Michelle Spence-Jones Sued For Allegedly Sabotaging Liberty City Project In Kickback Scheme UPDATED
Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones beat bribery and grand theft charges, and returned to office. Now we'll see if she proves as invincible in civil court.
Two former witnesses in the criminal case, who claimed that she used forgery to divert a $25,000 grant that was supposed to go to their Liberty City community development project Osun's Village, have filed a lawsuit against Spence-Jones. Harlan Woodard and Nathaniel Styles say that she tried to take over the project. When they resisted, she used her political connections to sabotage it.
Spence-Jones only wanted to "control the money," according to the complaint, "and potentially get a portion of said funding as a kick back."
Update: Spence-Jones tells Riptide that the allegations are "so false"-- and calls the suit a smoke screen by Woodard and Styles because they never completed work for which they received payment from the city. "They owe money, and that's what this is about," says the commissioner. "They got paid $80,000 by the city for the project [in LIberty City]. They never delivered the plans."
Woodard and Styles, who own the architectural outfit Kwaku Design International, tell New Times that they first got mixed up with Spence-Jones in 2005, when she hired them to renovate a building for her Cafe Soul.
That didn't end well when Spence-Jones refused to pay a bill, says Woodard: "She must have expected us to do it for free."
The architectural partners would secure more than a million dollars in public funding for Osun's Village. According to the complaint, Spence-Jones tried to force them to go through her for funding and permiting, and to work with Friends of MLK -- the Liberty City charity run by Rev. Gaston Smith, the pastor later convicted of grand theft.
They resisted, which is when, the complaint claims, the commissioner used her sway with City Hall honchos, including Community Development Director Barbara Gomez-Rodriguez, to "maliciously and erroneously" block KDI from receiving payment for various public projects.
The way Woodard and Styles describe it, Liberty City was controlled by something like a political mafia. In order for any publicly-funded project to succeed, a cadre led by Spence-Jones and Gaston Smith had to get a taste.
"We weren't the types to just bow our heads and go ahead with whatever Spence-Jones wanted," Woodard says. "That rubbed her and a lot of other people the wrong way. They were successful in stopping us from proceeding."
"We like money like anybody else," he adds. "But more than that, we like to sleep at night."
Spence-Jones didn't respond to a message Riptide left on her cell phone. One telling document from the new lawsuit: A court server attempted to hit the commissioner with papers several times at her office in City Hall. She "was never in." Eventually, the server gave up when somebody at City Hall told him that she "is rarely in the office."
We reached Spence-Jones late this morning. "My family-- we have gone so much over the last years," she said. "All we ask is that we are treated fairly."
Update 2: George Mensah, director of Miami's Department of Community Development, sent a terse response to this post:
This is in response to the article in the Miami New Times posted online on Tuesday, November 15, 2011. As a journalist, the public rely on the fact that stories will be well researched to give the public an unbiased view of the article. A phone call to the City of Miami's Community Development Department or better yet, a simple public records request would have provided you all the information about the project in question and could have afforded you an opportunity to make an independent judgment on the absurdity of the lawsuit in question. A one sided article from information provided by an individual, who obviously has an axe to grind, and not verifying the information they provided does a disservice to your readers. Since there is a pending lawsuit, I will not go into too much detail on the entire project. I can only say that the decision to cancel the project was made by me as the director of the department without any direction or communication from Commissioner Spence-Jones. The de-obligation of the project occurred at the City Commission meeting on June 17, 2010 when Commissioner Spence-Jones was not even the Commissioner for District 5 and therefore could not have had any input in that decision. Messrs Woodard and Styles had a $75,000 contract for architectural drawings, permits and construction management services for the project. From September 22nd, 2005 when the $500,000 project was approved (not $1 million as stated by the article)and funding allocated at City Commission to June 17th, 2010, when the project was de-funded, Messrs Woodard and Styles were unable to provide a permit for the project after receiving more than $71,000 of a $75,000 contract. If anyone should be sued on this project, it is the architects who have been paid a substantial amount of money for work that has not been done. This lawsuit is just an attempt to confuse the issues relating to their inability to fulfill the terms of their contract with Neighbors and Neighbors Association, Inc. (NANA). This article would have been about the use of the court system to obfuscate issues when they are definitely in the wrong. This lawsuit will not deter the City from pursuing these individuals to repay the money provided for services that were not rendered. We will pursue all available avenues to collect the more than $71,000 of public funds misappropriated by these individuals.