South Miami

South Miami mayor admits mistake in hiring ex-police chief

South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard
South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard Miami Herald Staff

South Miami residents could be on the hook for a lawsuit settlement north of six-figures, and now the city’s mayor is admitting his mistake.

Mayor Philip Stoddard acknowledged his mistake in approving Orlando Martinez de Castro’s police chief contract in 2010.

“I’m going to own this one,” Stoddard said from the dais at a May 17 commission meeting. “Indeed I, at the recommendation of our prior city manager (Hector Mirabile), and our prior city attorney, I voted in favor of a contract for Mr. Martinez de Castro. Of all the things I voted on, I guess that would be the one I regret the most. I don’t always get it right. That one I did not. So I do own it.”

Martinez de Castro began working for South Miami in 1998 in various roles. He was hired as police chief in 2003, left South Miami in 2006, and returned in 2010. He was fired three years later after the city determined he violated his contract by serving as acting city manager while also serving as chief. He filed several lawsuits in 2013 and 2015. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jose M. Rodrigez found that Martinez de Castro never served as acting city manager because he was not properly appointed to the position.

“(Mirabile) had assured me during his job interview in September 2010 that he did not personally know Martinez de Castro (I had asked),” Stoddard wrote in an email. “Shortly after Mirabile’s hire, he assured me that he had chosen Martinez de Castro as chief after an objective review of the candidates. Much later I learned from Mirabile these two had known each other for 30 years, and that Martinez de Castro had recruited Mirabile to apply for the manager’s job specifically to hire Martinez de Castro as chief. A draft of Martinez de Castro’s chief contract, found on his city computer after he left the city’s employment, showed his contract had been prepared months before the city hired Mirabile as city manager.

“Had I known the truth at the time, that Mirabile and Martinez de Castro were a pre-packaged deal, I would not have voted to hire either of them. So yes, I own my voting record, but people should be aware of the deception that went into influencing those hires. The city administration is in far better hands now.”

Mirabile says Stoddard is “lying.” While he knew of Martinez de Castro for more than 30 years, he says he did not know him personally.

“During my interview with the mayor for the position for city manager, under no circumstances did I speak about, at the time, Mr. Martinez de Castro,” said Mirabile, who was hired as city manager in 2010 and fired in 2012.

“Unfortunately he asked me if I would consider hiring Mr. Orlando Martinez de Castro, because he considered him a viable candidate. And I said yes I would consider it. I did not bring up (Martinez de Castro); he did.”

During Martinez de Castro’s tenure, he pleaded no contest to three ethics complaints filed by the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission. The complaints accused Martinez de Castro of steering city business to his wife’s auto tag agency and soliciting business for his wife’s insurance company using his city email.

The no contest pleas stemmed from a settlement with the ethics commission. As part of the settlement, Martinez de Castro agreed to pay $2,000 in investigative costs, received a letter of instruction and a fourth ethics violation, relating to the insurance company, was dropped. The settlement agreement states the ethics commission made no determination as to whether or not the violation was willful or knowing.

Mirabile was fired without cause in 2012, following a 3-2 commission vote. Stoddard and commissioners Bob Welsh and Walter Harris were the affirmative votes, while commissioners Josh Liebman and Valerie Newman dissented.

“I was terminated for no cause,” Mirabile said. “The rationale behind that was literally, I was told by a commissioner and the mayor, either I fire Martinez de Castro or I’m out.”

Stoddard and Welsh also accused Martinez de Castro of targeting their friends in politically motivated arrests during his tenure.

“I told the mayor after I read the contract, because he wanted Orlando fired, based on this contract I can not fire him for what you are saying,” Mirabile said. “He said ‘what about the ethics violations,’ and I told him, you have to prove that a guy violated ethics codes. There is no proof yet. Wait until the ethics commission does their findings and if they say yes he did violate the ethics, then I would be happy to terminate the contract.

“I cannot fire him and win on this contract,’’ Mirabile added. “ If I fire him, he’s going to sue and win later on. Which, it happened, and I was right.”

In April, Rodriguez awarded nearly $435,000 to Martinez de Castro following a three-day trial. Martinez de Castro’s lawyers are entitled to about $250,000 in attorneys’ fees. State law allows for a multiplier of 1.5 to 3 times on the attorney’s fees. Martinez de Castro is entitled to 4.75 percent interest on the $435,000, dating back to his Aug. 13, 2013, dismissal.

The city asked Rodriguez to recuse himself after the ruling, stating a “reasonable belief and fear that (Rodriguez) is prejudiced against the city and biased in favor of (Martinez de Castro) and the city will not receive a fair trial and/or fair rulings in the future.” South Miami’s motion was denied May 7. It filed a motion for reconsideration, then amended that motion, which was also denied on May 12.

In those motions, the city claims that “the court refused to allow the city to impeach Dr. Mirabile concerning one of his emails to commissioner Brian Beasley in which Dr. Mirabile emphasized the fact that he and (Martinez de Castro) were good friends and that their relationship as good friends went back 30 years.”

In the June 29, 2010, email, Mirabile says that he has known Martinez de Castro “(off and on) for 30 years.”

At its May 17 meeting, the commission voted 4-1, with Commissioner Josh Liebman dissenting, to authorize City Attorney Thomas Pepe to hire outside counsel and to file an appeal with Florida’s Third District Court Of Appeals. The city has 30 days, following the May 24 final judgment, to file that appeal.

“$210,000 of taxpayer monies have already been wasted and the city has lost the case every single step of the way,” Liebman said. “The $210,000 includes the city attorney's additional billing, court costs, and associated legal fees. The $210,000 does not include all of the additional hundreds of hours the city attorney has spent on this case. This has detracted from the business of the city, creating numerous delays in our legal department…In addition to the $210,000, Orlando Martinez De Castro was awarded approximately $435,000 plus approximately $50,000 in interest. Legal fees for Martinez de Castro's counsel will be approximately $300,000 plus another approximately $50,000 in court costs and legal expenses.”

“Continuing on the path of denial, Stoddard, Welsh, Harris, and commissioner Gabriel Edmund elected to spend (at least) another $50,0000 to appeal the decision. That figure does not include additional court costs and legal fees. It also does not include additional attorney's fees and interest on the approximate $435,000…”

According to Thomson Reuters’ Westlaw, in 82 percent of Rodriguez’s career appeal judgments, his rulings were either fully affirmed, partially affirmed or reversed, or the appeal was dismissed.

While Mirabile says that Stoddard “does not deserve to serve the people” and “should quit,” the mayor says the appeal isn’t “personal.”

“I put aside any personal feelings in this matter and base my decision to appeal purely on what makes the best financial sense for the city,” Stoddard said.

Liebman, who said he did not want to “lose” the former chief, contends that Stoddard’s ‘ownership’ falls short.

“None or the parties directly responsible for creating a seven-figure liability for the city have assumed responsibility,” Liebman said. “In addition to a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers, they have a responsibility to be honest, ethical, and logical.”