MIAMI – Less than a week after Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones was suspended from office, voters learned on Thursday that she will seek to regain her seat in a special election.
Voters will likely go to the polls again some time in January 2010.
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado on Tuesday, Nov. 17 confirmed the special election, but said an exact date has yet to be set. Following a seldom-used provision of the city charter, voters could return Spence-Jones to her seat, effectively undoing Gov. Charlie Crist’s suspension.
“I can stand here today, and say, ‘Yes, Spence-Jones is running for District 5,’” she told supporters at a rally and news conference she called on Thursday.
Regalado has urged Crist to appoint a replacement to fill the seat, but Crist has declined, citing Miami’s charter, which mandates that a special election must take place within 60 days.
“For me not to run would be an admission of guilt,’’ Spence-Jones said at the news conference, flanked by supporters wearing T-shirts with “Spence-Jones’’ written on them. “I have a right to run. The right to continue serving District 5. My running is not about me. It’s about completing what we have started. I can stand here today and say, ‘Yes, I am going to serve my district.’”
Spence-Jones urged supporters to turn out for the rally on her Facebook page.
“Please join us for the Michelle Spence-Jones support rally Thursday, November 19th at 5:00 PM,” the posting stated. “Don’t forget to wear your Michelle Spence-Jones campaign T-Shirt.”
Spence-Jones was re-elected on Nov. 3 to a second term with 83 percent of the vote, trouncing two rivals. If she is re-elected, and later convicted, she would be removed permanently from office, and another special election would be required for her replacement.
Gov. Charlie Crist’s office, however, has not clarified what, if any options are available if Spence-Jones wins the next special election, or whether she would be suspended again.
Spence-Jones is not the first Miami-Dade politician to seek re-election following a suspension.
In 1997, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles suspended Miami City Commissioner Humberto Hernandez after he was charged in a mortgage fraud scheme. Hernandez coasted to a lopsided victory in that special election. He was sworn in to his old seat days later. Arguing that the voters had spoken, Chiles refused to suspend him again. Hernandez was, however, removed from office a year later after being charged and later convicted on unrelated voter fraud charges.
In 1998, Chiles suspended Miami-Dade County Commissioner James Burke after federal authorities charged him with taking bribes. A special election took place, and Burke ran unsuccessfully against current County Commissioner Dorrin Rolle.
GRAND THEFT ALLEGED
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 she forged letters that purported to redirect the funds to her company. One of the doctored letters was on stationery from then-County Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler, who told prosecutors that she did not write or sign the letter. 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.
The funds were distributed by the Metro-Miami Action Plan Trust, (MMAP), a quasi-governmental social services agency that operates under county oversight. MMAP’s mission is 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.
Based on the letters received from Spence-Jones, which prosecutors allege are forgeries, MMAP wrote a check to Spence-Jones’ family business, totaling $50,000.
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.
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.
An additional $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 another, 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, to further the legacy of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Liberty City. The money was supposed to help revitalize a corridor named after the slain civil rights leader.
Investigators also say Spence-Jones received $8,000 for undisclosed consulting work from Friends of MLK.
“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.
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 denies any wrongdoing in the latest episode.
“I never forged any letters or stole any money,” she has said.
Photo: Michelle Spence-Jones