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On Monday, November 26, Miami city Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones stood before a few hundred constituents in the auditorium of Booker T. Washington High School in Overtown. Before she spoke, a slick video touted her successful first year in office, the school's marching band played a gospel number, and staffers handed out glossy flyers outlining her agenda.
Spence-Jones's speech was long on metaphor and short on detail. She talked about her grandmother's bread pudding, the need for affordable housing, and crime reduction. There were tired phrases such as "quality of life," "essential building blocks of the future," and the clunky "tangible, achievable, measurable, community-driven." The catch phrase for the evening, which she had printed on buttons handed out to everyone in the room, was "Wake Up!"
"It's time, Miami, to wake up!" she told the cheering audience.
Indeed it's time for Miami to wake up and check out Spence-Jones. She is poised to join the ranks of city commissioners — Art Teele, Miller Dawkins, Humberto Hernandez — who have been charged with corruption. The reasons: ethical lapses and potentially shady deals.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office is investigating Spence-Jones on several fronts. The charges are so serious that art patron and developer Marty Margulies has raised some $11,000 for her defense. The embattled commissioner has also hired former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey as her lawyer, according to the South Florida Business Journal, which has published several stories on Spence-Jones's woes. "I believe in her," says Margulies, who founded the Overtown Youth Center and has contributed about $1 million to Lotus House, a shelter for homeless pregnant women and their children. Both organizations are located in Spence-Jones's district.
Among the investigations:
• The Florida Election Commission is studying whether Spence-Jones improperly paid $24,000 in cash to campaign workers and for other expenses during the 2005 election. Last year the commission found probable cause to further probe the matter.
• State prosecutors are looking into whether her campaign improperly accepted $18,000 from the now-defunct Black Business Association, a nonprofit group, to organize a concert while she was an urban affairs advisor for Miami Mayor Manny Diaz.
• The state is also studying whether she was paid to vote for a Coconut Grove condo project sponsored by the Related Group.
• Finally investigators are looking at a $75,000 county grant to the Yellow Moon Salon and Day Spa on NW Seventh Avenue, which is owned by the commissioner's brother, Rick. Part of the money was handed out while Spence-Jones was a city commissioner.
"People had such high hopes for her," sighs Denise Perry of Power U., a group that works for social and economic justice in Miami's inner-city neighborhoods. "Some have been disappointed."
Spence-Jones didn't return calls from New Times seeking comment for this story; Kotelis Alexander, the commissioner's senior legislative policy advisor, said she was out of town. "I'm not sure she is certain what the state attorney is investigating," says Alexander. "To my knowledge, she has not been subpoenaed."
Reached at his home Monday, Margulies said money he raised during a one-night gathering in November will help Spence-Jones pay for legal bills stemming from issues that occurred "before she was a commissioner." The elections violations, Margulies says, cropped up when Spence-Jones paid campaign workers in cash — but many of those workers were low-income folks who didn't have checking accounts. "She thought she was doing the right thing," he adds.
Indeed Spence-Jones seems at once earnest and naive. Born in Liberty City, she became in 2005 the first black woman elected as a Miami commissioner in 40 years. Prior to taking office, she was an advisor to Mayor Diaz; she publicly calls him one of her "political mentors."
Questions about Spence-Jones's conduct have been around for years. During the 2005 campaign, the Miami Herald reported that when the commissioner worked for Diaz's office, she was reprimanded "for not disclosing a private event promotions business she operated while also heading the city's special events department. The reprimand noted that Spence-Jones represented a band, Jezibel, that had been booked for a city event."
Frank Rollason, former assistant city manager and head of the Community Redevelopment Agency, says he recently spoke with State Attorney's Office investigators about Spence-Jones's tenure as advisor to Mayor Diaz. Rollason recalls Spence-Jones asking him in 2004 for CRA money to book bands on at least two occasions; both times he said no. "I told her that really wasn't in the purview of what the CRA did," he says.
After Spence-Jones was elected in November 2005, Rollason says, she came to him a third time, asking for $10,000 to help pay for a cocktail reception for what he calls a "girl empowerment" event. Rollason denied the request. "She was the only one who really did something like that," he says.
Rollason, who is no longer with the CRA, won't disclose exactly what prosecutors asked him about the commissioner. He says the prosecutors also interviewed James Villacorta, who followed him as CRA chief, as well as employees of the city's legal department. Villacorta could not be reached for comment.
Rollason adds that Spence-Jones seems to be well aware of the seriousness of the investigation. "People don't start a defense fund if they don't have something to defend," he says.
Moreover, just last week, prosecutors seized all the computer files from the Metro Miami Action Plan office on Flagler Street. The group, which helps low-income folks with housing and healthcare, doled out $75,000 to Spence-Jones's brother's business. County Manager George Burgess is expected to make recommendations for upgrading the agency's recordkeeping soon.
Curiously the second-in-command at MMAP is John Dixon, who was also the executive director of the Black Business Association. A MMAP spokeswoman couldn't comment about Dixon or the investigation.
During her November 26 speech, the 40-year-old Spence-Jones didn't mention her legal troubles. She did, however, say she's had to "cope with a hostile press" and listen to "naysayers and constant complainers."
She added, "When you are a public official — especially when you're young, black, and elected — people will always find fault with what you do."