A Miami city commissioner who successfully fought a pair of political corruption charges delivered a punch to the prosecutor and a longtime political foe, lodging dramatic accusations against two heavyweights in Miami’s political establishment.
Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones launched a legal offensive Monday against Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle and Mayor Tomás Regalado, claiming they plotted to destroy her political career and ruin her reputation.
In a federal lawsuit, Spence-Jones’ lawyers accuse Fernández Rundle, lead prosecutor Richard Scruggs and a state attorney’s investigator of fabricating evidence and misleading key witnesses — including developer Armando Codina and former County Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler — to back up their ultimately unsuccessful corruption cases.
Spence-Jones, 45, was acquitted in one case. The charges were dropped in the second prosecution.
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The suit claims that Fernández Rundle’s goal amounted to a “shocking, nefarious scheme” to remove Spence-Jones from the city commission from 2009-11 as a favor for the state attorney’s ally, Regalado, so that Spence-Jones, his nemesis, could be replaced by another politician to represent Miami’s black community in District 5.
“Even by the sometimes sordid standards of Miami politics, the Rundle-Regalado conspiracy stands out for its brazenness,” the 106-page complaint says. “As a result of defendants’ prosecution-laden brand of power politics, Spence-Jones’ life was virtually destroyed. She lost her liberty, her job, her reputation.”
Spence-Jones’ racketeering conspiracy suit claims the defendants violated her civil rights while carrying out a malicious prosecution. She is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
Fernández Rundle, in a prepared statement Monday, said: “We will review the complaint and will respond and challenge it at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner.”
Regalado said Monday the suit came as a surprise because he had not been served, and all he knew was what he read on The Miami Herald’s website.
“This is an issue between her and the state attorney,” the mayor said, adding: “The fact is, I hope I’m called to testify under oath that I never spoke to Fernández-Rundle about Michelle Spence-Jones — ever.’’
The suit cites several examples of the state attorney’s office colluding with City Hall power-brokers to crush Spence-Jones, a former aide to ex-Mayor Manny Diaz, who was elected for the first time to the city commission in 2005 and for the second time in 2009.
According to Spence-Jones’ suit, Fernández Rundle called Miami City Attorney Julie Bru to discuss the timing of charging the commissioner, with an eye toward keeping her off the dais for a year after she was sworn in for a second term on Nov. 12, 2009. After she was charged, the governor suspended Spence-Jones, precluding her from running until the next election.
On Nov. 13, 2009, the state attorney charged another commissioner, Angel Gonzalez, who agreed to resign from office. But Fernández Rundle, the suit alleges, reached out to the city attorney again, urging her to ask Gonzalez if he could return for a few more days so that the five-member City Commission would have a quorum of three to appoint Spence-Jones’ temporary replacement. Gonzalez refused to participate.
“Rundle had no legitimate reason to attempt to influence Mrs. Bru on a commission matter, to create a quorum on the commission, or to help Regalado pick his ally to fill Spence-Jones’ seat,” according to the suit.
Voters in August retained Fernández Rundle, the county’s top prosecutor since she was appointed to replace Janet Reno in 1993. She was challenged in the Democratic primary by defense attorney Rod Vereen, who was actively supported by Spence-Jones. No Republican or independent candidate filed to run.
Vereen used the failed Spence-Jones case as a campaign rally point, saying he would end “political prosecutions.”
Spence-Jones has endured at least six separate criminal investigations, ethics and campaign violations, two grand jury indictments, a fight in civil court to retain her seat and the successful defense at her bribery trial.
Spence-Jones, who represents Overtown, Liberty City and Little Haiti, was arrested for the first time in November 2009 and charged with grand theft stemming from her days as a city aide.
The investigation centered on $75,000 in grants from the Miami-Dade Action Plan Trust, or MMAP, a quasi-county agency that administers grants to community groups. In September 2004, Barbara Carey-Shuler, then-chairwoman of the county commission, directed the agency to award a total of $25,000 grants to three groups.
Carey-Shuler, in a letter, later asked MMAP to re-direct the other $50,000 to Spence-Jones’ family company. Carey-Shuler initially told prosecutors that the letter was a fake and the money was never supposed to go to Spence-Jones — spurring the arrest of Spence-Jones.
But Spence-Jones’ criminal defense attorney, Peter Raben, uncovered in county files an early draft of the letter with Carey-Shuler’s handwritten notes in the margin. Carey-Shuler then admitted she likely had authored the memo after all. Prosecutors dropped the case.
In a final close-out memo in August, lead prosecutor Scruggs suggested the draft letter was planted by Spence-Jones or a surrogate after her arrest. Raben called the allegation “grossly offensive.’’
In March of 2010, Spence-Jones was accused of illegally soliciting a $25,000 bribe from Miami developer Codina in 2006, using a pending commission vote as leverage to squeeze him for money for a nonprofit organization she ran from her office.
But Spence-Jones maintained the donation was legal and made to benefit her constituents. During trial in March 2011, Codina blasted Scruggs from the witness stand, insisting the prosecutor repeatedly lied to him about key details of the solicitation. The commissioner was acquitted.
Scruggs was eventually reassigned and is now prosecuting murder cases.
“As a result of what the defendants did, Michelle Spence-Jones lost two years of her life,” according to the suit, filed by Coral Gables lawyer Ray Taseff and New York law firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady.
A former Miami-Dade assistant state attorney who reviewed the case said it was more than just a lawsuit. “It’s a declaration of war,” said attorney Peter Walsh.
But he added: “A malicious prosecution case is extremely hard to prove because it’s designed that way. You have to prove a negative — an absence of probable cause.”