North Miami City Clerk Michael Etienne might have just committed the most wholesome theft of public money in American history. Sure, people steal a few thousand dollars in taxpayer cash all the time — but instead of using that money to cover something heinous, like dog-track gambling debts, Etienne legit stole some money to stare at Abraham Lincoln's giant head and think about integrity for a while. Irony is dead.
And, no, "Mount Rushmore" isn't a cleverly named pro-Trump strip club in Hialeah. According to the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics & Public Trust, Etienne blew more than $2,000 to flounce around South Dakota like he was Cary Grant in North by Northwest. The commission said today that Etienne paid the city back, plus $1,000 to the ethics commission to cover his punishment and the panel's investigative costs. The case is yet another hilarious story in Miami-Dade's history of zany ethics complaints, including the time Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez got caught loan-sharking and paid his ethics fine in pennies and nickels.
Etienne was elected city clerk in 2011. According to a copy of his ethics commission complaint, he used city money to attend two conferences in 2016. He received about $570 in cash to attend a January 2016 conference in Long Beach, California. Ethics investigators eventually confirmed he deposited the money in his personal checking account but never attended the conference.
Etienne then requested money to attend the International Institute of Municipal Clerks' annual conference in Omaha, Nebraska — perhaps the least enticing-sounding conference in this solar system — in May 2016.
But Etienne's travel itinerary was a snaking web of confusing stops. He said he planned to fly from Fort Lauderdale to Denver, then drive a rental car seven hours from Denver to Omaha, then drive from Omaha to a hotel in Indiana, and then make a final stop in Chicago (also seven hours from Omaha), where he'd drop off the rental car and fly home to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. In total, that bizarre trip cost an estimated $2,084, including $252 for flights and $820 for the rental car.
Ethics investigators noted that other city officials from nearby towns who attended the same conference were able to pay much less by simply flying straight to Omaha. A city clerk in North Lauderdale paid just $428 for a direct round-trip flight. Something was up.
Investigators soon turned up a clue: Etienne had used his personal debit card to pay for a one-night stay at Rodeway Inn in Rapid City, South Dakota, on May 21 for $46.54. Turns out Etienne used his city-paid rental car to make a diversion to the presidential monument. That's definitely not the public corruption crime of the century, but it's an extremely funny way to blow public funds.
The week after his trip, Etienne told the city that it had actually overpaid him by $238.54 but that, due to some mystery expenses he'd incurred, he was paying the city back only $57. It turns out he deducted the cost of his secret, $46 hotel room plus the $135.49 in gas and tolls he'd spent driving to Rapid City.
Confronted by his co-workers, the complaint says, Etienne claimed he merely got lost on the way from Denver to Omaha and had to make a pit stop in Rapid City overnight.
Anyone with a map could have seen that excuse was a blatant lie — Rapid City is a nearly seven-hour drive due north from Denver. Omaha is straight east about the same distance. Seriously, look at how much ground Etienne covered:
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Sure enough, records showed Etienne had booked the hotel room days in advance. Confronted again about the spending more than a year later, he claimed someone working in his office had made an accounting error.
But he pleaded no contest this week to two counts from the ethics board that he'd exploited his official position. In addition to getting hit with the fines, he'll receive an official letter of reprimand.