Crime

Ex-Miami Beach official pleads guilty in corruption case

EL NUEVO HERALD

After spending 34 months behind bars, disgraced Miami Beach bureaucrat Gus Lopez sat in the courtroom defendant’s box during a break, chatting affably with jailers. One asked if he was a gambler.

“Only if the odds are in my favor,” Lopez said with a smile.

And so on the eve of trial — and facing more than 60 years in prison on an array of corruption charges — Lopez cut his losses, cashed in his chips and accepted the title of convicted felon.

Miami Beach’s former procurement director pleaded guilty Thursday to racketeering, money laundering and bribery charges for secretly selling sensitive information to businesses looking to land contracts with the city.

A Miami-Dade judge sentenced him to 34 months behind bars, but Lopez was to walk free from jail late Thursday because he gets credit for the time already served. Now, the 55-year-old must serve five more years of probation.

“This case personifies what many people feel is going on, that people are using their influence in exchange for money,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. “People have lost confidence in the people that run our municipal departments, but there is a task force out there watching them and prosecuting them.”

As a Miami Herald photographer snapped away, Lopez was all grins.

Yet Thursday’s guilty plea marked an ignominious end to the public career of Lopez, who for 12 years oversaw all city contracts and bids, including those related to the lucrative project aimed at revitalizing the Miami Beach Convention Center and its surrounding areas.

In March 2012, Lopez resigned as Miami Beach detectives and public-corruption prosecutors began probing possible misconduct surrounding the estimated $1 billion project.

The city had became concerned that he was possibly rigging the process by assembling his own development team with businessman Walter Garcia.

Indeed, investigators found that Lopez was actively referring prospective bidders and team members to Garcia, even asking one investment banker to call “Walter” on his cellphone. Detectives also uncovered an email, sent from Lopez’s personal account, that even outlined “Walters Full Compensation” as $6.73 million.

According to court documents, Garcia also helped Lopez’s wife obtain financing for a Mercedes-Benz. As the project was being put out for bid, Garcia also elicited $25,000 from one company bidding on the project.

Prosecutors ultimately filed no charges against Lopez or Garcia in connection with the Convention Center project, which was put on hold for months as the criminal probe dragged on. Today, the project is still in the planning stages, although a contractor for the convention center has already been selected.

During the investigation, detectives noticed odd amounts of cash being deposited into Lopez’s accounts. Lopez, whom the city paid by direct deposit, was not authorized to work outside Miami Beach. And his wife had no steady income, records showed.

Prosecutors learned that Lopez, in exchange for cash, had teamed up with businessman Pierre Landron to peddle sensitive information to companies looking to unfairly land city contracts. Investigators say they earned up to $600,000 from at least 12 companies that did business with the city.

An example: In 2009, Lopez leaked to Landron how much competitors were bidding on a project to refurbish city restrooms at 35th Street. Armed with that information, Harbour Construction bid far less — and got the contract,

The case against Lopez was strong. Jurors would have been presented reams of financial records, e-mails and even a damning undercover police video showing Lopez taking a bag of cash from Landron, who was also charged but cooperated with authorities. Landron also was expected to testify against his former partner, as was Lopez’s former wife. The trial was to start next week.

Miami Beach police arrested Lopez in October 2012. He never could make bail. Over the past year, Lopez fired his attorney and elected to represent himself. On Thursday, he had hoped to convince Circuit Judge Diane Ward to suppress key evidence, including the undercover video.

But before the hearing began Thursday, Lopez agreed to meet with a newly appointed “stand-by” counsel, Assistant Public Defender Michael Melinek. Several closed-door meetings later, Lopez agreed to plead guilty – and accept the felony record and the probation.

“It’s never a good day when a public official goes to prison for abusing the public trust, but it’s important that the community knows that such conduct will not be tolerated,” said Tim VanderGiesen, the head of the State’s Attorney’s Public Corruption Task Force.

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