Update 6/4: Prosecutors say they could not find evidence that Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps was behind the blackmail letter sent to Commissioner Douglas Hornsby. Prosecutors chased down leads including a car spotted outside Hornsby's home the day the letter arrives and combed through online records but couldn't tie the mayor or her allies to the threat. Read the full close-out memo, dated May 15, at the end of this post.
After North Bay Village Commissioner Douglas Hornsby dramatically announced he was being blackmailed over an old cocaine charge, the town's police chief, Carlos Noriega, quickly homed in on a trio of high-profile suspects: Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps, the wife of Commissioner Jose Alvarez, and Ana Watson, a well-connected city board member and friend of the mayor's.
Noriega took his suspicions to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), which investigated and handed over its findings to public corruption prosecutors, who have an ongoing case. But the chief says he was later fired for pointing a finger at the mayor — as well as for blowing the whistle on several other corruption cases tied to her regime.
Those revelations are spelled out in a lawsuit Noriega filed yesterday in Miami's federal courthouse that alleges he was illegally fired in retaliation for exposing official wrongdoing. Noriega says he wants his job back so he can make things right in the scandal-plagued village off the 79th Street Causeway.
"This lawsuit is in response to the numerous immoral and illegal activities I uncovered and that led to my termination and the termination of several other officials handling these whistleblower cases," he says. "I made a promise to myself, to the department, and to residents when I left that I'd fight for them and make sure justice is sought."
Leon-Kreps told New Times she "cannot comment on legal matters."
The broad strokes of Noriega's whistleblower claims have been reported since he was fired April 5, but his lawsuit now spells out he believed he had evidence of wrongdoing by Leon-Kreps and her allies in at least two criminal cases.
Much of the village's chaos began in May 2017, when Horsnby revealed during a commission meeting that someone was threatening him over an old out-of-state cocaine case. But Noriega says he was already in Leon-Kreps' crosshairs because he'd opened a criminal case that February into Watson, a close friend whom the mayor had appointed to several city boards.
The 42-year-old Watson was later charged with four felonies for allegedly stealing thousands from the condo association where she served as treasurer. (That case remains open; Watson is scheduled to go to trial later this month.)
Then, Noriega honed in on Leon-Kreps and her political allies as key suspects in Hornsby's blackmail case. On May 24, 2017, he filed a "signed written complaint" to the village's manager stating he believed that the mayor, Alvarez's wife, and Watson "conspired and engaged in the extortion and blackmail" of Hornsby, according to his lawsuit.
"The actions alleged to have been committed by the above-referenced Village Public Officers was reasonably suspected by Noriega to be evidence of possible criminal conspiracy, abusive and illegal conduct," he writes in the lawsuit.
It's not clear what kind of evidence Noriega or FDLE turned up against the mayor or her allies. Both FDLE and prosecutors have declined to comment on the case because it remains open. Leon-Kreps has denied any wrongdoing and even threatened a local blogger with a lawsuit for reporting on her alleged ties to the blackmail plot.
Fast-forward to this past February, when Noriega says he again reported a top city official — this time, Village Attorney Norman Powell — for potential illegal conduct. Noriega alleges that Powell, working at the direction of Leon-Kreps and Vice Mayor Andreana Jackson, told a company called Xact Data Recovery to copy "highly confidential and exempt information" from the police department's Criminal Justice Information System — a "blatant criminal and civil violation," Noriega says in his lawsuit. The chief says he also notified FDLE about that alleged crime.
Barely a month later, Noriega was fired by Village Manager Marlen Martell, days after she was hired. The chief says his termination was clear retaliation for reporting the mayor in two criminal probes and for helping to bring felony charges against her friend Watson.
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Noriega says his aim is simple: to reclaim his job in the police department to try to right the wrongs committed by the village's leadership.
"My end goal is to go back to my position... and to continue to lead this police department in the positive direction we had been going," he says.
Update: Here's the full close-out memo for the investigation into Leon-Kreps and her allies: