Crime

A Miami judge failed to report free luxury hotel stays. And she's facing a punishment

Miami-Dade County Judge Maria Ortiz has agreed to a 90-day suspension, a reprimand and a $5,000 fine for failing to report free stays from the RIU hotel chain, which operates a property in South Beach.
Miami-Dade County Judge Maria Ortiz has agreed to a 90-day suspension, a reprimand and a $5,000 fine for failing to report free stays from the RIU hotel chain, which operates a property in South Beach. Miami Herald

A Miami-Dade judge has agreed to pay a $5,000 fine for failing to report the free hotel stays and VIP gifts that landed her husband in jail on allegations of public corruption.

County Judge Maria Ortiz will also accept a public reprimand, according to documents released Monday by the state commission that oversees judicial ethics.

Ortiz is married to Mariano Fernandez, the former Miami Beach building official who was arrested in February on allegations he accepted gifts from the RIU hotel chain in exchange for favors to help speed up renovations at the company's South Beach resort.

He is free from jail on bond and is awaiting trial. His defense lawyer has long insisted that the free hotel stays had nothing to do with his job overseeing Miami Beach's building department. Fernandez had significant power over inspections and permitting for construction and renovation projects in the resort city.

The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission's investigative panel recommended the fine and reprimand as discipline, but it must be approved by the state's supreme court.

Ortiz, who accompanied her husband on free stays for 10 nights at resorts in Miami, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, is not charged with criminal wrongdoing. She told investigators she had no idea the rooms had been given to her husband for free.

"Judge Ortiz has acknowledged, that she failed to take any steps to inform herself about the household finances generally, and specifically that she failed to take steps to discover how the trips to the RIU Hotel properties were financed," according to a report by the JQC's investigative panel.

Judges are required to report all gifts that might give the public reason to doubt their impartiality. Ortiz, a county court judge since 2004, admitted she allowed her husband to handle their finances — and fill out her disclosure forms.

Mariano Fernandez
Former Miami Beach building official Mariano Fernandez is facing trial on allegations he accepted free hotel stays from a company needing his help. Miami Herald file photo

The hotels stays, according to the commission:

In August 2015, Fernandez and Ortiz stayed free of charge at an oceanfront room at RIU's South Beach hotel, and got a free food basket and bottle of wine. "At the conclusion of the stay, your husband sent a bouquet of flowers to the Riu Miami Beach Hotel's general manager, with the note, "Mucho Gracias! Maria y Mariano Fernandez,'" according to the commission.

One month later, the judge and her husband stayed free of charge in a suite with a jacuzzi at RIU's Palaca Bavaro all-inclusive resort in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. "The Hotel also arranged for a special excursion, a trip to the VIP area of the famous Coco-Bongo Show and Disco," the panel's investigators found.

One year later, the couple went to the chain's resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, as part of a building department retreat, with yet another VIP trip to that hotel's "Coco-Bongo" show.

The Miami-Dade state attorney's office also filed unlawful compensation charges against executives of the RIU Hotels & Resorts, which owns more than 100 hotels in 19 countries. They, too, have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.

Judge Ortiz no longer presides over cases in the building where her husband will face trial. She is now in the civil division.

The investigative panel lauded her "exemplary record" on the bench outside of the hotel episode.

"Judge Ortiz expressed sincere remorse and took responsibility for her failures," according to the findings.

Miami Beach's building director, Mariano Fernandez, turned himself into the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office Tuesday morning. Fernandez is under investigation as to whether he accepted a gift from a hotel that received approvals from his departm



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