Miami's Prosecutor Previously Recused Herself From FIU Case for Conflicts of Interest

Miami's Prosecutor Previously Recused Herself From FIU Case for Conflicts of Interest
Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office / Michele Eve Sandberg

Barely a day after Florida International University's pedestrian bridge collapsed and killed six people, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle told multiple news stations she had already all but ruled out charging anyone with crimes over the deaths. She made that flabbergasting statement without even interviewing a single witness, while rescuers were still working to pull bodies from the rubble.

"Charges are probably the most improbable at this point," she told WSVN News, because "it's a very difficult standard to prove a crime happened. And that's why usually there are places for some kind of seeking of justice in the civil arena."

But there's a legitimate question about whether Rundle should even be allowed to decide whether charges are appropriate in this case. In 2000, she recused her office from another case involving FIU, telling New Times she had a "conflict of interest" with the university because she worked closely with FIU and its then president, Modesto "Mitch" Maidique, in setting up FIU's law school.

“I believe that a conflict exists as to this office carrying out its prosecutorial duties,” Rundle wrote in a July 28, 2000 letter to then-Gov. Jeb Bush. “Therefore to avoid the appearance of impropriety, I am requesting that an executive assignment be made regarding this matter.”

Eighteen years later, is Rundle now far enough separated from FIU that she can impartially judge this case? Maidique is no longer the president but remains a business professor at the school and is the university's "president emeritus" heavily involved in university affairs. He's even still speaking to the media about the bridge collapse. In the 2000 case, Rundle said she was too close to him to properly gauge whether he and FIU had committed campaign-finance violations.

Rundle also has financial connections to figures closely tied to the bridge project. State records show that Maidique's son Mark and another family member, Lea, have both donated small amounts of money to Rundle's campaigns over the years.

And two family members tied to Munilla Construction Management — the lead contractor on the failed bridge — donated a total of $1,250 to Rundle's last campaign, according to state records.

New Times has asked Rundle's office why she thinks she can fairly prosecute this case. A spokesperson in her office didn't immediately respond to that question.

But Miami's top prosecutor is already walking back her comments about the improbability of charging anyone in the bridge collapse.

"My broadly intended statement focusing on the difficulty of proving these extremely technical cases appears to have been misunderstood," she said in a statement. "I was expressing only the complexities and barriers based on my experience charging and prosecuting both the ValueJet case and the electrocution death of 12-year-old Jorge Luis Cabrera at the Eller Media bus shelter. I have firsthand experience with how difficult and technical these cases can be. However, once the investigation has determined the exact cause of the bridge collapse and who should be accountable after all the evidence has been compiled, I am prepared to go wherever the evidence leads as has always been the case. No one should doubt that."

Rundle's office also provided a list of every step local prosecutors have taken so far in the case, including sending senior prosecutors to the accident site to "track the progress of the recovery" and to coordinate with Miami-Dade Police. At best, it appears Rundle's statements to the media Friday undercut the efforts of her own staff.

It will likely take months to determine whether the main entities involved in the collapsed bridge — FIU, Figg Bridge Group, the Florida Department of Transportation, and Munilla Construction Management — did anything wrong. But that isn't the point.

Within one day's time, the person chiefly in charge of determining whether these six deaths were caused by criminal negligence, institutional corruption, or gross mismanagement already told the media she was unlikely to press charges. People do often get charged with crimes or go to prison after construction accidents — a Philadelphia crane operator pleaded guilty to six counts of manslaughter after he showed up to work stoned and proceeded to send portions of a brick wall flying into an adjacent Salvation Army store.

A multitude of things could have gone wrong in the FIU bridge case, including mistakes that might amount to a criminal offense. Yet Rundle has already telegraphed that she'll unlikely follow through in those cases.

This would be stunning if it weren't indicative of how she has handled cases involving wealthy and powerful people since she took office in 1993. If you've got some cash and know a few people in town, Rundle will absolutely treat you differently from, say, a 19-year-old black kid caught with some weed. This is an open secret across Miami-Dade County.
Take a look at who is involved in the FIU catastrophe: Munilla Construction Management, the firm that installed the bridge two weekends ago, is debatably the most politically connected construction firm in all of Miami. Members of the massive Munilla clan regularly pose for photos with community leaders and politicians, and, more significant, shower money on local politicos no matter their political stances.

In Rundle's case, state records show that Laura and Jacquelyn Munilla donated a total of $1,250 to Rundle's last campaign in 2016, when she ran unopposed. That's a drop in the bucket for a politician who's been in power for 25 years, but that sum doesn't count any cash that might have been routed through lobbying firms or other middlemen and doesn't fully explain the Munilla family's full influence over county politics.

The Munillas rain cash on county politicians left and right, and Rundle is infamously close to the centers of Miami-Dade power, from Mayor Carlos Gimenez on down. As New Times noted last week, the Munillas reportedly donated more than $25,000 to local campaigns in the 2017 election cycle alone and at one point employed two of Gimenez's sons. That level of influence in county politics would make rubbing shoulders with Rundle or her employees inevitable.

Case in point: Rundle and multiple members of the Munilla family — including Jacquelyn, Laura, Madeleine, Julian, James, and the über-powerful patriarch, Jorge — hobnobbed at the same American Cancer Society fundraiser and gala in 2015, where Laura Munilla received an award.

There's also the question of the state's involvement in the disaster. Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) have both claimed the state had little to no control over the actions of FIU and the construction companies. But as records obtained by the Miami Herald today show, that's a lie: FDOT was heavily involved in the project throughout the entire construction process.

One of Rundle's singular achievements through her 25-year reign in Dade is doing virtually all she can to protect state and local officials who've killed people. She's never charged an on-duty cop for killing someone in 25 years. Her office routinely lets police-shooting investigations hang open for years. Her team bent over backward to avoid charging the four state prison guards involved in the scalding-hot-shower death of schizophrenic inmate Darren Rainey. (Rundle's own Miami-Dade County Democratic Party asked her to resign over the Rainey verdict, but she simply shrugged off their request and moved on.)

This past Friday, she likely let the cat out of the bag once more that the well-connected people involved in this tragedy won't be treated too roughly either.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.