(Florida International University) – Former Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones’ acquittal on state bribery charges leaves the feisty politician still facing an uncertain political future, with another unrelated trial for allegedly diverting Miami-Dade County grant money to a family-owned business looming ahead.
But even if she is acquitted a second time, because her term has ended, she cannot reclaim the District 5 commission seat to which she was appointed once and elected three times.
Spence-Jones won a full term in a special election called after then-Gov. Charlie Crist suspended her when charges were filed related to the bribery charge. Crist again suspended her when additional charges were filed.
State election law permit commissioners who are suspended after being charged with a crime to reclaim their seats and serve out what remains of their term. After that, they must run for office again.
The Rev. Richard Dunn was appointed to complete her term, promising not to run for re-election. He changed his mind, however, and won a full-term on the commission last November.
That Spence-Jones cannot automatically return to the commission dais is likely to disappoint some residents who have welcomed her recent acquittal.
“I am happy for her because she was given an opportunity to be tried by the courts and not by the media or the public,” said the Rev. Dr. Preston Marshall Jr., who organizes Liberty City's annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Parade and Festival. “Once her second trial is completed, and if she is vindicated, then we can talk about whether she should finish her term.”
Spence-Jones declined to speak to a reporter and didn't respond to questions e-mailed to her. Dunn also declined to comment.
Spence-Jones's political career has alternated between overwhelming victories in a predominantly black district that spans Liberty City, Overtown and Little Haiti and corruption investigations.
She ran for a full-term, beating Dunn, who challenged her for the seat. Dunn had served out the term of the late Miller Dawkins, who served prison time after a corruption conviction.
On March 15, a jury acquitted Spence-Jones of soliciting $25,000 in bribes from two developers in March 2006, and funneling them through a charitable organization, Friends of MLK Trust, which she operated out of her City Hall office.
The pending 2009 grand theft charge stems from allegations that she diverted $50,000 in county grant money to a business run by her family.
Spence-Jones is not new to this type of scrutiny, though the current charges are the only ones that made it to court.
Her legal woes date back to allegations that arose in 2007, when she was investigated by the Florida Election Commission for paying more than $24,000 in cash to campaign workers in 2007.
State prosecutors also probed whether she improperly accepted $18,000 from a non-profit group while she worked as an urban affairs advisor in then Miami Mayor Manny Diaz’s office.
She was also investigated for allegations of accepting monetary compensation from a lobbyist for a condo project in Coconut Grove.
No charges were brought against her.
At least one community leader welcomed her recent acquittal.
“I guess justice is at work,” said Demetrius Allen, a 42-year old Liberty City resident who heads the Urban Garden project which sponsors a weekly farmers market at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center. “She said she was innocent and the courts confirmed it.”
Jessica De Leon of Florida International University contributed to this report.
Megan O. Wright may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org