Misdemeanor pleas mark end to 'The Firm,' Miami staffer criminal scheme saga
By Yudislaidy Fernandez
Prosecution of a criminal scheme that may have cost the City of Miami tens of millions in project cost overruns has ended with no jail and light fines for the ex-city employees involved.
The 14 city employees known as The Firm, mostly from the capital improvements department, were arrested in 2007 on organized fraud and racketeering charges for doing private design and consulting work on city time. Those involved recently received plea deals that reduced the charges to misdemeanors and required each to repay $11,908 to the city, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's office reports.
Around the time the scheme was unfolding, project delays and $38.8 million in cost overruns in the city's bond program — initially blamed on market changes and unforeseen setbacks during planning and construction — were reported in the capital improvements department, where most of the employees worked.
All the individuals pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of unlawful use of a computer — after initially facing 23 to 95 years in prison — and agreed to pay court costs totaling $20,000, split evenly at $1,429 each, and receive a year of probation, said State Attorney's Office spokeswoman Terry Chavez.
The former workers can't fight their terminations and forfeited their pensions, she said.
Lack of evidence proving that the employees in surveillance videos were doing the private work during work hours and not lunch hours was among reasons for the lesser charges, Ms. Chavez said.
The deals reached with the 14, the majority in April, had approval of the city, she said, including City Manager Pete Hernandez, who oversees personnel.
Mr. Hernandez said late Tuesday he was aware the settlement was less than initially expected but had no further comment.
The workers were in the department responsible for street improvements and park construction. They did design work for private clients such as shopping centers, daycare centers and homes, said State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle in a 2007 press conference.
They used specialized equipment and computer software they asked the city to buy, she said at the time.
A tipster informed the city of the operation in 2005.
The city spent about $100,000 to hire a private investigator to gather evidence such as videos that showed the employees traveling to private job sites, some using city-issued cars.
Miami Police detectives gathered information such as that the employees were spending 85% of their work time doing outside business, Chief John Timoney reported to the media in 2007.
With the outcome of the case painting a different picture than the investigation conducted a few years earlier, longtime Commissioner Tomás Regalado said Tuesday the episode is "really embarrassing to the city and the State Attorney's Office."
Mr. Regalado commented separately on the case while discussing an unrelated issue during a commission meeting last Thursday.
He said the authorities were describing the participants as Mafia-like upon their arrests but today are characterizing them as mere petty thieves.
He said: "There are a lot of unanswered questions."