The Rev. Gaston Everett Smith sat quietly in a Miami courtroom on Tuesday as witnesses for the prosecution were called to testify.
The 43-year-old pastor is accused of misusing $10,000 in county grant money that was intended to revitalize a blighted section of Liberty City.
Prosecutors with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office allege that Smith, whose trial began Monday and continued throughout the week, used the cash for personal expenses, including $500 to settle a tab at a Las Vegas martini bar. Smith is the pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City. He is charged with third-degree grand theft.
Prosecutor Richard Scruggs said in his opening statement to the jury, “This was supposed to be seed money to an organization; it was never meant to be seed money for Pastor Smith himself.”
He added, “Follow the money, follow the money, follow the money.”
Smith is represented by Miami attorneys Larry Handfield and Michael Tein. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice A. Butchko presides over the case.
Smith’s arrest arose from an investigation into $75,000 awarded by the county to the Metro-Miami Action Plan Trust (MMAP), $25,000 of which was passed on to Friends of MLK, a non-profit organization Smith founded.
Although suspended Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, one of Smith’s most prominent parishioners, is not on trial, her role is key to Smith’s defense.
Smith told investigators that Spence-Jones urged him to create Friends of MLK in 2004. He also said that Spence-Jones helped him secure $25,000 in county grant money in exchange for her receiving roughly a third of the money, or $8,000, as a consulting fee.
During the testimony of William Simmons, an employee of MMAP and a witness for the prosecution, he said, “She [Spence-Jones] advised me that she would place me in touch with principals of MLK. She advised me that Pastor Smith is a likely principal.”
Last month, Spence-Jones was charged with second-degree grand theft, 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. Gov. Charlie Crist suspended Spence-Jones from office after she was charged.
Spence-Jones has announced that she will seek re-election next month to the seat from which she was suspended.
During his testimony during Smith’s trial on Tuesday, prosecution witness Vincent T. Brown said he received a memo from then-Miami-Dade County Commission Chairperson Barbara Carey-Shuler’s office, stating that, “The organizations listed in that memo would get the money—money would go to those agencies without discretion.”
The agencies listed included Friends of MLK.
Early in the investigation, a Friends of MLK board member told investigators that the agency had not applied for or received the grant. Another board member alleged that Smith asked him to sign blank checks that required two signatures.
An e-mail received by Simmons presented this evidence: “At the request of the chair, Carey-Shuler, staff was directed to work with the County’s MMAP, to provide, at MMAP’s discretion, funding to Belafonte Tacolcy Center, Overtown Youth Center, Timbuktu Marketplace, Osun’s Village and Friends of MLK.”
The agencies were tasked with revitalizing a portion of Liberty City.
Simmons testified that when he “first got this, I did not know who the individuals were with the organizations—I was not sure. We asked who the people were we needed to talk to within our organization. I asked Mr. Brown if he knew who I should contact.”
Simmons also testified that he had no knowledge of the scope of work or monies involved, or the people authorized to sign.
“The individual in the director position at the time would have been responsible. I think, at the time, it was Vince Brown,” he said.
Simmons denied any knowledge of how the grant application came about or who decided on the dollar amount. He also said that he “made several calls to key personnel within agencies” to get answers to his questions.
But Brown, under cross examination, said of the grant documents, “On its face, it did not appear to be illegal, unethical or immoral,” and said that he “asked his staff to help the process of getting the money to the agencies.”
When aggressively questioned by Tein, Brown denied contacting anyone from the mayor’s office, Carey-Shuler’s staff or dealing with Smith directly to voice his late suspicions.
“It was not my place to deal with the legality of it,” Brown said. “Having worked in government for 15 years, you know how things are done. You simply accomplish the mission of the commissioner.”
Brown also told the court that before money is distributed, its purpose must be identified and that the MMAP Trust would establish what that purpose is.
“In this instance,” he said, “it was done after, not prior.”
Brown is an attorney and former MMAP president and CEO (2001-2005).
During cross examination, Simmons stated “this was a project that came to us that was unusual, given that this was a county ordinance.”
He also said there were never any reports or receipts submitted by any representative of Friends of MLK.
“I sent them more than one e-mail, but never received a reply,” he said.
Photo: Rev. Gaston Smith