In their first debate, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle and challenger Rod Vereen spared over juvenile justice, police union politics and efforts to combat public corruption.
The two Democrats, who will square off in a defacto winner-take-all primary on Aug. 14, met for an informal debate Wednesday in front of The Miami Herald Editorial Board.
Fernández Rundle, the county’s top prosecutor since 1993, did not draw a Republican or independent opponent. Vereen is a former prosecutor and longtime Miami-Dade criminal defense lawyer.
As it has been in previous races, the theme of public corruption prosecutions dominated the debate.
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Vereen has maintained that Fernández Rundle’s office has engaged in “political prosecutions,” and on Tuesday he said her office brings flimsy cases against certain public officials more for headlines than for justice.
He also called her handling of public corruption prosecutions of Arthur Teele, the prominent Miami commissioner who killed him in the lobby of The Miami Herald in 2005, a “travesty of justice.”
“They try to prosecute in the court of public opinion,” Vereen said, referring to a television news interview of a salacious prosecution witness in jail.
Fernández Rundle shot back, rattling off statistics that included 34 convictions of elected officials and the arrests of hundreds of public employees and corrupt cops over her 19 years in office. She said Vereen was “recruited” to run by “an opposition of folks that think we’re far too aggressive, far too active in public corruption.”
Vereen’s campaign is supported by Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence Jones, who was acquitted at trial in a bribery case and had another grand theft case dismissed by prosecutors when the case fell apart. Spence-Jones is also planning to sue Fernández Rundle for “prosecutorial misconduct.”
Vereen has also received support from Republican Congressman David Rivera, who was investigated by Fernández Rundle’s office. Rivera was not charged, but was angered by a final report that nonetheless suggested improprieties.
Vereen denied that he was recruited to run.
The other hot topic Tuesday: support of law enforcement. To no one’s surprise, the Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association President John Rivera — a longtime nemesis who famously said he would back a “Martian” against Fernández Rundle — is supporting Vereen.
Vereen pointed out that he also has the support of former Miami-Dade Police Director Robert Parker, and “just because I have the backing of the PBA, that does not mean I will turn a blind eye to police misconduct and corruption.”
Fernández Rundle, who is supported by the Fraternal Order of Police, said the relationship between prosecutors and police is thriving, and the “rank-and-file” of the county’s largest police union supports her.
As for juvenile justice, Vereen said prosecutors charge too many minors as adults without properly reviewing evidence.
“Instead of seeing kids thrown into the adult system where they’re treated as adults and sometimes sent off to prison, I prefer to see those kids put into some type of program,” Vereen said.
Fernández Rundle countered by saying that the use of non-criminal civil citations has increased while juvenile arrests have dropped from 22,000 in 1993 to just 7,000 last year.
“In the area of juvenile justice, we have made remarkable strides,” she said.
Vereen also criticized the case of NFL receiver Donté Stallworth, who pleaded guilty in 2009 to DUI manslaughter for running over a pedestrian on the MacArthur Causeway. Stallworth spent one month in jail, and got two years of house arrest and eight years of probation.
Vereen said the plea deal was too lenient — and that Stallworth prevailed because he paid a settlement to the victim’s family.
“Personally, I would not have allowed that,” Vereen said. “I think it sends a message to the community that when you have money, you can avoid incarceration.”
Fernández Rundle bristled at the notion, saying detractors have “twisted” the facts of the case. In reality, she said, the case was not an easy one to win because the pedestrian was not in the crosswalk and his family wanted to avoid a trial that would have replayed video surveillance of the accident.
“The family didn’t want to see their father’s death played over and over again on videotape,” Fernández Rundle said.