Rumored Rundle Challenger Privately Says She'll Run While PAC Forms to Support Her

ACLU Florida's recently departed deputy director Melba Pearson; Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle
ACLU Florida's recently departed deputy director Melba Pearson; Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle Photos courtesy of Melba Pearson / Miami-Dade State State Attorney's Office
Melba Pearson's impending run for Miami-Dade County State Attorney might be the worst-kept secret in local political circles of late. Last week she stepped down from her post as deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. And as rumors continue to swirl that her run is imminent, she is said to be privately telling allies she plans to throw her hat into the ring shortly.

Pearson has not yet to make a formal announcement. But today, local campaign consultant Ben Pollara — who has been trying to recruit Pearson to run for months — launched a state political action committee, Real Reform for Miami-Dade, to support her if she formally announce her candidacy.

"Even as politics has become more divided and partisan in recent years, one area of bipartisan consensus has been the need for broad criminal-justice reforms to walk back the 'tough on crime' and 'War on Drugs' policies that resulted in a culture of mass incarceration and created wide racial disparities in the administration of justice in this country," Pollara texted New Times today. "But Miami-Dade County's State Attorney's Office has been largely stuck in the 1990s when it comes to enacting the sorts of policies that this community needs to reform its criminal-justice system. Real Reform for Miami-Dade will shine a light on the failures of Kathy Fernandez Rundle's nearly three decades in office and support reformers who seek meaningful change in the State Attorney's Office."

As the Florida ACLU's deputy director beginning in 2017, Pearson spent much of her time working on voting-rights efforts throughout the state. She's also a former prosecutor — she worked in Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle's office from 2002 until she left for the ACLU. If she runs, she would be the most qualified and formidable opponent Rundle has faced in her career.

Rundle, meanwhile, has held on to her post as the county's top prosecutor since 1993, when State Attorney Janet Reno departed to join President Bill Clinton's administration as U.S. Attorney General. (Amid rumors that Pearson might run, Rundle, who is 69, has already launched a #KeepKathy2020 campaign and website.) In the past several years, as the social media and Black Lives Matter eras have given justice-reform critics a much more prominent platform, Rundle has faced a barrage of criticism for her demonstrably cozy relationship with police officers and her near-constant ability to slow-walk or bungle high-profile cases involving government corruption and police misconduct.

In 2017, she was the subject of national scorn after her office declined to charge four state prison guards who, witnesses said, had boiled a schizophrenic black man, Darren Rainey, to death in a jury-rigged prison shower. Though the Miami Herald obtained photos that appear to show Rainey's lifeless body covered in blisters and burns, Rundle said repeatedly Rainey was not boiled to death and that she could not bring charges against any of the guards involved. One of those guards, Roland Clarke, became a police officer in Miami Gardens — and was subsequently caught repeatedly having sex while on-duty.

Just last month, Rundle deflected another salvo. The Herald reported that in 2015, four women and underage girls — one of whom was only 14 — said Hialeah police Sgt. Jessie Menocal Jr. had sexually assaulted them. The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office punted the case to the FBI, claiming the victims' stories wouldn't hold up in court and there wasn't enough evidence to charge Menocal with any crimes. But the Herald learned that Rundle's office hadn't even interviewed three of the four alleged victims. Last week, the FBI arrested Menocal and charged him with violating the civil rights of two women. (He has pleaded not guilty.)

Via text last week, Pearson told New Times she was appalled at the way Rundle's office handled the Menocal case. She did not say whether she intended to run against Rundle.

"I am horrified and disgusted at the fact that the voices of four victims were completely disregarded and that it took the FBI to try to bring some semblance of closure to these young women," she said. "This is a clear failure of the Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office. A change is desperately needed to ensure we finally have equal justice served in Miami-Dade."
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.