When a tip came in that Miami Beach building department employees might have improperly gotten free or discounted trips to resorts, public-corruption investigators paid a visit to the home of chief official Mariano Fernandez.
He did not know that one of the detectives was secretly video-recording him.
As Fernández sat at his kitchen table on the evening of Feb 17, 2017, he claimed somebody with the Spanish hotel chain RIU offered him and his employees free stays at any of its resorts. "I told him, I'm sorry. I cannot accept that," Fernandez said. "What do you want me to get fired, or something like that? That's unacceptable to me."
Fernández insisted no one — including himself — got anything for free, according to the footage released by prosecutors last week as part of the corruption criminal case against him.
But detectives would later learn, through a large cache of internal emails, that Fernández had indeed asked for and accepted free stays — 10 nights in all at RIU resorts in Miami, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, according to prosecutors.
Authorities arrested Fernández in February, charging him with unlawful compensation and conspiracy. The State Attorney's Office has also charged Luis Riu Guell Jr., RIU's owner, as well as the company itself, along with RIU’s regional vice president, Alejandro Sanchez del Arco.
All have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
Fernández's defense lawyer could not be reached for comment on Friday, but has long insisted the trips violated no law.
“My client never shirked his responsibility to the city and there was no quid pro quo,” lawyer Jeffrey Weiner said in February. “He didn’t look the other way. He insisted on full compliance with all the rules and regulations of the city of Miami Beach.”
As the top building official at City Hall, Fernández had significant power over inspections and permitting for construction and renovation projects in the resort city — crucial functions that determine the timeline for completion of big projects. Between October 2013 and June 2016 RIU needed permits for a major renovation to its South Beach property.
Prosecutors believe that Fernández regularly solicited free and comped rooms for him and his employees, even helping to organize “team-building” department retreats at deeply discounted rates. In all, at least five of Fernández’s employees got outright free stays through Fernández, and dozens more got discounted rates — amounting to over 200 nights.
One of those "team-building" trips with the building department was in September 2015 to the RIU Palace Bavaro All-Inclusive Resort in Punta Cana. There, Fernández and his wife got a free suite — and a birthday bottle of Johnny Walker Black Scotch placed in their room, plus a VIP night at the Coco-Bongo nightclub.
Early in the investigation in 2017, the State Attorney's Public Corruption Task Force dispatched two investigators, Bob Fielder and Ricardo Arias, to interview Fernández at his home. His wife, Miami-Dade County Judge Maria Ortiz, was not home at the time — although his small dog was, and continually yapped during the interview.
The three made friendly small talk — Fernández showed off a wall full of stuffed animal heads, trophies from his hunting trips. As Fielder secretly recorded, the investigators explained they wanted to clear up some allegations that people in the building department had received free trips or gifts.
Fernández, chatty and casual, explained that RIU had been caught doing major renovations without the proper permits. He swore he turned down the free trips, but acknowledged the discounted rooms and happily described the trip to the all-inclusive Punta Cana.
"How was the food?" Arias asked.
"The food was great man. The food is 24 hours," Fernández said, chuckling. "My people were eating like cows."
Later, Field asked: "So nobody got any gifts, gratuities, or payments of anything like that? "
"No," Fernández said, adding: "I paid for all my things."
Detectives would soon find emails that contradicted his account.
In one email sent during the Punta Cana trip, an RIU executive noted to another that Fernández and his wife were "delighted" to be dining in the VIP section of the Coco-Bongo restaurant. "By the way, he has said he is not paying for the room," the executive wrote in an email quoted in an arrest warrant. "We left it free so there wouldn't be any issues."
In an email the following year, Fernández had no qualms about asking directly for two rooms at the RIU hotel in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. "Two adults, three kids," he wrote.
According to the arrest warrant, Fernández used his city email.