North Bay Village Fires Detective Who Got Mayor's Friend Arrested on Fraud Charges

In January, Miami-Dade prosecutors charged 42-year-old Ana Watson with four felonies for allegedly stealing thousands from the North Bay Village condo board where she served as treasurer. The charges came after months of work by Det. Tom Columbano, a 30-year veteran who pieced together the alleged scheme to pass off Photoshopped checks.

Four months later, Columbano is now out of a job, and his former boss, who was also abruptly canned last week, says both got the ax in part because of Watson's arrest. That's because Watson is tight friends with Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps, who has appointed her to three advisory boards in the village.

"Do I believe my firing was connected to both the Ana Watson case and to the other public corruption cases I was investigating?" says Sam Bejar, a retired Miami Beach Police officer who headed the village's internal affairs and corruption cases. "Absolutely. Unequivocally."

Columbano's firing is just the latest questionable move by leaders of the small village, which encompasses two islands on the 79th Street Causeway. The municipality has been in turmoil since last year, when a sitting commissioner revealed someone was trying to blackmail him over old cocaine charges — an admission that sparked an ongoing state public corruption probe of which the mayor is reportedly a subject.

In the months since, Leon-Kreps has threatened to sue a blogger reporting about the case and forced out the village manager and his staff. Her handpicked city manager, meanwhile, has fired the police chief — who says he has whistleblower protection for reporting corruption cases — and terminated Bejar, who was heading the probe into the cocaine-blackmail plot.

Now Columbano's April 26 firing raises new questions about the mayor and her ties to Watson. Columbano declined to comment for this story. In an email, Leon-Kreps said, "I have no comment about any termination and/or litigation."

In late 2016, Columbano began looking into Watson, who served as treasurer of the board at the Bays Water Condo at 7945 East Dr. A condo resident handed over copies of several checks she believed Watson had forged, noting the check numbers didn't match.

Columbano spoke to the owners of contractors to whom the checks were made out and learned they'd never received the funds. He also learned that Watson had insisted on personally signing and picking up all checks issued by the condo board. Columbano obtained a subpoena for Watson's mother's bank account, which he says Watson uses, and found deposits that matched the amounts on the bogus checks.

On January 8, prosecutors charged her with four felonies and alleged she'd stolen a total of $6,500 from her condo board. She was arrested on the outstanding warrant two weeks later.

But throughout the investigation and charges, Watson played an outsize role in city government thanks to her friendship with the mayor, Bejar says. Leon-Kreps appointed Watson — who has no known form of employment, according to prosecutors — to the village's Arts, Cultural & Events and Community Enhancement Boards in 2016; she also snagged a seat on the Advisory Charter Review Board.

But her influence went even further than board seats, Bejar says.

"Watson helped [the mayor] actively in her campaign," Bejar says. "Then, even though she wasn't a village employee, she had free rein of the village offices. She'd hang out in the building department and have access to all these permits and zoning documents whenever she wanted."

When Frank Rollason, a former City of Miami manager and fire chief, was hired as manager, he booted Watson from city offices, Bejar says — a move that enraged Leon-Kreps and helped spark the war that led to Rollason's ouster in January.

Marlen Martell, a former North Miami Beach commissioner, has cleaned out the police force since she was hired to replace Rollason. Bejar says he was given no reason for his own firing last week.

But his suspicion that his termination was linked to his work on public corruption cases was confirmed in part, he says, after Columbano's firing last week.

"On the day he was fired, as he was walked down the stairs to his car, Ana Watson shows up and just watches him exit the building and drive off," Bejar says. "Clearly, she was told this was happening."

Bejar says Columbano's firing could seriously affect prosecutors' chances of winning their case against Watson. Columbano still had an open case file for his investigation and would be a key witness if the case goes to trial.

Watson, who didn't answer calls to her listed phone number, has a plea hearing scheduled June 7. She is still serving on all three city boards to which the mayor appointed her.
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink