from city officials, with few exceptions such as complimentary tickets to certain events and performances. Even those gifts must be reported to the human resources department.
The investigation raises questions about a building department that has endured multiple scandals in the past decade. In 2008, three building department employees were arrested and later convicted for taking bribes from a developer.
When Cynthia Curry was hired as building director in 2010, she was being investigated after her private company double-billed the county for work on an expansion to Miami International Airport — a project that ran over budget. Though she avoided charges when prosecutors were unsure they could prove criminal intent, commissioners did not confirm her hiring.
Emphasizing ethics in government was a top priority for Morales when he was named city manager in spring 2013. He made sweeping changes to the city’s leadership, hiring new department heads, bringing in a new police chief and setting up ethics training for city employees.
Some of that has paid off. A recent ethics survey found that fewer city employees reported being offered bribes than in 2013, when the city was still reeling from multiple scandals. But 22 percent of those surveyed still reported being offered a bribe, far from a comfortable number for Morales’ administration.
Given the extra attention paid to improving City Hall’s reputation on questions of ethics, this new investigation is likely concerning for the manager, who hired Fernandez in 2013.
Last week, Morales announced a new citywide procedure for reporting bribe offers and falsifying officials records and documents to the police. Employees are now required to inform the police department’s command staff duty officer of any such suspected misconduct.
Late Monday, Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez expressed support for Mariano, praising him for having a rapport with poor residents who have building issues, saying “he helps more people than anyone else in the city.”
“Mariano is a good man who helps the poor of Miami Beach," she said. "He is one of our greatest assets. He walks the poor through the building process. I have seen him help them navigate their issues.”