Miami Commissioner Jailed on Corruption Charges

Miami Commissioner Jailed on Corruption Charges

15 Sept 2023 ( Miami Herald )

Miami Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla was arrested Thursday on a host of corruption charges that include bribery and money laundering, throwing a cloud over his reelection campaign and marking a new scandalous chapter for a politician with a decades-long record of controversy from Tallahassee to City Hall. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced a combined 14 charges against Díaz de la Portilla and William “Bill” Riley Jr., an attorney and lobbyist, as both men were taken to be booked at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center. They stand accused of laundering campaign money, failing to report political donations and spending political funds on personal expenses.

Before he was arrested, Díaz de la Portilla left a regularly scheduled City Commission meeting early with a phone to his ear as rumors swirled about the imminent charges. He avoided reporters before he slipped out of one of City Hall’s back doors and into a city-owned SUV shortly before a pair FDLE agents arrived to arrest him. They left quickly. Law enforcement sources said Miami’s police chief had to get involved to ensure Díaz de la Portilla’s driver, a city police officer assigned to protect the commissioner, took him to the FDLE headquarters in west Miami-Dade.

Prosecutors released scant details Thursday about the case against the two men, leaving arrest warrants sealed. Here’s what is known: Díaz de la Portilla and Riley Jr. are accused of conspiring to launder $245,000 in political contributions in exchange for the commissioner’s support on a plan to build a sports complex in the city of Miami.

Prosecutors have so far chosen not to publicly identify the complex, but sources familiar with the investigation say it is a proposed recreational facility that a private school coveted in the city’s Biscayne Park, located next to the Miami City Cemetery. Díaz de la Portilla sponsored a proposal last year for the city to negotiate the creation of the athletic facility, which passed unanimously. According to FDLE, the laundered money moved through a Delaware-based corporation’s bank account that was controlled by Riley.

Additionally, investigators say they found that Díaz de la Portilla controlled two political committees that were used to fund personal expenses. Investigators also say that both men accepted more than $15,000 in payments without appropriately reporting the money. The payments, according to FDLE, were meant to support a judicial campaign for one of the commissioner’s two brothers — who together comprise one of Miami’s better-known political dynasties.

Riley, 48, and Díaz de la Portilla, 58, each face one count of money laundering; three counts of unlawful compensation or reward for official behavior; one count of bribery; and one count of criminal conspiracy. In addition, Díaz de la Portilla faces four counts of official misconduct; one count of campaign contribution in excess of legal limits; and two counts of failure to report a gift. Separately, Riley is charged with failure to disclose lobbyist expenses. Díaz de la Portilla, who qualified last week to run for re-election this November, posted a $72,000 bond, according to one his attorneys. Riley Jr. posted a $46,000 bond. Some of the charges, such as bribery, carry maximum penalties of 15 years. The money laundering charge — a first-degree felony — carries a maximum penalty of up to 30 years.

Benedict Kuehne, an attorney representing Díaz de la Portilla, called the charges “an obvious ploy to remove an effective and honored public servant from office.” “This action has been timed and executed for shock and awe purposes, to create the maximum damage to Commissioner Díaz de la Portilla’s campaign and his family,” Kuehne said. “This is nothing more than prosecutorial abuse of our court system, abuse of process, and the unfortunate weaponization of law enforcement targeting an effective and conservative Republican lawmaker by a Democrat State Attorney for political purposes and career advancement.

An attorney for Riley also defended his client. “I know Bill and I’m confident he’s going to be completely vindicated,” said lawyer Kendall Coffey. Riley declined to comment as he walked out of the jail Thursday night.

CONFUSION AND CONFLICTS The city of Miami issued a statement Thursday afternoon saying the commissioner’s arrest caught the city’s brass by surprise. “We are not aware of the nature of the charges beyond what has been publicly released and cannot comment on any aspect of this situation,” reads the statement.

Several law enforcement sources told the Miami Herald that arrest warrants were filed with a sealed affidavit Wednesday, which sparked whispers throughout City Hall on Thursday about the commissioner’s imminent arrest. Multiple sources said Díaz de la Portilla and Riley snubbed a previous agreement to surrender Thursday morning, and that agents attempted to track down Riley at two offices in Miami-Dade before reaching him on the phone, though attorneys for the two men said they, too, were surprised by the charges.

