UPDATE: Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle stands by her decision to prosecute Michelle Spence-Jones for bribery, claiming the judge presiding over the suspended Miami city commissioner's trial screwed up the verdict's outcome.
"We disagree with the judge's interpretation of bribery law," Rundle said in a statement released shortly after a jury acquitted Spence-Jones today of bribery and grand theft charges. She was accused of shaking down real estate developers Armando Codina and Ricardo Glas for $25,000 in exchange for her vote on the renaming of a city street.
Public corruption prosecutor Richard Scruggs failed to prove that Spence-Jones engineered a complex pay-off scheme in which the $25,000 was funneled through a charity organization called the Miami-Dade Community Foundation, which held the money in a bank account on behalf of a separate non-profit agency set up by the ex-city commissioner called Friends of MLK. Scruggs claimed Spence-Jones used the $25,000 as "a personal piggy bank."
However, Scruggs had trouble with his star witness. As reported here first, Codina testified before trial that Scruggs misled him into believing Spence-Jones had taken the money for herself.
Jeb Bush's former partner repeated his accusations after he took the witness stand last week. "I was purposely misled," Codina told reporters in the courtroom hallway following his testimony. Under oath, he also denied that he expected Spence-Jones' to vote in his favor because of the $25,000 donation.
I left there feeling ashamed and embarrassed. I thought Michelle
Spence-Jones had misused my money," Codina said on the witness stand. "Only later did I find
out the event did happen... and that the check was deposited with the
Dade Community Foundation as I had expected."
Judge Rosa Rodriguez, who Rundle tried to have removed from presiding over the case because the state attorney prosecuted her once, instructed the jury that it was legal for Spence-Jones to ask and accept the $25,000 on behalf of Friends of MLK so long as the funds did not go to the commissioner or any of her relatives for personal benefit.
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Rundle argues Rodriguez erred. "The jury had no choice but to acquit the defendant because the judge instructed the jury that, in effect, soliciting or accepting a bribe through a charity is legal, even if done with corrupt intent," Rundle's statement said. "We believe that bribery done to influence a public official, even if done through a charity, is illegal."
One could argue Rundle is just sore about losing a high profile public corruption case. After all, if she was serious about going after people who funnel bribes through non-profit organizations, then she would have a case load a mile long with all the developers who make "charitable contributions" to homeowner and condo associations in exchange for their support on zoning applications.
Besides, Rundle still has one more shot at Spence-Jones, who is facing another trial on an unrelated grand theft charge in which she is accused of stealing county grants that were meant for the redevelopment of a building in Liberty City.