How The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office Has Used A Shadowy Charity Fund In Criminal Cases
The case had all the hallmarks of a Miami murder blockbuster: Sex, gruesome violence, international flight, and a questionable payment into an account controlled by prosecutors.
Manuel Marin, former owner of the Presidente Supermarket chain, was accused of hiring a group of mixed martial arts fighters to kill Camilo Salazar. Police said Salazar was sleeping with Marin’s wife. When Salazar was found on a dirt road in west Miami-Dade County in 2011, his body was severely beaten, his throat slit, and there was evidence that his genitals had been set on fire.
You turn to WLRN for reporting you can trust and stories that move our South Florida community forward. Your support makes it possible. Please donate now. Thank you.
Years passed, and Marin had disappeared. Then in 2018, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle made an announcement: arrests had been made in the murder case. Among them, Marin’s son Yaddiel was charged with being an accessory to the murder after the fact.
Fernandez Rundle said he had spent years helping his father live abroad on the lam, sending thousands of dollars a month.
“His financial support from Miami is what allowed his father to remain free in Spain all these years,” Fernandez Rundle said during a press conference at the time.
Prosecutors accused Yaddiel of operating a joint bank account with his father, paying a friend to fly to Madrid to hand-deliver cash, and arranging a trip to Cuba to visit family.
If convicted, Yaddiel Marin faced up to 15 years in prison. His bond was set at $2 million.
And then, a plea deal was reached: If Yaddiel pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest without violence, he would face zero jail time.
Also a condition of that deal: Yaddiel agreed to pay $10,000 to a charity managed by The Miami Foundation, a local philanthropic nonprofit. So long as he paid, no criminal conviction would show on his record.
“The contribution was a minor factor, a minor part of the deal for us. We didn’t give it a whole lot of thought,” James Ferraro, the defense attorney for Yaddiel Marin, told WLRN. “The major factor was what he pled to, which was resisting arrest without violence.”
But there was a twist.
When prosecutor Gail Levine announced to the court that a plea deal had been reached, she referred to the $10,000 payment as a “fine.”
In the actual paperwork, prosecutors called it something else: a “charitable contribution.”
And what’s more, the State Attorney’s Office would later play a central role in deciding how the money was spent.
WHO RECEIVES THE MONEY
For more than a decade, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, under the leadership of Democrat Fernandez Rundle, has operated the Denise Moon Memorial Fund. Through it and other funds the State Attorney’s Office has created since 2009, prosecutors routinely ask for “charitable contributions” or “donations” as a condition for plea deals or an alternative to prosecution — like community service hours.
Defendants fearing criminal convictions and prison time have forked over millions of dollars into the funds. Some cases bring in $200 at a time. But in one case WLRN identified from 2016, a defendant paid $100,000 into the Denise Moon Memorial Fund as part of a non-prosecution settlement agreement.
And in a previously unreported case, unearthed by WLRN, $10,000 was paid into one of the charities, stemming from a case of illegal campaign contributions given to the campaign of a sitting Miami-Dade County commissioner.
Publicly, the State Attorney’s Office has long said the money provides grants to nonprofit organizations doing important work in Miami-Dade County, and that the funds are “administered” by The Miami Foundation.
But until now, there’s been no intense scrutiny of how the Denise Moon Memorial Fund and other similar funds are being used by the prosecutor’s office, how prosecutors help direct where the money goes, and who is ultimately on the receiving end.
WLRN obtained and reviewed more than 1,000 pages of emails, financial reports, internal documents, investigative reports and court records during a yearlong investigation into the fund. Our reporting found that thousands of dollars collected from defendants have gone to groups close to Fernandez Rundle over the last decade, even when they did not submit grant applications through the typical grant-making process.
The grants were distributed at the request of the State Attorney’s Office. Some of the grants include:
- The Theodore Roosevelt Gibson Memorial Fund — named for the civil rights activist who became Miami’s first Black member of the city commission — has received $9,000 in funding for which it never submitted grant applications since 2012. State Attorney Fernandez Rundle is on the advisory board of the group.
