Was this any way to close out an investigation of two Miami Beach commissioners? By recklessly, imprudently antagonizing a third?
Katherine Fernandez Rundle likely called her spokesman on the carpet this week to reprimand him for doing just that.
Was this any way for a reporter to treat a long-time source and frequent City Hall confidante? By reporting as fact an unsubstantiated, erroneous assertion that he – the third commissioner – was the one who snitched on his two colleagues, even though he hadn’t? And, further, to fail to get that commissioner’s reaction to such a serious allegation before publishing it?
Staff writer David Smiley of the Miami Herald is likely pondering that one and how on earth could he have gotten it so wrong in his reporting.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office’s closure of its investigation into whether Miami Beach commissioners Deede Weithorn and Jonah Wolfson violated the state’s Sunshine Law as the Commission was meeting last December on a motion to fire the city manager ended up, for both the SAO and the Herald, dissolving into an embarrassing, ham-handed exercise in how to offend friends and mishandle people.
The winners in all this? Weithorn and Wolfson, who emerged exonerated in the May 24 close-out memo on the SAO’s probe, a memo made public just last week.
For a time this week, it looked like their colleague, Ed Tobin, and his reputation were losers because his week started with the perception – reinforced by a single sentence in Smiley’s Herald report last Friday – that he, Tobin, was the snitch who went to the SAO and tattled.
But after the SAO’s spokesman, Ed Griffith, issued an apology to Tobin on Monday – only after Tobin fired off a blistering email to Rundle over the weekend blasting the published comments pinning the blame on him – Tobin, honor restored, was in the “win” column.
In the “lose” column, however, one may lump these: Rundle, her spokesman, and her office, and Smiley and the Herald.
“COMPLETELY FALSE STATEMENT”
The troublesome sentence in Smiley’s June 8 published report – 31 words that sparked controversy, a commissioner’s chagrin and, finally, an SAO spokesman’s contrition – was this:
“Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the state attorney’s office, said prosecutors aren’t entirely sure but believe the original complainant was Commissioner Ed Tobin, who could not be reached for comment Friday.”
On Saturday, an enraged Tobin packed gunpowder into his ordnance, lit the fuse, and lobbed a cannonball straight into Rundle’s office, copying his furious email to his Commission colleagues and Smiley.
“I did not initiate the complaint,” he declared. “I was not present during the alleged violation. I never spoke to anyone employed in your office or any other investigative office about this matter whatsoever. How can your office believe that I initiated [it]? Either I did or I did not….What caused your office to believe I initiated [it]?
“Your office has now made a completely false statement about me. My relationship with my colleagues will now be strained because of [it]. My ability to serve 90,000 residents depends on the relationships I have with my colleagues. If I believed one of my colleagues committed a criminal act I would be obligated to report the matter and I would do so.
“Someone has caused your spokesperson to perpetuate a false statement to harm my city.”
“MY DEEPEST APOLOGY”
An inquiry to Griffith on Saturday night, asking for a response to Tobin’s email, apparently caught the SAO spokesman by surprise. Griffith replied to a SunPost reporter that evening. To what email was he being asked to respond? A copy of Tobin’s email was quickly relayed to him.
On Monday morning, the SunPost again reminded Griffith that a response was awaited. Griffith replied that he was “waiting to meet with the person who appears to have supplied me with the wrong information so that I can clarify” adding, “It appears that I owe Commissioner Tobin an apology.”
An apology was issued by the end of business, hours later.
“I want to apologize for any incorrect information that I provided. The initial investigation…initially arose in somewhat of a confused manner and, in retrospect, this confusion seems to have carried over into my telephone conversation with… Smiley. Mr. Smiley had contacted me regarding issues related to the public release of the…close-out memo. The memo did not address the origin of the original complaint and the reporter inquired specifically about that.
“Upon reviewing our recollections, we incorrectly believed that the information came from you. I have since learned, both through your communication and from far more detailed conversations with others, that it did not. For my error, I owe you my deepest apology.”
Griffith sent copies of his apology to the SunPost, Smiley, and Watchdog Report’s Dan Ricker, as well as to Tobin’s colleagues. “I also wish to apologize, not just for my mistake but for any negative repercussions or uncomfortable situations that this error may have created for you,” he wrote Tobin.
Tobin, asked for his reaction to the apology, was out of town and unavailable for comment.
MORE UNANSWERED QUESTIONS
But the questions were not over for Griffith and Smiley, the two central figures whose conversation – and assignment of blame upon Tobin – provoked the uproar.
What are you able to divulge about the identity of the informant at the heart of the complaint against Weithorn and Wolfson? the SunPost asked.
I will not confirm the source, only that it was not Tobin, Griffith replied.
Then how did Tobin’s name even come up in your conversation with Smiley? Was it volunteered? Was it solicited?