Earlier in the morning, Riley spoke with a Herald reporter and appeared to know nothing of any impending charges. He said he’d been contacted by Broward investigators “a long time ago” but never met with them. “If you find out, let me know,” Riley told the reporter. The charges “came as a complete surprise,” said Coffey, his attorney. The investigation was handled by Broward State Attorney Harold Pryor in a joint investigation with the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics that was ordered up nearly two years ago by Gov. Ron DeSantis. The investigation began under Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, but she raised a potential conflict due to a close relationship with Riley’s family.

Rundle’s office said she and Riley’s family have “a long-standing personal and professional relationship as neighbors, friends, and mutual supporters of numerous efforts to better the Miami-Dade County community,” including efforts to help low-level offenders obtain court orders to seal and expunge their criminal records. A spokeswoman for Pryor’s office said the arrest warrants are “not public record from this agency at this time.” The case will be handled in Miami-Dade court. THE DEFENDANTS The Díaz de la Portilla name has been a fixture in Miami-Dade politics for decades, with the commissioner and his two brothers — Miguel and Renier — all serving in public office at different levels of government. An attorney for Renier Díaz de la Portilla, whose recent unsuccessful judicial campaign was alluded to Thursday by prosecutors, said the younger Díaz de la Portilla brother “was never a target of this investigation.” The attorney, Larry Davis, said the younger brother was not interviewed by FDLE.

Alex Díaz de la Portilla spent 16 years in the Florida Legislature, including 10 years as a state senator. From 2008 to 2010, he served as the Republican majority leader. In 2001, when he was a state senator, Díaz de la Portilla was hit with a $300,000 fine by the Florida Ethics Commission for violating state campaign finance laws more than 300 times. A jury later acquitted him of criminal charges, and he had most of the fines overturned through an appeal.

He has worked on political campaigns since leaving Tallahassee, including a past mayoral run by former Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who is now a congressman. After losing three elections, he returned to public office in 2019 when he was elected to the District 1 seat of the Miami City Commission, representing Allapattah and other areas. Since resurrecting his career, Díaz de la Portilla has faced numerous allegations of wrongdoing. In 2021, then-police chief Art Acevedo went to the FBI and other authorities over his concerns that Díaz de la Portilla and his fellow commissioners Joe Carollo and Manolo Reyes were engaged in potentially criminal activity, including inappropriately interfering in police investigations. The commissioners denied wrongdoing; an investigation into the allegations by the Broward State Attorney’s Office is still open.

Díaz de la Portilla also faces allegations before the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission that he abused his official position as chairman of the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency to have his friend of 30 years, Jenny Nillo, hired for what was allegedly a no-show job. According to a memo detailing the investigation into the allegations, Díaz de la Portilla also gave Nillo access to a city-owned vehicle, which she then used to drop off the commissioner’s dry cleaning and drive to a liquor store where she purchased wine and tequila for the commissioner.

In October, the commission determined there was probable cause that Díaz de la Portilla exploited his public position for personal gain, but the case has not yet been heard. Last week, Díaz de la Portilla was accused of orchestrating a “shake down” scheme involving the city-owned Rickenbacker Marina, in a civil complaint filed by Manuel Prieguez, a lobbyist for the marina’s operator.

Prieguez said in the complaint that two surrogates for the commissioner approached him and the marina’s longtime operator Aabad Melwani in 2020 about hiring one of them in exchange for securing Díaz de la Portilla’s support in an upcoming commission regarding the operating lease and proposed renovation of the marina. Díaz de la Portilla has denied all the allegations.

Riley Jr., the son of William W. Riley, a longtime union activist for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 349. Riley Jr., is lesser known but nevertheless a notable figure in local politics, having lobbied on a number of significant government deals and contracts. Until 2019, he was a partner at Greenspoon Marder, a large national law firm where Mayor Francis Suarez was previously of counsel. As the Herald reported earlier this year, Riley is also connected to Coral Gables Mayor Vince Lago, who have both registered their real estate licenses with Rosa Commercial Real Estate, a boutique brokerage owned by former Hialeah Councilman Oscar De La Rosa. De La Rosa’s stepfather, Hialeah Mayor Steve Bovo, also registers his real estate license with the brokerage.