Miami-Dade ethics board rebukes two city of Miami commissioners

The county ethics commission dinged Miami Commissioner Frank Carollo this week for phoning the police chief after Carollo was pulled over for a traffic stop.

Separately, Miami Commission Vice Chairman Marc Sarnoff was reprimanded for not filing a gift disclosure when the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau paid his way to Brazil.

Sarnoff said his travels did not constitute a gift because he carried out public business. “I did everything I could do, including getting legal advice, to determine that the trip was not a gift,” he said.

Carollo denied wrongdoing in a response to the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust written by his attorney. He declined comment Wednesday.

The grievance against Carollo said that he called Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa during a traffic stop in Coconut Grove in August. Carollo was pulled over after attempting to drive his black Lexus around a stopped recycling truck. He called the chief, who called the district commander, who reached out to the officer making the traffic stop.

The officer let Carollo go with a warning.

In the written response to the ethics commission, Carollo’s attorney said the commissioner had never asked Orosa for special treatment. Rather, Carollo called the chief “to inquire ‘what the problem was’ since the circumstances seemed odd.”

The “odd circumstances” included another car stop in the area.

“Commissioner Carollo’s request for a status [report] was well within his authority to communicate with the police chief, and was not accompanied by any request to obtain any resolution of the vehicle stop,” attorney Benedict Kuehne wrote.

Kuehne added: “The officer made the very reasonable decision to issue no traffic citation because the circumstances did not warrant the issuance of a ticket.”

Orosa also told investigators that Carollo had not asked for any favors.

But the ethics commission concluded that Carollo “clearly intended to use his influence with the police chief to avoid a traffic citation.”

“There was no legitimate reason for Carollo to call the chief of police other than to put into motion a chain of events that Carollo hoped would extricate him from a traffic situation that ordinary citizens find themselves in every day,” the ethics commission wrote.

The complaint against Sarnoff involved a trip he and his wife took to Brazil in April.

The pair went to watch the yachts in the Volvo Ocean Race depart Itajai for Miami, the next port of call. Sarnoff also travelled to Rio and Sao Paulo, with the Convention & Visitors Bureau footing the bill for his travel, lodging and meals.

Sarnoff did not disclose the trip as a gift, nor did he disclose that the Volvo Ocean Race had reimbursed him for his wife’s roundtrip airfare.

Sarnoff said he was acting on advice from Miami City Attorney Julie O. Bru. In a legal opinion, Bru said disclosure was unnecessary because the trip did not constitute a gift, but rather city business.

“I never held this secret,” Sarnoff said. “I did everything I was supposed to do. I talked about it openly.” He described the trip as “105 percent work.”

As for Teresa Sarnoff’s travel expenses, Marc Sarnoff said they, too, were incurred during “official” city business.

“The commissioner was unquestionably assisted in his official duties by Ms. Sarnoff and he quite honestly believed that Ms. Sarnoff was conducting city business,” Sarnoff’s attorney, John Dellagloria, wrote in a response to the ethics commission’s findings.

The ethics commission has said that elected officials don’t have to declare tickets to local events they attend for professional reasons. But according to the final report on the Sarnoff case, “all-expense paid trips to distant and exotic locales deserve different consideration since the grandiose scale of the gift creates a larger appearance of impropriety.”

The ethics commission will send a letter to Sarnoff suggesting he report his wife’s travel expenses as a gift. Another letter will be sent to the Miami city attorney to clarify when business trips must be reported as gifts.

The two complaints were filed last month by blogger Al Crespo.

Sarnoff also took a trip to China this year, where he watched the Miami Heat play a preseason game against the Los Angeles Clippers. In October, Sarnoff said the Heat paid for his flight and hotel. On Wednesday, he said the Shanghai Sports Bureau paid for him and his wife.

He now plans to declare that trip as a gift, he said.