Update, April 5, 11:55 p.m.: After New Times published the story below, Benedict Kuehne, an attorney representing Miami City Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla, sent a letter demanding a retraction.
The article includes an allegation by Suzann Nicholson, a City of Miami code-compliance officer, that Diaz de la Portilla physically “poked and pushed” her as she was attempting to investigate a report of an illegal party at an Allapattah warehouse in the early hours of February 21. Nicholson has alleged that her encounter with the commissioner resulted in an injury to her hip.
New Times has since reviewed body-worn camera footage from three City of Miami police officers who were present at the scene. Some of the footage depicts Nicholson interacting with Diaz de la Portilla, but it does not show any physical confrontation between the two.
New Times stands by our report of the incident.
Update, April 1, 2:25 p.m.: This story has been updated to include further comment from commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla.
A City of Miami employee has come forth to allege that city commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla poked and pushed her while he was attending an after-hours party in Allapattah in February. The woman says she lost her footing and sprained her hip, an injury that has required physical therapy.
Suzann Nicholson, who at the time was a code-compliance inspector for the City of Miami, tells New Times she was participating in a joint operation with the Miami Police Department (MPD), investigating reports of nightclubs and pop-up strip clubs operating without permits and in violation of Miami-Dade County's midnight curfew. The curfew was established last year as a COVID-19 safety measure and remains in effect.
On the night of February 21, Nicholson and MPD officers were assigned to investigate a club at 772 NW 22nd St. in an industrial area of Allapattah, which was allegedly operating without permits or licenses. The building is normally occupied by a company that sells pallets, but according to records obtained by New Times, the space was being used as a party venue with a bar and a VIP section. Photos provided along with the records indicate that the event that night was called "Museum Miami."
When Nicholson asked security guards for the club's licenses or special-events permits, she says, she was introduced to an unexpected figure: Commissioner Diaz de la Portilla.
"Instead of them bringing me the documents, they brought me the commissioner. He was wearing a facemask with a City of Miami emblem," Nicholson tells New Times.
Nicholson says Diaz de la Portilla approached her and asked her who she was. When she told him she was a city code inspector, she says, he started to poke and push her aggressively and told her that "[her] kind was not welcome here."
Nicholson says she attempted to explain that she was performing an inspection at the instruction of the city code compliance director, but Diaz de la Portilla kept poking her until she stepped back, wrenching her hip in the process.
"When I went to step back the last time, he was gonna push me. I said, 'Don't touch me, stop touching me.' In stepping back, I twisted my left hip," Nicholson recounts.
Reached by New Times via text, Diaz de la Portilla denied Nicholson's allegation.
"This never happened. I attend dozens of events. I have never pushed anyone at these events. Never. And you have no evidence of this because it does not exist," Diaz de la Portilla stated in a text.
A photo Nicholson shot at the event that night — provided to New Times in response to a public-records request — shows a man Nicholson says is the commissioner, without a mask, standing in a barricaded section of the venue near three scantily clad women. The photo's timestamp is 12:24 a.m., nearly 30 minutes past the county's curfew.
Nicholson says the officers who accompanied her pulled the commissioner aside and spoke to him but took no further action. She says Diaz de la Portilla then put his hand on her shoulder and told her he just wanted to do what he needed to do to get her to leave the venue.
MPD spokesperson Michael Vega tells New Times that no arrests were made that night but that the party was shut down and attendees were ushered out of the building. He initially said no incident reports were written up, either.
However, after this story was first published online, Diaz de la Portilla texted New Times a copy of an incident report from the party filed with the Miami Police Department. The report clearly states that "Commissioner Dias De Portilla [sic] was at the location."
The commissioner tells New Times that, in his opinion, the report vindicates him.
"I was [at the party]," he wrote in a text message. "But it does not say that I pushed anyone because...Had it happened, it would, at the least, [have] been in the report. Duh."
Vega later clarified that a "generic" incident report had been filed. (Notably, the police report also indicates that a gun was discharged at the event, although there were no reported injuries.)
But Nicholson says that after that initial email, which New Times also obtained in a public-records request, she was instructed over the phone by her superiors not to mention Diaz de la Portilla by name in any further communications.
Nicholson again referenced the incident in a March 8 email to Nemons and Assistant City Manager Natasha Colebrook-Williams, explaining that she wanted it recorded because her injury was getting worse.
"I attempted to speak with you regarding the incident with the commissioner on February 21, during the unpermitted special event inspection," Nicholson wrote. "During the poking and pushing I lost my footing and although I didn't fall I assumed I was okay. Since then I have been having issues with my left hip and I would like the incident documented."
Nicholson has since learned that she suffered a sprained hip, which she attributes to the incident with Diaz de la Portilla. She had to request worker's compensation benefits and says she is still receiving physical therapy for her injury, which at times makes it difficult to sleep or walk.
After the incident, Nicholson requested and received a transfer out of code compliance and into a different city department. She says she was initially afraid to talk about her run-in with the commissioner because she didn't want to lose her job. She feels more comfortable coming forward now, she says, because she feels it's unfair that she is still in pain and Diaz de la Portilla has faced no repercussions.
"I want people to learn to respect others. Just because you have a title doesn't mean you're above and beyond the law," Nicholson tells New Times. "He didn't even call to apologize. I have to go to therapy while he's OK."
This isn't the first time Diaz de la Portilla has been linked to overaggressive behavior. In 2019, the commissioner was accused of intimidating voters while on the campaign trail. In 2019, an elderly woman at a senior housing complex said one of Diaz de la Portilla's campaign allies pushed her against a glass door when she accused the candidate of manipulating absentee ballots.
Diaz de la Portilla recently came under fire in connection with a situation involving a "ghost employee" he hired to work at the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) while he was serving chairman there. As first reported by the Miami blog Political Cortadito, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has been investigating Jennifer Nillo, a former legislative aide to Diaz de la Portilla who was indicted in 2017 for 17 counts of mortgage fraud before the commissioner hired her to keep an eye on the Omni CRA.
Diaz de la Portilla told Political Cortadito that he hired Nillo to the CRA to "keep them straight," but other employees say that in 11 months, she rarely came into the office, according to the Miami Herald. Nillo was abruptly fired last month after an alleged incident in which she was pulled over by police while driving a city-issued vehicle.
After the controversy involving Nillo erupted, Diaz de la Portilla was stripped of his Omni CRA chairmanship during a heated Miami commission meeting that saw him and his former political ally Joe Carollo lobbing insults at each other and accusing one another of impropriety.