Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones was charged on Thursday, Nov. 12 with one count of second-degree grand theft, a felony, and was suspended from office.
Spence-Jones is accused of steering two Miami-Dade County grants totaling $50,000 to a company that she and her family members owned, then spending it for personal use.
Prosecutors allege that Spence-Jones forged letters that purported to redirect the funds to her company. The funds came from a county grant awarded in 2005 to two other entities. Those organizations were supposed to receive the money to help them revitalize portions of Northwest Seventh Avenue in the Liberty City section of Miami.
A warrant was issued for Spence-Jones' arrest, and she surrendered to prosecutors at the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building on Friday morning, Nov. 13. There, she held a press conference where she swore her innocence.
“This charge is about removing me from office, and not seeking the truth,” Spence-Jones said. She was surrounded by about two dozen people who sang church hymns, including “We Shall Overcome.”
Spence-Jones vowed to fight the charge. She was released after posting $12,500 bail.
Gov. Charlie Crist suspended her from office on Friday, according to news reports. Such an action is customary when elected officials are charged with felonies or other serious crimes.
The grand-theft charge came just a day after Spence-Jones was sworn in to a second term after winning re-election by an 83 percent margin on Tuesday, Nov. 3.
Spence-Jones, 42, whose district includes the blighted Overtown and Liberty City neighborhoods, has been the target of several criminal probes, ethics complaints and election law violations.
She denied any wrongdoing in the latest episode.
“I never forged any letters or stole any money,” she said.
In 2004 and 2005, and prior to her first being elected to office, Spence-Jones was an aide to former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz.
She also stands accused of directing another $25,000 grant to a non-profit founded by her pastor, and then receiving $8,000 from the organization for undisclosed “consulting” work done.
The total $75,000 in grant funds were distributed by the Metro-Miami Action Plan Trust, (MMAP), a quasi-governmental social-services agency that operates under county oversight, intended to provide economic development to black communities.
Two grants of $25,000 each were intended to go to Timbuktu Marketplace, Inc. and the Osun’s Village projects, respectively. Timbuktu Marketplace is an art gallery. Osun’s Village was a concept intended to renovate storefronts. Both projects would take place along Northwest Seventh Avenue in Miami, from Northwest 54th Street to Northwest 62nd Street.
Karym Ventures, Inc., a company owned by Spence-Jones and her family, was in the process of opening an upscale salon and spa and a restaurant called Café Soul at 4901 NW Seventh Ave. in Liberty City. Spence-Jones had discussions with MMAP officials, and eventually persuaded them that she would be the contact to receive both county grants.
Spence-Jones is no longer listed as a principal in the company, but she was at the time she entered into a verbal agreement with Timbuktu to collaborate on both projects. No partnership was formed.
The normal MMAP process requires grant applicants to apply directly to the agency for funds, and then conduct a presentation before MMAP board members, who decide on approving any requests.
After Spence-Jones approached that agency, its directors were unsure how to proceed since the grants had already been approved specifically for the other companies by Miami-Dade County Commission Chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler’s office.
During this time, even though a grant was slated to go to Osun’s Village, MMAP discovered that Osun’s was not a company at all, but actually a concept of Community Builders Holistic Development Corporation, a non-profit development company.
Spence-Jones convinced MMAP officials that she would be the contact for receiving the grants intended for both companies, and the funds would then be released to Café Soul, instead.
A skeptical MMAP official, Williams Simmons, told prosecutors he was concerned about Spence-Jones’ request, but went along with it anyway because he knew she was close to Carey-Shuler, and feared losing his job if he did not cooperate.
Even so, he did require documentation from the companies, which he received from Spence-Jones in the form of letters. He also asked for authorization from Carey-Shuler.
The money was redirected to Spence-Jones’ company after she allegedly submitted a letter of support to MMAP from Timbuktu representatives. Timbuktu representatives later said they were misled and never authorized or intended for their funds to go to her company.
Another letter Spence-Jones provided was from Community Builders Holistic Development Corporation, prosecutors allege. The company’s president told investigators that they never wrote or were aware of the letter, and that it was a fake even though it was on their firm’s letterhead.
Another letter, faxed to MMAP from an undisclosed number, purportedly came from Carey-Schuler’s office, and used Carey-Shuler’s letterhead. It too, authorized redirecting the funds to Spence-Jones’ family business.
“This letter serves as clarification of my intent regarding the funding allocations of $25,000 to Timbuktu Marketplace, Inc. and $25,00 to Osun’s Village placed in the September 2004 budget,” states the letter purportedly from Carey-Shuler, dated Feb. 15, 2005.
“The Metro-Miami Action Plan Trust should release the $50,000 to Karym Ventures, Inc., the company overseeing the development of Café` Soul –a commercial development project that includes Timbuktu Marketplace and is part of the overall Osun’s Village project (see attachments).”
MMAP's board voted to approve the transfer of the money to Karym Ventures the next day, on Feb. 16, 2005.
But Carey-Shuler said she never wrote or signed such a letter.
“Ms. Carey-Shuler has stated under oath that she did not sign this letter, that a stamp of her signature was used instead of her actual signature, that she would never sign a letter like this, that she had never seen or authorized this letter, and that she never directed MMAP to redirect funds to Spence-Jones,'' Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office investigator Robert Fielder wrote in the arrest-warrant affidavit.
While the letter does contain Carey-Shuler’s signature, it came though a fax machine, and could be a rubber-stamped signature, not an original. Additionally, the letterhead lists Carey-Shuler’s “District 3 Commissioner’s” office, not the commission chairwoman title she held at the time.
These and other irregularities raised suspicion about the letter.
Several weeks ago, when sources who requested anonymity informed the South Florida Times about the pending charges against Spence-Jones, she did not respond to questions about that information.
Numerous attempts were made to reach Carey-Shuler for interview requests, as well, but she did not return repeated calls from the newspaper.
The $50,000 was never placed into a separate, stand-alone bank account, as required. It was co-mingled with Karym Ventures funds, and none if it went to the Timbuktu Marketplace or Osun’s Village projects, for which it was intended.
Some of the money did, however, go directly to Spence-Jones and other family members. According to the arrest warrant affidavit, $12,408 went directly to Spence-Jones; another $9,569 went to her brother, Kenneth Spence; and $3,175 went to their mother, Yvonne Lowe.
Another $10,279.71 was used to pay an American Express credit card that was used for travel and to buy clothes, satellite TV, groceries and other items.
There was also a separate $25,000 county grant that went through MMAP to Friends of MLK Inc., a nonprofit organization founded by Spence-Jones’ pastor, the Rev. Gaston Smith.
Friends of MLK seeks to further the legacy of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the neglected Liberty City community of Miami, along a corridor named after the assassinated civil rights leader.
Spence-Jones is also accused of convincing MMAP officials that Smith would be the contact person for those grants. Smith later paid her $8,000 for undisclosed consulting work.
“As for the $25,000 grant to Friends of MMLK, Inc., Michelle Spence-Jones arranged for Reverend Gaston Smith to be the contracting principle and recipient of the funds. On July 17, 2005, MMAP and Miami-Dade County wrote a check to Friends of MLK, Inc for $25,000,” the arrest affidavit alleges.
“Reverend Gaston Smith stole a portion of these funds and is presently awaiting trial as a defendant in a separate case,’’ the affidavit states.
Pictured above is suspended Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.