How much can you get for a donated 2005 Toyota Prius previously owned by Miami-Dade County? A cool 8,200 bucks. Talk about a steal of a deal! Too much of a steal, according to the Miami-Dade Office of the Inspector General. And now it has cost a well-respected Cuban-American human rights activist her livelihood.
Gisela Hidalgo has pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony count of prohibited solicitation of funds one month after she was arrested for allegedly pocketing the proceeds from the Prius sale.
Her pro bono lawyer, Luis Fernandez, says Hidalgo is not a thief, though, noting she was not charged with grand theft and doesn't have to pay restitution. He insists that instead of keeping the money, she used it to pay Cuban musicians who were flown to Miami to perform at a benefit concert for her nonprofit, Charities Unlimited.
"Rather than placing the money in the charity's bank account, she used it to pay these people," Fernandez says. "She didn't keep the money or use it for herself. The problem was that she didn't deposit the funds."
The inspector general's office found out about the transaction while reviewing what had happened to 45 surplus vehicles the county donated to community-based organizations in 2010 and 2011. Nine of those cars and trucks had either been sold or transferred to someone else not long after the donation was made, the inspector general's office reported.
(In October 2011, county commissioners had added restrictions to surplus-vehicle donations, including a prohibition against selling or transferring ownership of the automobiles without approval from Miami-Dade.)
The county donated the Prius to Charities Unlimited on June 28, 2011. Hidalgo told Miami-Dade officials she would use the economically efficient ride for her organization's transportation needs, including donation pick-up.
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Instead, she promptly sold the vehicle 45 days later, according to an investigative report. "None of the proceeds were used for the benefit of Charities Unlimited or the people it was supposed to help," the report says. The watchdog agency conducted the criminal probe.
Because Hidalgo was previously employed by the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, the case was handled by Broward prosecutors, who offered her a deal April 17 to avoid jail time. Hidalgo, who has fought for Cubans' human rights since the '80s, will serve four years of probation and must pay about $3,200 in investigative costs.
As part of her sentence, she also had to dissolve Charities Unlimited, can't serve on any board of a nonprofit for four years, and is prohibited from raising funds for any charitable organization for ten years.