Griffith, more coyly: “When a reporter asks you a question, you answer.”
Smiley did not answer a SunPost inquiry asking him how Tobin’s name came up in their conversation – whether by Griffith offering it up or Smiley first broaching it.
In his report on it, posted on the Herald’s blog Tuesday morning, Smiley quoted from Griffith’s apology, but neglected to post any of the portion of it mentioning him or his own part in his conversation with Griffith.
“FOCUSING ON TOMORROW”
The investigation evolved from a complaint that Weithorn and Wolfson colluded – in violation of the Sunshine Law – on Wolfson’s motion at the December 2011 Commission meeting to fire City Manager Jorge Gonzalez. Wolfson later accused Gonzalez, or Mayor Bower, or their emissaries as the ones behind the complaint.
Shortly thereafter, reports surfaced of residents receiving anonymous robocalls broadcasting word of the SAO’s probe of Wolfson. The source of those calls has never been determined.
Wolfson’s motion, tabled until the March meeting, was never heard from again until the April corruption arrests of city employees rekindled Wolfson’s – and, this time, Tobin’s and citizens’ – move to replace the city manager. Under fire, Gonzalez offered his resignation in May and the Commission accepted it.
Weithorn, absolved of any wrongdoing, said this week that the investigation was already in her rearview mirror: “I am focusing on tomorrow where we will make our city better by auditing our regulatory departments, engaging with the FBI, and hiring a permanent city manager.”
Tobin to Rundle: “Your Office Made a False Statement”
(Here is the email sent by Beach Commissioner Ed Tobin to State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle last Saturday.)
Dear Ms. Rundle,
A month or so ago your office received a complaint that Commissioner[s] Weithorn and Wolfson might have violated the Florida Sunshine Law by speaking to each other off microphone at a Commission meeting. Both commissioners have been cleared of any wrongdoing. Your spokesperson Ed Griffith reported to the Miami Herald “prosecutors aren’t entirely sure but believe the original complaint was Commissioner Ed Tobin…..”
I did not initiate the complaint. I was not present during the alleged violation. I never spoke to anyone employed in your office or any other investigative office about this matter whatsoever. How can your office believe that I initiated the complaint[?]. Either I did or I did not. This is not even a grey area since I had absolutely no contact with your office whatsoever in regards to this matter. What caused your office to believe I initiated the complaint[?].
You are charged with the most critical function in our community. Respect for the truth is so fundamental and essential in carrying out your duties. Life and death decisions depend on your respect for the truth. Your office has now made a completely false statement about me. My relationship with my colleagues will now be strained because of this completely false statement made by your office. My ability to serve 90,000 Miami-Dade County residents depends on the relationships I have with my colleagues. If I believed one of my colleagues committed a criminal act I would be obligated to report the matter and I would do so. I did not have any idea of this matter whatsoever and wonder why your office would perpetuate this false statement.
Someone has caused your spokesperson to perpetuate a false statement to harm my city.
I would respectfully request that you investigate who made the false statement concerning this matter.
Dear Commissioner Tobin,
First and foremost, I want to apologize for any incorrect information that I provided. The initial investigation concerning the Sunshine Law matter involving Commissioners Deede Weithorn and Jonah Wolfson initially arose in somewhat of a confused manner and, in retrospect, this confusion seems to have carried over into my telephone conversation with Miami Herald reporter David Smiley. Mr. Smiley had contacted me regarding issues related to the public release of the State Attorney’s Office close-out memo. The memo did not address the origin of the original complaint and the reporter inquired specifically about that. Upon reviewing our recollections, we incorrectly believed that the information came from you. I have since learned, both through your communication and from far more detailed conversations with others, that it did not. For my error, I owe you my deepest apology.
I am making a copy of this apology available to your fellow commissioners as well as to any member of the media who expresses an interest in this matter. I also wish to apologize, not just for my mistake but for any negative repercussions or uncomfortable situations that this error may have created for you. In what I do every day, I have always striven for accuracy. In this case, I failed. Hopefully, my apology will act to undo any damage that this erroneous bit of information may have caused you.
I regret that I have not been able to communicate this apology personally. However, your staff has indicated that you are presently out of town.
Edward Griffith, Spokesperson
Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office
The SAO’s Memo
(Here is the State Attorney’s Office’s close-out memo on its probe of Commissioners Weithorn and Wolfson.)
Public Corruption Unit
Howard R. Rosen, Assistant State Attorney, Division Chief, Organized Crime Unit
Jose J. Arrojo, Chief Assistant
DATE: May 24, 2012
SUBJECTS: Deede Weithorn, Jonah Wolfson
INVESTIGATOR: Mary Myerscough, Miami-Dade County State Attorney’s Office
CRIME: Sunshine Law violation, 2nd degree misdemeanor
On Wednesday, December 14, 2011, the performance evaluation of the Miami Beach city manager and the city attorney were on the agenda of the meeting of the Miami Beach City Commission. City Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, who was vocally unhappy with the city manager’s performance, was going to move to terminate him.
