Labeling Michelle Spence-Jones a Shameless Crook Is the Easy Way Out

Even before she was arrested and suspended from office this past November 13, Michelle Spence-Jones let everyone know she would not go out without a fight. No one has forgotten how she proclaimed during her swearing-in ceremony that "they don't know this nappy-headed child of God has her armor on." Where some people see her playing the race card, I see a black woman standing up for herself and her family.

Members of the morality police, such as Miami Herald columnist Fred Grimm, deride her as a "disgraced, unembarrased, utterly shameless politician" because she has the temerity to challenge Gov. Charlie Crist's intentions to suspend her again should she reclaim her seat. The notion that Spence-Jones is not a crook and did not steal $50,000 in county grants is pretty unfathomable to a lot of people who follow Miami's scandalous political scene.

People want to believe she is dirty even if the criminal case against her is hardly a slam-dunk indictment.

In finding probable cause to arrest Spence-Jones, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office claims that on February 15, 2005, she submitted a forged letter that purported to be from then-county Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler. The correspondence was written on the commissioner's official stationery to the Miami Metro Action Plan Trust (MMAP), the agency that gave her family's company the grant money. The letter, which was stamped with Carey-Shuler's signature, stated the $50,000 should go to Spence-Jones and her family for the redevelopment of a café and spa in Liberty City.

In a sworn statement to assistant state prosecutor Richard Scruggs, Carey-Shuler claimed she did not sign the letter, had never seen it, and did not authorize it, according to Spence-Jones's arrest affidavit.

Well, other public records indicate Carey-Shuler, or at least members of her staff, were well aware that Spence-Jones and her family would receive the grants. The letter was drafted by the MMAP employee overseeing the grants who forwarded it to Carey-Shuler's then-aides Oscar Braynon and Ronda Vangates. They approved the letter. Furthermore, on February 16, 2005, the MMAP board of directors signed off on giving the $50,000 to Spence-Jones and her family, according to the audio tape of the board's meeting.

The public records were given to me by Nathaniel Wilcox, president of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, a black grassroots organization that has received city funding with Spence-Jones's assistance.

"Just a little digging would have unearthed documentation detailing how every penny of the county funds were spent on the approved Café Soul project," Wilcox says. "Stop relying on the one-sided information provided by the State Attorney's Office."

Of course, Spence-Jones hasn't been charged with forgery. She's facing one count of grand theft. The arrest affidavit claims she and her family used the money on themselves. The affidavit states the contract between MMAP and Karym Ventures, the family's company, was signed by Kenneth Spence, her brother, who along with his sister and their mother withdrew money from the bank account in which the grant money was deposited.

One would imagine that her relatives would also be facing criminal charges of grand theft. But only Spence-Jones was arrested. Why? Because she is the elected official. She is the trophy, the scalp that Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle can display to the public to show the community she is tough on corruption.

Her spokesman Ed Griffith declined to comment.

Spence-Jones, her brother, and her mother maintain they did nothing wrong. They insist the grants were used for the intended purpose: the redevelopment of a crack house into a café and spa on NW Seventh Avenue. Kenneth Spence notes the family members had $32,000 in their bank account prior to receiving the grants and they made sure to pay their personal expenses with their own money, not county funds.

They admit they failed to make the venture a success. Now their partners have turned against them, testifying against Michelle Spence-Jones, claiming she tricked them into giving her control of the money. The building's landlord has evicted the Spences, and the property is in foreclosure.

But that doesn't make her a crook.

Read public records provided by Nathaniel Wilcox below:

Michelle Spence-Jones Case_doc (1).pdf
Feb. 16 2005_MMAP ReAllocation.pdf

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.