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Hialeah’s mayor on Tuesday revealed a city investigation of the county’s ethics board over its well-publicized seminar on doing business in Cuba, escalating a feud that once saw him pay a $4,000 fine from the board in pennies and nickels.
Mayor Carlos Hernandez had city staff deliver dozens of boxes of documents to the Miami-Dade County Commission on Tuesday, paperwork that accompanied a condemnation of the ethics staff that he accused of misleading him about the March event and generally exceeding its mission as the county’s watchdog.
“I am concerned because this is my government. This is what our taxpayers pay for? As a Cuban-American, are we going to do business with Cuba?” Hernandez asked the County Commission, which sets the ethics board’s annual budget. “This is an agency that hasn’t been checked for some time.”
The head of the ethics board dismissed the broadside as a complaint from an elected official fighting with an agency that has accused him of misconduct over the years. That included last year’s fine for allegedly lying about business connections, a penalty that Hernandez paid in coins after calling the probe a political circus.
“There’s nothing about the mayor of Hialeah’s opinion that would engage us in a discussion,” Joseph Centorino, director of the ethics commission, said Tuesday afternoon.
Hernandez wasn’t listed on Tuesday’s county agenda, three weeks before he faces reelection in Hialeah. He arrived with his campaign manager, Jesse Manzano-Plaza, city staff, and carts carrying what he said were copies of 6,000 emails and 1,000 documents obtained through Hialeah public records requests to the tax-funded ethics board. There were three boxes for each of the 13 county commissioners.
Some of the papers highlighted the animosity between the two sides: Hernandez, leader of Miami-Dade’s second-largest city and home to its largest concentration of Cuban-American voters; and the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, a voter-created agency that spends about $2 million a year on investigations and seminars.
When a Hialeah assistant attorney, Hillah Sara Mendez, wrote the commission for copies of leave slips for the agency’s 13-member staff, it drew a barbed response from communications chief Rhonda Victor Sibilia.
“Just so you know, at this time the tab for copying is $71.90 for the time sheets for two investigators and the content of my personnel file, plus 10 hours of compilation work, at an average of $20 per hour,” Sibilia wrote in a June 12 email. “I’m sure the citizens of Hialeah will be fascinated to know how their tax dollars are being spent.” In a March 14 email to Centorino about reports on the seminar, Sibilia described which media were invited to cover Hernandez’s “rants.”
The Cuba seminar was part of the commission’s long-running conference program, which has included looks at ethics in political campaigns, media, and education. Centorino said the programs often delve into touchy subjects tied to government, where ethical and legal concerns can be challenging. The March 10 seminar was titled “Doing Business in Cuba: Legal, Ethical and Compliance Challenges” and featured panels with a mix of academics, lawyers and elected officials, including the mayors of Miami Beach and Doral.
“It was a timely ethical issue in the county,” Centorino said of the event at Barry University. The commission says the paid event cleared about a $3,000 profit, but Hernandez said taxpayers ended up funding it thanks to months of staff time involved in planning it. He suggested the commission consider defunding the ethics agency, which employs several former Miami Herald reporters.
“This is a department that’s costing taxpayers more than $2 million … Maybe it’s time we start asking questions,” he said. “Maybe we should use that money … to give more money to the state attorney’s office. Or to the FBI. ”
After the meeting, Hernandez said he did not know how much the investigation of the ethics board cost Hialeah.
Miami-Dade voters approved creation of the Ethics Commission in 1996. It reports to an independent board mostly appointed by judges and local colleges. But it depends on the county for funding. In March, county commissioners raised spending questions after Centorino released a report criticizing them and other elected officials, including Hernandez, for using VIP service at the county-run airport.
Hernandez raised the Miami International Airport “protocol service” report during his remarks, but commissioners mostly stayed silent after he finished. The commission’s chairman, Esteban “Steve” Bovo, who represents Hialeah, said he wanted the county’s lawyers to come back with a report on the ethics commission’s mission and that he wanted Centorino to respond to Hernandez’s allegations.
“We will be looking into this item,” Bovo said.