Miami Beach’s top building official has been fired as he faces allegations that he did favors for a South Beach hotel while accepting free or deeply discounted trips to the company’s resorts in Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
In a memo released on Tuesday, Miami Beach acknowledged that Mariano Fernandez was booted from his job after the city manager learned that his employee would be arrested to face criminal charges.
Fernandez was suspended without pay in August as the Miami Herald first reported on the state attorney’s investigation, an inquiry Fernandez himself confirmed to the Herald. He was fired late last week.
His firing — and expected arrest — is another embarrassment for the government of Miami Beach, which has been plagued by a series of scandals over the past decade. Just last month, City Commissioner Michael Grieco resigned and was criminally charged for accepting an illegal campaign donation.
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As for Fernandez, he held a crucial role supervising the department that oversees building permits and construction on Miami Beach. His attorney, Jeffrey Weiner, said Tuesday that his client did nothing wrong and “never shirked his responsibilities” as head of the building department.
“The fact that he was friendly with some people who owned companies or owned properties, that’s not a crime,” Weiner said. “We are convinced neither the law nor the facts support criminal charges. We’re hopeful the state will not charge Mariano, but if they do, we’ll deal with it.”
City Manager Jimmy Morales hired Fernandez away from the city of Miami, where he held the same job.
“Since my appointment as city manager in 2013, I have worked tirelessly to promote a culture of high ethical standards here in Miami Beach. When you were appointed in May 2013 as my building director, we had extensive discussions about my expectations in this regard,” Morales wrote in the memo.
“Clearly recent events have seriously eroded any confidence I have in your ability to meet the standards of integrity that I have set for all employees of the city and especially for my management team.”
The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office declined to comment Tuesday.
Investigators are looking at Fernandez’s ties to RIU Hotels & Resorts, a Spanish company that owns and operates more than 100 hotels in 19 countries, including only two in the United States, one in Miami Beach and one in New York.
In South Florida, the company runs the RIU Plaza Miami Beach Hotel, 3101 Collins Ave. Between 2013 and 2016, the resort was undergoing major renovations, and needed permits from Fernandez’s department.
What favors, if any, Fernandez did to help the company remains under investigation. However, at the same time, he organized “team-building” trips for himself and dozens of city employees to RIU resorts in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, and Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and paid only a fraction of the usual rate.
Fernandez was generally well-regarded as an effective bureaucrat leading a department that can easily frustrate the average citizen. His personnel file includes commendations from superiors for improving the city’s customer service for people who needed help navigating complicated permitting processes.
The investigation into the trips to RIU resorts stems from an anonymous complaint filed at City Hall earlier this year. It isn’t the first time someone has complained about Fernandez’s conduct.
One former employee filed an ethics complaint against Fernandez in 2015 alleging that he was fired because he refused to follow Fernandez’s direction to waive fees for the demolition of a building in a public park. An investigation by the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust later concluded that Fernandez had not abused his position and closed the case.
Fernandez, however, maintained a good reputation. In a performance evaluation from November 2014, Fernandez received high marks for introducing a “phased permitting” process that allowed people to begin work on their properties faster, and he was complimented for opening a residential permit desk on the first floor of City Hall to cater to residents who are intimidated by the development review process.