© 2024 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

DeSantis suspends Miami commissioner following arrest on corruption charges

Mugshot of a man in an orange jumpsuit
Miami Dade County Government
Mugshot of Miami Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla after he was was arrested on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, on numerous felony charges relating to money laundering, misuse of his public office and campaign finance violations.

Updated Friday, September 15, 7:30 p.m.

A Miami commissioner was arrested Thursday on numerous felony charges relating to money laundering, misuse of his public office and campaign finance violations.

Late Friday, Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla was suspended from office by Gov. Ron DeSantis, effective immediately.

Under Florida law, the governor may suspend from office any elected municipal officer arrested for a felony or for a misdemeanor related to the duties of the public office.

Díaz de la Portilla and attorney, William W. Riley Jr., were charged with one count of money laundering, three counts of unlawful compensation or reward for official behavior, one count of bribery, and one count of criminal conspiracy, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Díaz de la Portilla was also charged with four counts of official misconduct, one count of campaign contribution in excess of legal limits, and two counts of failure to report a gift.

The charges stem from various alleged monetary schemes by the pair, including campaign contributions they received for Díaz de la Portilla's brother that they did not report, and personal expenditures Diaz de la Portilla made using campaign contributions.

"Further investigation determined Díaz de la Portilla also operated and controlled two political committees used not only to support his brother’s campaign, but also for personal expenditures. Records showed that one of the committees reported total donations of approximately $2.3 million and the other reported total donations of more than $800,000," FDLE stated.

The investigation against Díaz de la Portilla and Riley arose out of an inquiry from the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust. The commission was looking into several potential ethics violations by Díaz de la Portilla. Once it became clear that there were potential criminal violations involved, they contacted law enforcement, according to a statement by the Commission on Ethics' Executive Director, Jose Arrojo.

"It is always sad and regrettable when an elected official is criminally charged with abusing the public's trust, but the community should find some solace in the fact that today's arrest will shine a bright light on the alleged criminal conduct," Arrojo said.

Díaz de la Portilla issued a statement to media outlets, denying the allegations.

"I have not done anything wrong. Clearly this action has been timed and executed for shock and awe purposes, to create the maximum damage to my political campaign and family," the statement said. "This is nothing more than prosecutorial abuse of our court system, abuse of process, and the unfortunate weaponization of law enforcement targeting conservative Republicans for political purposes and career advancement."

"When the smoke clears, I am confident that these spurious charges will evaporate into thin air. Any further comment will be through my attorney," the statement added.

Speaking to reporters late Thursday, Díaz de la Portilla called the investigation "a work of fiction" and said he was experiencing the same treatment as former President Donald Trump.

"This is a work of fiction by this prosecutor, this is a Democrat state attorney from Broward County who's targeting a Republican commissioner from Miami, the same thing that's happening to President Trump at the national level with four different false prosecutions is happening to me in Miami at the local level, we're seeing it on the national level and now we're seeing it on a local level," he said. "There's nothing true about this complaint," he said. "Not an ounce of truth in those allegations."

Trump is facing federal charges for hoarding classified documents at his Mar−a−Lago estate and for his efforts to overturn results of the 2020 presidential election, as well as a criminal case in Georgia over attempts to subvert that state’s vote and another in New York in connection with hush money payments to a porn actor.

A release by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement detailing charges against Alex Diaz de la Portilla
A release by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement detailing charges against Alex Diaz de la Portilla

The Broward State Attorney's Office is prosecuting the case against Díaz de la Portilla. The Broward SAO was involved in the investigation against the commissioner, along with FDLE and the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.

"I thank and commend the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for their hard work and dedication in investigating this case with our prosecutors. The Broward State Attorney’s Office will pursue justice in this matter,” Broward State Attorney Harold F. Pryor said in a written statement.

Díaz de la Portilla has been on the Miami City Commission since 2019, when he was elected to represent District 1, which includes Allapattah and Grapeland heights.

He previously served as a Republican member of the Florida Legislature in both the Florida House of Representatives and the State Senate, between 1994 and 2010.

The commissioner has been at the center of multiple controversies during his time at the city.

READ MORE: Miami faces another lawsuit over redistricting — depending on Supreme Court decision

In March of 2021, Díaz de la Portilla was accused of planting his friend and former legislative aide Jenny Nilo as a “no-show” employee at the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency — a body that Díaz de la Portilla oversees. The executive director of the CRA fired Nilo, saying she never showed up to work in 11 months, despite being paid about $53,000 a year in taxpayer dollars.

Díaz de la Portilla told WPLGhe planted Nilo to be his "spy" on the agency.

Later that same year, Díaz de la Portilla was named as one of three commissioners accused of corruption by former Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo. Before he was fired in October, Acevedo wrote a memo saying that Díaz de la Portilla, Joe Carollo and Manolo Reyes were guilty of improperly tampering with internal police investigations.

Acevedo asked for "federal intervention" to investigate corruption at Miami City Hall. An investigation was opened into Acevedo's claims, but Miami State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle recused herself from the inquiry, saying that a substantial witness to the potential misconduct was the brother of an attorney in her office. The case was transferred to the Broward State Attorney's Office.

The commissioners all denied Acevedo's claims.

An ethics commission in October of 2022 found probable cause that Díaz de la Portilla abused his power as an elected official by allowing Nilo, the no-show employee, to use a city-owned car to run errands for him, like picking up alcohol for him and dropping off his dry cleaning.

Díaz de la Portilla challenged the ethics commission's findings and said they were not truthful.

Díaz de la Portilla is up for reelection this November. In August, his opponent, Miguel Gabela, sued the city in Miami-Dade civil court, accusing the city of carving his property out of District 1 to disqualify him from running against Díaz de la Portilla.

Most recently, Díaz de la Portilla was sued for racketeering for his alleged involvement in a “shakedown” of a local lobbyist. The lobbyist claims in court that Díaz de la Portilla wanted one of his financial supporters to be involved in the business at the Rickenbacker Marina, and pressured a prospective marina operator to make a deal with him. Díaz de la Portilla declined to comment to WLRN about these allegations.

Joshua Ceballos is WLRN's Local Government Accountability Reporter and a member of the investigations team. Reach Joshua Ceballos at jceballos@wlrnnews.org
More On This Topic