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When Stephen Cody approached the podium at a South Miami commission meeting in January, Mayor Philip Stoddard had a good idea of what he might say. A few days earlier, a group that Cody created had publicly criticized Stoddard for the city’s firing of its former police chief and a resulting lawsuit that led to a hefty settlement.
Consulting his city attorney, Stoddard refused to let Cody speak and demanded that he first register as a lobbyist.
When Cody returned to the commission in February, without having registered, Stoddard and City Attorney Thomas Pepe again cut him off when he began to discuss the police chief’s firing.
Now, Stoddard is in hot water over the decision. On Wednesday, the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust responded to a complaint by Cody, ruling that there was probable cause Stoddard had violated Cody’s “right to be heard” under the county’s Citizens’ Bill of Rights.
In a statement, the commission said Cody “was prevented from speaking without determining what he was about to say or whether he was speaking as a lobbyist.”
The commission had made a similar assessment in April, when its advocate, Michael P. Murawski, issued a memo saying Stoddard had likely violated county ethics rules. The evidence, Murawski wrote, suggested Stoddard was “seeking to shut down anything Mr. Cody was going to say that reflected negatively on the Mayor” leading up to a Feb. 13 mayoral election, where Stoddard faced a challenger.
Wednesday’s ruling opens up the matter to a full investigation, with witnesses testifying and evidence introduced. Unless the two sides reach an agreement or the commission drops the case, the matter could go to a public hearing and Stoddard could be fined. The South Miami charter also stipulates that public officials found to have “willfully violated” the Citizens’ Bill of Rights will forfeit their office.
“How [Stoddard] acted was very autocratic,” Cody told the Miami Herald. “Phil likes to portray himself as always wearing the white hat. In this instance, he showed himself to be a thin-skinned politician.”
Stoddard, a professor at Florida International University, says he was simply acting on the advice of the city attorney and is prepared to fight the charge. He has retained private attorney Ben Kuehne.
“What they always say in ethics trainings is, ‘Ask the opinion of your city attorney, and if you do that, you’re protected,’” Stoddard told the Herald. “I’m a biology professor, I’m not an attorney. I have to be able to rely on the opinion of my attorney.”
The commission meetings in January and February came amid a whirlwind of conflict between Cody and Stoddard, who both said they had little previous interaction with each other. In the days before the Jan. 16 meeting, Cody — a suspended lawyer, children’s book author and political consultant who lives in Palmetto Bay — initiated a campaign bashing Stoddard.
On Jan. 10, Cody created a new nonprofit called “A Better Miami Dade, Inc.,” listing himself as the president, director, secretary and treasurer. The next day, A Better Miami Dade announced a petition demanding Stoddard “pay his own legal bills” in the wrongful termination case involving ex-South Miami police chief Orlando Martinez de Castro. An appellate court sided with de Castro in November, upholding a circuit court ruling and leaving the city on the hook for nearly $1 million.
Then, on Jan. 16, hours before the commission meeting, Stoddard says he received a robocall from Cody’s group that was critical of him. Stoddard says he subsequently looked for Cody’s name on the city’s lobbyist rolls but couldn’t find it.
Stoddard consulted Pepe, the city attorney, who said Cody would need to register as a lobbyist with the city clerk before speaking at a public hearing. That, Stoddard says, is why he cut Cody off.
On Jan. 17, the day after the meeting, Cody filed documents with the Florida Department of State to form a political committee under a similar name as the nonprofit: “A Better Miami Dade.” The group accepted its first donation on Jan. 19, according to state filings, and has taken in over $70,000, the vast majority of which was donated before Feb. 15.
All of those donations came from one group: A Better Miami Dade, Inc., Cody’s nonprofit, which is not required to reveal its sources of funding because it’s registered as a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organization. Cody told the Herald earlier this year that the money was raised by donors, but he declined to identify them.
Cody filed a complaint with the ethics commission on Jan. 26, before his second attempt to speak at the commission on Feb. 6. This time he was allowed to introduce himself, but Stoddard cut him off and turned to Pepe for backup when Cody mentioned the city’s “immense liability” in the police chief case.
“Mr. Attorney, we have an issue here,” Stoddard said, according to a transcript of the meeting. “He is seeking to speak about something for which he has done paid political mailings.”
Pepe concurred, saying Cody was “using this forum for partisan political speech.” After a brief back-and-forth, Cody’s microphone was muted and Stoddard told him to sit down.
Three days later, the saga took its most dramatic turn. On Feb. 9, four days before the mayoral election, A Better Miami Dade, through robocalls and its Facebook page, shared a recording of former Commissioner Valerie Newman accusing Stoddard of forcibly kissing her after a Thanksgiving dinner at Newman’s home seven or eight years ago.
“I pushed him away. I started making noise. My husband came in and he says, ‘You’re lucky I don’t punch you in the face,’” Newman said on the call, which went out to South Miami residents.
Stoddard denied the accusations, calling them “absolutely absurd.” A recording of the call is the only item posted on A Better Miami Dade’s Facebook page.
In the days that followed, a third party — Miami Beach Commissioner and congressional candidate Kristen Rose Gonzalez — tried to smooth things over between the two men.
“Phil Stoddard and Steve Cody. I would like for the two of you to have coffee and sort out differences,” Gonzalez wrote in a text message. “It can only be a win for everyone. If you would like me to mediate I will,” she added.
“Ok. I’m game,” Cody replied.
But Stoddard, believing Cody had been paid to derail his campaign, was not quite prepared to be cordial. “Kristen, if Steve wants to make amends and come ‘clean’ with the who, what, where, and whens of his co-conspirators against me, then he and I can resolve our issues,” Stoddard wrote on Feb. 19.
Cody replied almost a month later, on March 17, with a cryptic message: “I just saw Stoddard’s response, Kristen,” he wrote. “I thought I was going to accept his resignation from South Miami and FIU. TICK TOCK, PHIL. TICK TOCK.”
Then Cody added: “And if you truly think I defamed you, sue me.”
On Wednesday, Stoddard told the Herald he suspects Cody’s political committee may be funded by Florida Power & Light, Stoddard’s chief political adversary. The mayor has championed solar energy in South Miami and repeatedly challenged the powerful utility firm.
“I have only one enemy with that much money,” Stoddard said. “You can figure out who that is.”
Cody did not immediately respond to questions about the accusations.
Whether the political circus swirling around the relationship will factor into the ethics investigation remains to be seen. In its initial assessment, Murawski, the ethics commission advocate, seemed to pay it little mind.
“Mr. Cody made no mention of an election or anyone’s candidacy,” Murawski wrote of Cody’s public comments, “and merely wished to discuss wasteful and unnecessary municipal expenditures.”