Ethics probe clears Miami city attorney in Coconut Grove dispute

1 Fort Lauderdale

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Miami’s city attorney did not exploit her position when she helped a developer’s unregistered lobbyist overturn a zoning opinion placing restrictions on a controversial residential project in Coconut Grove, a county ethics investigator has found.

Back in September, Victoria Méndez was accused by a city commissioner of helping Palmcorp Development Group pursue a plan to build five homes on a single lot in the tony South Grove by shopping for a friendlier legal opinion. At the time, Miami’s zoning office was forcing Palmcorp to seek a special “warrant,” which required extra hoops and gave neighbors opposed to the Battersea Woods project a chance to appeal an approval.

Méndez’s office initially supported that position, but then changed its mind after a series of emails and meetings with Palmcorp and attorney Javier Vazquez. The new opinion allowed the developer to avoid the extra requirements of a warrant and begin construction on a temporary approval.

Her involvement became the source of controversy only after Commissioner Ken Russell began looking into the project, and claimed during a commission meeting that she’d withheld information and emails showing the extent of her involvement. Méndez said it was a misunderstanding.

It does not appear City Attorney Méndez violated the Miami-Dade County Ethics Code as it relates to Exploitation of Official Position Karl Ross, ethics investigator

“While [Commissioner] Russell is clearly convinced Ms. Méndez ‘stonewalled’ his office and failed to disclose her involvement in the removal of the warrant requirement, the investigation did not support such a finding,” ethics investigator Karl Ross wrote in a closeout memo. “At the heart of the matter is an issue of attorney-client confidence, and while [Commissioner] Russell feels this trust may have been irrevocably violated, that issue is not a matter for this agency to decide.”

Méndez, who requested the investigation after Russell moved unsuccessfully to fire her, said in a statement Friday that she was “pleased to be vindicated by the Commission on Ethics.” Russell disagreed with the report’s findings, and said he didn’t regret going public with the issue.

“We’re in a he-said-she-said situation here, and my constituents know very well why I brought this,” he said.

I am pleased to be vindicated by the Commission on Ethics Victoria Méndez

The allegations by Russell became a flashpoint in the ever-simmering debate in Miami about overdevelopment and whether the city bends over backwards to accommodate builders.

Russell argued that emails between Méndez, Vazquez, and her staff suggested the city attorney was representing a developer instead of the people of Miami. Méndez countered that she was simply hearing out another attorney and vetting an issue to protect the city from legal liability.

Ross, the ethics investigator, issued his report after reviewing emails, interviewing close to a dozen people, and attending the September hearing in which Russell tried to fire Méndez. In his report, he wrote that two of Méndez’s deputies — one who sided with the zoning department and another who later changed the office’s opinion — said they weren’t pressured to make findings favorable to Palmcorp.

Devin Cejas, Miami’s zoning administrator, said the same, although a Miami planner who initially told the developer to seek a warrant said she thought it improper for Palmcorp to lobby the city attorney’s office. At the time, Vazquez, the attorney for Palmcorp, wasn’t registered as a lobbyist for the developer, which he blamed on an oversight by his secretary.

Our legal department works for us, as I understand it Jacqueline Ellis, Miami planner quoted in ethics report

While Méndez emerged unscathed, the controversy over Battersea Woods did blow back on the developer. Palmcorp’s bid to split its property into five lots was rejected by commissioners after Palmcorp had already begun building on a temporary permit. The developer, whose principals said they’d been maligned by Russell and the press, is pursuing a lawsuit against the city.

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