Take a photo of a uniformed police chief with a bunch of female officers in bikinis at a pool party, add a spoonful of old-fashioned small town politics and heat up with anonymous social media posts.
It’s a recipe for a messy sexual harassment investigation in Coral Gables, one that comes amid a national explosion of charges against men in power abusing or harassing women.
In this strange case, however, the city’s head of public safety says none of the 14 female officers at a summertime pool party have accused Gables Police Chief Ed Hudak of doing anything wrong. They want the city to track down whoever posted the photos online, spiced up with what they say are bogus allegations of improper behavior at a staff gathering that included several spouses and children.
It’s already been a costly case for Coral Gables. The city has paid an outside investigator $140 an hour to look into the allegations. Hudak has asked the city to provide him legal counsel, and now Internal Affairs is moving forward with a probe into who wrote the posts.
Tuesday morning, standing before the mayor, city commissioners and the city manager who ordered the investigation into anonymous posts, which first showed up in August on Instagram and other sites, Assistant City Manager Frank Fernandez, who is Hudak’s boss, said none of the female officers who attended the pool party suggested Hudak harassed them or did anything inappropriate.
“If Chief Hudak did nothing wrong, then his name should be cleared,” said Fernandez.
Still, the accusations led to a discussion by commissioners on whether it was proper to spend time investigating anonymous complaints posted on social media.
“The female officers who were there denied anything happened,” said Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli. “Why not investigate the posts.”
Weighed in Commissioner Vince Lago: “It seems very retaliatory. Today it’s Chief Hudak. Tomorrow it can be you.”
Patricia Keon, the vice mayor and only woman on the commission, warned that “because of heightened attention given today to people of power, it’s important that we go through with this.”
Then, it was Hudak’s turn.
“I was invited to the event which was hosted by a police officer. I’m often invited to formal gatherings and I try to attend every one I can. There was never inappropriate behavior involved,” said the chief. “If I did see something, as the chief, that was inappropriate, I would have made sure it stopped.”
The incident that sparked the controversy was a July 19 afternoon pool party at the Homestead home of public information officer Kelly Denham, who works with the chief. Hudak said he received a call asking if he could attend as a surprise to some of the women. Reached Tuesday afternoon, Denham refused to comment because of the open investigation.
While he was there for 20 minutes or so, Hudak said he was asked to take a picture. The picture of him seated in full uniform behind a dozen bikini-clad female officers is what stirred the controversy. It somehow made its way to an anonymous Instagram post under the moniker dmannow256, who offered a take on the party that hasn’t been supported.
“As you can see, he is in full uniform at a female only party in which sex toys (female in front of Chief) are being handed out to party goers. As brand new female officers we had no idea he was going to show up,” wrote dmannow256. “In videos that are to follow, you will hear the disgust and embarrassment from people at the party as we are being visually raped by our boss.”
In the photo, two women are holding small colorful objects — one is clearly a toy water pistol. Hudak said there was at least one child at the party, that some of the women’s husbands were there and so were a neighbor or two. He said he has been advised not to speak with the female officers until the investigation is concluded.
Two weeks later on Aug. 3, the city received an anonymous letter also accusing Hudak of inappropriate conduct, accompanied by a video. The city has turned down a public records request for the letter, citing a state statute that keeps it exempt because of an ongoing investigation into the claims.
About a week after the letter was received, several of the women in the picture with Hudak demanded that the city find the source of the social media posts and the letter be investigated. The women claimed they were being shamed on several different social media sites.
Hudak, a former University of Miami student and football player who still works security on the sidelines of UM games and whose 28-year career in Coral Gables has been scandal-free, has been the city’s chief since 2014.
“People behind anonymous posts can create this vacuum of mistrust,” he said. “The women didn’t do anything wrong and I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Fraternal Order of Police president John Baublitz said the female officers aren’t upset with Hudak. They’re frustrated with the city’s response to the social media post and the negative reaction it received.
He said none of the female officers at the party were behind the post — and he questioned whether there was political motivation behind City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark’s decision to hire an outside investigator to look into the complaint.
“They felt sexually harassed by some of the comments that were on the post. They wanted someone to investigate the person behind the posts,” said the FOP president. “If you have the women that attended the party and the chief saying it didn’t happen, then why would you hire an outside investigator if you weren’t playing games and if this wasn’t politically motivated?”
After the female officers complained, Swanson-Rivenbark asked investigators with the International Association of Police Chiefs to look into the letter. As of Tuesday, according to Fernandez, the assistant city manager, all 14 women have been interviewed and not one of them have said Hudak did anything inappropriate.
Politically, Swanson-Rivenbark and Hudak have been at odds since she joined the city in late 2014 and tried unsuccessfully to create co-police chiefs who would report to Fernandez. The tension increased last year when Hudak recommended firing police Maj. Theresa Molina after she ordered a resident to stop texting a commissioner. The city manager instead pushed for a settlement agreement.
Last week Fernandez ordered his internal affairs unit to begin investigating who created the Instagram account and who sent the letter and video. That probe is expected to be finished some time in December.
Asked if he considered whether a photo of him posing with female officers in bathing suits might be bad optics, Hudak said “not at all.” He said he was asked to take the picture, then it was cleared with all the women first.
When they gave their approval, a husband of one of the women snapped the picture. Then, Hudak said, he went inside and left shortly after.
“If we were on the beach and everyone was in bathing suits it would be the same thing,” said Hudak. “I never really saw this as anything compromising for them until the posts started.”