Ethics report should derail tainted Baylink bid negotiations
Just when our column on a Baylink railway deal went to press last week, ethics officials released a formal report that goes back two years into highly questionable ties between county officials and the rail bidders.
The probe behind the scenes by the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust added a new dimension that shows why the rail proposal spearheaded by Malaysian casino giant Genting is wrong for Miami-Dade County. It should cause residents to question the ethics involved.
Even though the ethics team said it couldn’t charge anybody with anything in the investigation, which did not directly spring from the rail contract, the probe sheds light on the deal’s origins and its players.
It peered into a county mission to Asia that quietly added Hong Kong to its itinerary to get Mayor Carlos Giménez, commissioners and officials to meet with the head of Genting on both a yacht and a company cruise ship in order to promote a Genting contract to build Baylink.
The investigation targeted whether county officials failed to disclose records of the trip on being formally asked as law requires. The answer, on technicalities, was no breach of law – but only because questions weren’t specific enough. The county had met the letter of the law, the probe showed, but clearly not its spirit.
When all this happened in 2018, Genting hadn’t publicly proposed building a rail link from its touted mega-casino site in downtown Miami to Miami Beach. That public offering came in 2019, followed by a call for bids that had just one response, Genting. Commissioners voted in May to negotiate that deal.
But the report said “investigation revealed that one of the purposes of the [Hong Kong leg of the trip] was to facilitate meetings between County leaders and Genting executives to discuss Baylink…”
Last week’s report showed the county had spent $30,000 in public funds on the mission, which included a hidden leg to Hong Kong to meet on a rail plan with Genting leaders, an outlay that the county had formerly denied, writing that “no county funds were used to pay travel expenses for the mayor and commissioners.”
When ethics investigators asked, county officials claimed that since $10,000 apiece came from three county departments that earn their own revenue, it’s not really tax money and therefore not county money. That should greatly surprise users of the county’s airport, its seaport and its water and sewer operations, all of which report to county hall. (If this smells really bad so far, just wait.)
The trip to Hong Kong was spearheaded by Ralph Garcia-Toledo, who helped arrange the official county agenda, had been the mayor’s election finance chairman and heads a company that is a partner with Genting in the proposed rail deal.
The trip organizer, Manny Gonzalez, heads the county’s Office of Economic Development & International Trade and had for eight years been registered agent for Mr. Garcia-Toledo’s company while he was on the county payroll. It’s all in the ethics report, which, again, did not charge anyone with anything.
The report showed that the county fudged on unveiling trip records and probably hid facts that would have revealed what was going on. Even phones of officials on the trip, including that of Mr. Gonzalez, were wiped clean. Exploitation of official position was not charged, nor was a cover-up.
But the report did say this:
“The investigation showed that once Gonzalez finalized travel arrangements for the Mayor and others to Hong Kong, in coordination with Garcia-Toledo, Gonzalez sent a copy of the itinerary with the Genting meetings to his private email account. The findings showed that Gonzalez removed the references to Genting in subsequent drafts of the Hong Kong itineraries, and later plugged in meetings with other parties – even though those meetings had not been confirmed prior to the County finalizing its travel plans and booking flights to Hong Kong.”
Again, the rail deal was not part of the investigation, though it ought to be part of a future probe.
The report did show that those on both sides of a big-money deal – elected and appointed county officials and the bidder – are tightly interconnected. Whatever happened to arm’s-length government transactions?
Commissioner Eileen Higgins at least had the sense and guts to reverse her support for this tainted deal. In debate on the Genting offer last month she had insisted on negotiating a contract with its team and to see “is there a financial path forward that doesn’t penalize” other county transit legs. But after the ethics report later appeared, she ask that the commission kill action on the Genting plan.
Last week we said that the rail plan is unlikely to win vital federal cash and that Genting would be the only winner, with the county funding transit to the door of its planned casino for $60 million a year.
Moreover, the deal stinks of bait and switch: to get the county to formally ask for proposals, Genting had said it would build rail for $400 million and pay $150 million of that itself, but then it bid $770 million, all government funded. The six-month bid window was too tight for others, but since Genting had been hatching the deal for two years it got the inside track.
Ms. Higgins’ hope for a do-over may rest on what county rules allow, but in principle she’s dead right. Hopefully, other commissioners have read the ethics report too – or at least gotten a whiff of its smell.
First, county officials didn’t reveal what the mayor and some commissioners were doing in Hong Kong with Genting. Then they tried to cover it up. The report says they get away with it on technicalities. That’s not reassuring.
Another ethics report is now in order, because this one doesn’t deal with contracts that go to county officials’ associates, though it shows key players tied to each other.
That’s worth a separate look by the ethics team or else a grand jury on the inordinate influence of insiders in contracts. This report found no way to charge any individual with ethics violations, but how about the system of which all are a part?
Meanwhile, Ms. Higgins is absolutely right: the county shouldn’t railroad taxpayers into this contract.