Certain items that the Commission takes up are not addressed in the Commission chambers, but are addressed instead in a conference room, in what is referred to as a meeting of the Committee as a Whole. The Committee as a Whole meeting is identical to a Commission meeting, in that the full Commission, the manager, and the city attorney are present, the public is noticed of the meeting, and the meeting is open to the public. Items which are of a more personal nature, such as personnel performance reviews, are addressed in such a forum at the mayor’s request, and are specifically noticed as such. As a matter of fact, at least one video camera was present in the meeting of the Committee as a Whole wherein the city manager’s performance was to be addressed. This particular meeting of the Committee as a Whole was held in the city manager’s large conference room.
In the regular Commission meeting, just prior to the meeting adjourning and the parties reassembling in the city manager’s conference room, the city clerk announced that the upcoming item that was to be addressed, i.e., the performance evaluation of the city manager and the city attorney, was going to be addressed in the city manager’s large conference room in a meeting of the Committee as a Whole. Everybody started to get up from the dais and mill about, progressing out of the Commission chambers and towards the city manager’s conference room, which is on another floor in City Hall. It is at this point in time wherein the alleged Sunshine Law violation is said to have occurred between Commissioners Weithorn and Wolfson.
Weithorn and Wolfson stood up, and were having some sort of a conversation behind their seats on the dais. Close behind their seats on the dais there is a small back room, where city employees can do work and be easily accessible to the commissioners, mayor, city manager, and city attorney during Commission meetings. The room has a counter on which people can work, and above this counter there is a smoked glass wall, allowing the staffers to see into the Commission chambers. Additionally, there is no door on the room, which has an opening directly into the Commission chambers. Present in the room at the time were Ramiro Inguanzo, who is the City of Miami Beach’s director of human resources and legal relations; Assistant City Manager Hilda Fernandez; Dolores Mejia, who is the [city's] special projects coordinator; and Kathie Brooks, who is the director of the [city's] office of budget and performance improvement.
Formal sworn statements concerning this matter were taken from Inguanzo, Fernandez, Mejia, and Brooks. Additionally, Commissioners Wolfson and Weithorn came in voluntarily and cooperated in this investigation by giving formal sworn statements.
Inguanzo saw Weithorn and Wolfson standing up and having a conversation. He was not able to hear the entire conversation, but he heard Weithorn say that she was “going to table the motion.” He described that the commissioners were leaning in to each other talking, and that he was only three or 4 feet from them, when he clearly heard this statement, with what he described as “100% accuracy.” Inguanzo stated that he did not know exactly what motion they were talking about, but that he had assumed that it was Wolfson’s motion to terminate the city manager. This assumption was based upon the fact that he had heard earlier that such a motion was going to be made. When Inguanzo heard what Weithorn said, he said something like, “Did you hear what she said?” or “Did you hear what they said?” Brooks then said, “I heard them say something about Michael and the vote.”
Brooks stated that she saw Weithorn and Wolfson talking, but she thought that she heard one of them say something about “Michael’s vote.” She assumed that they were talking about Commissioner Michael Gongora. She has no idea what exactly was said, or even who said it. She does not recall if it was Weithorn or Wolfson. She does not recall if it was a male voice or a female voice. She does not know if the conversation about “Michael’s vote” that she thought that she heard was a discussion of a past vote, or how they thought that Gongora was going to vote on a matter in the future.
Neither Fernandez nor Mejia heard any conversation between Weithorn and Wolfson, although they recall Inguanzo saying something like, “Did you hear that?” and then heard the conversation between Inguanzo and Brooks about what they heard (i.e., “tabling the motion” or “Michael’s vote”).
Wolfson came in and rendered a voluntary sworn statement to the undersigned assistant state attorney. He denied having any conversation about an impending matter with Weithorn. He said that he may have had a conversation with her on the dais, but that he does not recall any of the details of it, although he knows that they certainly did not discuss any impending vote or that anybody was going to table any matter.
Weithorn also came in and rendered a voluntary sworn statement to the undersigned assistant state attorney. She also denied having any conversation about any impending matter with Wolfson. She said that she did not say that she was going to table the matter, and that the only reference that she may have made concerning the word “table” was when she and Commissioner Wolfson were discussing the fact that she had some pills on the “table” during the meeting due to the fact that she was in pain due to medical reasons at the time and he may have asked her about the pills that she “had on the table.”
While Inguanzo stated that he heard Weithorn tell Wolfson that she was going to “tabled a motion,” none of the witnesses, including Inguanzo, heard any conversation between Weithorn and Wolfson specifically about the firing of the city manager.
There is clearly insufficient evidence with which to prove that the Sunshine Law was violated in this matter.