Corruption and bribery are as central to Miami Beach's history as art deco hotels and poolside mojitos. This is a town where a former mayor was convicted on 41 counts of bribery and where hotels and restaurants have always known that the solution to bureaucratic red tape is an envelop stuffed with cash.
Now, as yet another top Beach official faces a criminal corruption probe, the city manager has issued a new set of rules requiring employees to report any attempt at bribery or official misconduct they witness on the job. The rules are the city's most serious attempt yet to tamp down on official shenanigans — and a tacit acknowledgment that their previous rules weren't strong enough.
"Miami Beach recognizes bribery, unlawful compensation, [or] reward for official behavior and official misconduct has no place in the workplace," City Manager Jimmy Morales wrote in a letter sent to commissioners and city staff last Friday. "Reporting of these offenses is mandatory."
Morales says the timing of the new rules is "coincidental" and resulted from an employee survey on how to better regulate gifts.
"Several months ago, the Miami-Dade County Ethics Commission issued an updated survey of our employees which showed substantial improvement on issues of trust and ethics, but still noted that employees are sometimes being offered bribes or gifts," Morales says in an email to New Times. "We issued this procedure to make sure employees should be reporting any such offers and to reiterate our policies in general. All policies, ethics or otherwise, always benefit from repetition."
Three days after Morales announced the new policy, however, the Miami Herald broke the news that public corruption investigators from the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office are looking into whether the city's building director, Mariano Fernandez, accepted a free hotel room in exchange for greasing the wheels for permits.
Morales told the Herald he received an anonymous tip that Fernandez had taken the bribe, so the city manager alerted the Miami Beach Police Department, which brought county prosecutors in on the case. This past Monday, Morales placed Fernandez on leave pending the results of the investigation.
City rules already forbid officials such as Fernandez from accepting bribes or other compensation from people or businesses working with the city. But Morales apparently decided the rules needed to be clearer about reporting any such attempts.
That's where his new policy comes in. Under the rules announced Friday, employees are required to snitch on any attempt at bribery or official misconduct. If they fail to do so — even if they turn down the bribe — they'll be "subject to disciplinary action, including dismissal."
Morales' letter also painstakingly details a half-dozen hypothetical situations that would count as official misconduct, from a city auditor accepting a free meal or cash from a taxpayer to "thank them for their work," to building inspectors taking cash bonuses from property owners.
Morales asks staffers who come across bribery or misconduct to call the police department's command staff duty officer. The city manager promises the high-ranking cop will "treat [calls] with the utmost confidentiality and discretion" and urges staffers to trust the police to sort out the case. "You need not become an investigator," he urges city staffers.
Fernandez's criminal probe is just the latest black eye for a city plagued by corruption and graft in recent years. Miami Beach's procurement director, Gus Lopez, pleaded guilty in 2015 to taking tens of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for insider information on city bids. A few years earlier, the head of the building department was canned after getting caught double-billing taxpayers for more than $154,000.
Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.