Is suspended Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones a victim of racism?
Michelle Spence-Jones, wearing a red and black dress, black stockings, and no shoes, stood in the middle of her Liberty City home's wood-floored living room. It was close to 1 p.m. this past Friday the 13th. Fourteen friends and family members — all African-American — gathered around and listened raptly. She spoke authoritatively, gesticulating with both hands, her long black dreadlocks bouncing to the beat of her high-pitched voice.
"It is amazing how wicked the timing of this whole thing was," Spence-Jones railed. "They knew I had a swearing-in ceremony. They had at least ten days since I was re-elected to tell me that they had something on Spence-Jones — that I had to come in."
Earlier that morning, law enforcement authorities arrested the 42-year-old Miami city commissioner on one count of second-degree grand theft. She is accused of stealing $22,000 in county grant money. By the time she bonded out of jail, Gov. Charlie Crist had suspended her from the commission post.
"This allows the governor to step in," Spence-Jones continued. "And the governor is going to put in his own person, someone who can be controlled."
Everyone in the room either nodded in agreement or let out an emphatic "Yeah!"
"We cannot lay down," Spence-Jones continued. "We will not lay down. All this craziness they made up about Spence-Jones is gonna go away. But we must continue to fight. We must send a message to the new mayor to make sure we get the best person to represent District 5. We must tell the governor: 'Mr. Charlie Crist, you cannot tell us who is going to represent District 5.'"
A backer, Miami architect Neil Hall, put his arm around her. "I love your spirit," he said.
"What did you think?" Spence-Jones responded. "That you were coming to a funeral? This is no time to be moping."
The Spence-Jones takedown capped the most tumultuous week in city political history since the 1997 mayoral voter fraud scandal. It began November 10, when police Chief John Timoney relinquished his job just as Tomas Regalado took the mayor's office. And it ended with only two city commissioners on the dais — one short of a quorum. Angel Gonzalez announced he would resign this past Wednesday after admitting he secured his daughter a no-show job with a city contractor. Another empty seat awaits a runoff.
Unlike Gonzalez, Spence-Jones will take on Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and public corruption assistant state prosecutor Richard Scruggs, who built the case against her.
During her swearing-in ceremony last Thursday, before a roomful of supporters, Spence-Jones alluded to past investigations of black elected officials. "They did it to Commissioner [Miller] Dawkins," she blasted. "They did it to Commissioner [Arthur] Teele... I'm standing here right now to let you know they're doing it to me, but guess what? But guess what? They don't know this nappy-headed child of God has her armor on." She also accused Fernandez Rundle and Scruggs of conducting a "public lynching."
"It's sad that anybody should be thinking in those terms," Fernandez Rundle said during a press conference two hours after Spence-Jones returned home. "The credibility of the testimony [against Spence-Jones] will be addressed by a judge or a jury. We feel it will hold up."
It might seem that Spence-Jones, like Marion Barry, Dawkins, and others, is just playing the race card in the face of aggressive prosecution. But consider the following: She is the only black woman on the commission. Neither the governor nor the prosecutors are African-American — or have top black advisors. Even those flanking Rundle at the press conference announcing the indictment were white or Hispanic.
And this past May, law enforcers cleared Spence-Jones in four investigations for allegations of bribery, illegal kickbacks, and inappropriate influencing of personnel decisions. "No evidence," a prosecutor declared back then.
The only claim left is tenuous at best. "The state attorney is relying on witnesses who have personal grudges against Michelle and who have given inconsistent statements," says her attorney, Richard Alayon. "Yes, Michelle and her family put the money into one account, but at the end of the day, the money was used for its intended purpose: to renovate a crack house."
A Liberty City native, Spence-Jones burst onto Miami's political scene during the early part of the decade as a protégé of longtime Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler. She immediately attracted scrutiny. In 2003, after then-Miami Mayor Manny Diaz hired Spence-Jones to oversee grants for special events, she was reprimanded for using city phones and a city email address to promote a band she managed.
In 2005, shortly after Spence-Jones was elected the first time, the Florida Election Commission fined her $8,000 because she failed to report $24,000 paid to campaign workers and used for other expenses. The Miami-Dade ethics commission subsequently demanded $500 and reprimanded her when it discovered she did not disclose financial ties to a law firm where Diaz occasionally worked.
Then this past spring, prosecutors absolved Spence-Jones of claims she had forced a developer to hire Carey-Shuler and another confidante, Barbara Hardemon, for $100,000 in exchange for her city commission vote. At the time, a relieved Spence-Jones said, "It's been almost two years of headaches and heartaches, all based on innuendos and false allegations."
But state prosecutors did not give up. There remained a criminal probe into a $75,000 grant received by a company controlled by Spence-Jones and her immediate family. The money was set aside for renovating a crack house on NW Seventh Avenue at NW 49th Street into a hair salon, day spa, art gallery, and café.
Fernandez Rundle claims Spence-Jones submitted phony documents to divert $50,000 in taxpayer money for herself and her family. According to the arrest affidavit, she deposited the funds into a bank account that held personal and other grant funds, including $8,000 in consulting fees she had collected from Friends of MLK, a nonprofit organization run by her pastor, Rev. Gaston Smith. He was charged this past February with using Friends of MLK grants to pay for a lavish lifestyle. (Smith has claimed the $8,000 he paid Spence-Jones was a kickback. Spence-Jones counters she earned the money by fundraising.)
Spence-Jones and family members used $35,000 from that account to pay for, among other things, an American Express bill that included charges for air travel, hotel stays, restaurants, pet care, shoes, groceries, and automobile repairs.
One of the keys to the state's case is the testimony of Carey-Shuler, who claims she never authored a letter Spence-Jones submitted to obtain the funds. According to the arrest affidavit: "In fact, Ms. Carey-Shuler stated that she was 'shocked' that Michelle Spence-Jones had gotten the funds.'"
Alayon says the evidence won't hold up. Carey-Shuler called him to say her comments "were taken out of context," he explains.
Other witnesses hold a grudge against Spence-Jones because she wouldn't help them recover unpaid architectural fees, says community activist Leroy Jones. "Michelle wouldn't back them up," he reports.
Prosecutors' biggest problem might be that the Seventh Avenue property was rehabilitated. The hair salon and spa are there today, propping up a troubled neighborhood.
Back at her Liberty City compound, Spence-Jones asserted that "every quarter" that went into renovating the building is "accounted for."
Furthermore, her mother, Yvonne Lowe, interjected, the family invested in the venture. "I put all of my retirement money into it," she said. "My son, Anthony, mortgaged his house. We're talking close to $100,000 that we put in."
Looking up at her daughter, Lowe promised that Spence-Jones will clear her name and return to office. "People don't know Michelle," Lowe said. "But now they gonna find out who she is."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.