To Miami-Dade County insiders, it was no shock when Munilla Construction Management (MCM) beat out three other competitors to win a $14.2 million bid to build a high-tech pedestrian bridge at Florida International University. That's because Munilla is not only one of the biggest contractors in South Florida but also one of the most politically connected thanks to years of shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to campaigns.
Investigators are still sifting through the wreckage from yesterday's deadly bridge collapse that killed six, and there's no clear answer yet what went wrong.
But questions are bound to be raised about Munilla's deep ties to local politicians, including U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez — especially because the firm has never been shy about turning its political generosity into favorable decision-making.
Just take a look at the last election cycle, when Munilla executives and entities dropped an eye-opening $25,000 into local campaign coffers, according to a Miami Herald analysis at the time. In fact, the firm was the only company the Herald found that had given generously to all six county commissioners running for reelection.
Not coincidentally, the county commission has steadfastly voted to back Munilla's ongoing legal protest that has held up an $800 million federal project to build a new I-395 bridge downtown.
The Munilla firm is owned by a large family including Pedro, Jorge, Juan, Pedro Jr., Raul, Fernando, and others. And as their business grew, so did their reputation as rainmakers for local politicos.
In 2008, New Times noted the extended clan had dropped $34,000 to help reelect then-Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez and virtually the entire commission. There was good reason to donate all of that cash:
Now why would a local family-owned business feel the urge to splurge so much cash on politicians? Well, MCM Corp. is one of the most proactive construction firms competing for county contracts. This past February, the county commission rejected the lowest bidder and awarded MCM a $125 million contract to do improvements to the Miami International Airport's north terminal. In 2006, the company won a $4.8 million settlement from the county to drop its claim for $14.8 million in unpaid work at the North Terminal. The Munilla enterprise also has a history of piling on more charges. After being awarded a $25 million contract to build the extension of Metrorail from Okeechobee Road to the Palmetto Expressway, MCM charged Miami-Dade Transit an additional $3 million to finish the job.
Sometimes their patronage was a little too obvious, even in Miami-Dade. In 2011, the county's ethics director forced Gimenez to recuse himself from a $50 million contract vote that went to Munilla because the firm employed one of his sons, Julio, and paid another son, Carlos Jr., as its lobbyist.
The next year, the company's clubby political ties landed another patron in hot water. County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro — who is running for the GOP nomination for retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's seat — voted to award Munilla a $25 million deal to build a test track for Metrorail cars.
The problem? Barreiro not only received max donations from four Munilla family members in the last election but also rented office space from the family and acknowledged he was "close friends" with them. But all of that didn't stop him from voting for the Metrorail deal, not to mention two earlier multimillion-dollar deals, according to the Herald.
The Munillas' political donations aren't limited to local races, though. They are especially heavy hitters in federal elections, supporting mostly Republicans. Jorge, Juan, Pedro, Raul, and Fernando have spent at least $420,400 among them on party-affiliated candidates and PACs since 1995, according to federal records. The biggest spender is Pedro, who has doled out at least $209,000.
The family has invested heavily in Diaz-Balart; they've given the Republican congressman at least $63,400.
And Diaz-Balart, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development, was instrumental in building support for the bridge's creation. Last weekend, FIU praised the congressman, along with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, for making the project a reality.
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When the bridge swung into place Saturday, Diaz-Balart was quoted as calling the project a "true collaboration" among partners at the local, state, and federal levels and in the public and private sectors.
“The university’s growth and acceleration is no longer just about the campus and its student body; it’s about the future of Sweetwater, Miami-Dade County, and the entire South Florida region," he said at the time. "I believe this is what creative solutions to transportation challenges look like, and I will continue to support and incentivize these new ideas.”
It's too early to know who's to blame for the tragedy in Sweetwater. But in light of the Munillas' ties to Miami's top leaders, it's no surprise that no one was in any mood to ask the construction firm tough questions yesterday. Gimenez called Pedro Munilla from Hong Kong, where the mayor is on a trade mission, and told the Herald, "Obviously, he's devastated."
Reporters asked Sen. Marco Rubio, who visited the site of the bridge collapse and spoke to the Munillas, if he had pushed them on what went wrong. "Those guys were shaken over there," said the senator, who has taken tens of thousands of dollars in donations from the family. "There was not an opportunity to get into that."