- The Women of Tomorrow Mentor and Scholarship Program, a mentorship group for at-risk women, has received at least $90,000 since 2011. The group did submit many applications for grants, but the State Attorney’s Office told WLRN that some amount of that money came from “ad hoc” recommendations that did not go through the typical application process. State Attorney Fernandez Rundle is listed in state records as a vice president of the nonprofit. She is also a co-founder of the group.
- 5000 Role Models of Excellence, a high school dropout prevention program founded by U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens, also a Democrat, received at least $36,000 since 2011 for which there is no record of grant applications. (The group did receive $10,000 in 2019 after submitting a grant application.) State Attorney Fernandez Rundle mentions that she is “very active” with 5000 Role Models of Excellence on the biography on her office’s website. In 2010, the group named Fernandez Rundle as an honorary “co-founder” of the organization.
Other smaller organizations have also received funds from the Denise Moon Memorial Fund at the request of the State Attorney’s Office, including:
- The Trayvon Martin Foundation, named after the teenager from Miami Gardens who was killed in central Florida by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in 2012, received $3,000 in 2017.
- The Daveon L. Hall Scholarship Fund, named for a correctional officer who was murdered in 2016, received $250 in 2018.
- The Miami branch of the NAACP received $500 in 2018.
- Also that year, Brownsville Middle School in Miami received $100 from the fund. A few months earlier, Fernandez Rundle attended the unveiling of a mock courtroom at the school.
- The Safespace Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on domestic violence, received $500 in 2012.
“There’s red flags everywhere,” said Ashley Thomas, the Florida director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a nonprofit that seeks to reduce the role of money in the criminal justice system. “The requirement to pay a donation to a fund created and controlled by a state attorney is going to raise significant conflict of interest questions.”
“The best thing I can think of to call it is a ransom payment. And it’s a payment that only people with money can pay,” she said.
State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle was not made available for an interview for this story.
Fernandez Rundle has been Miami-Dade’s State Attorney since 1993, when her predecessor Janet Reno resigned to become the U.S. Attorney General under President Bill Clinton. She has won every election since. On Aug. 18, she faces a strong challenger in former prosecutor and former American Civil Liberties Union of Florida deputy director Melba Pearson.
Fernandez Rundle has increasingly come under fire from her own party over her prosecutorial practices. In a July vote, the Miami-Dade Democratic Party asked her to suspend her campaign for reelection over how she has handled controversial cases involving police officers. Calls for voting her out of office have been common in protests that have occurred across South Florida in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville.
HOW THE CHARITIES WORK
The financial reports for the Denise Moon Memorial Fund are kept by The Miami Foundation, which technically owns and manages the money in the fund. But the decisions about who gets the money are largely handled by a committee fully made up of State Attorney’s Office staffers, according to emails and records obtained by WLRN.
Members of the internal committee include the executive director of the prosecutor’s office, as well as the office's fiscal director, the director of community outreach and an executive assistant for operations.
Here’s how it works:
- The Miami Foundation receives applications from organizations that are asking for grant money.
- The group reviews and forwards the applications to the committee in the State Attorney’s Office.
- This committee decides which organizations are awarded funding, according to email communications and documents reviewed by WLRN.
- Those decisions are vetted by The Miami Foundation before checks are sent out.
Apart from that grant application process, the State Attorney’s Office can make individual recommendations for which groups should receive money, without those groups having to submit applications.
In most cases, the checks for those groups are first mailed to the State Attorney’s Office.
The State Attorney’s Office then sends those checks to the charities on the receiving end, along with a congratulatory letter from Fernandez Rundle. The checks are sometimes presented by Fernandez Rundle publicly at fundraiser events, her office acknowledged to WLRN.
The agreements for a “Donor Advised Fund” — the type of fund created under the partnership of the State Attorney’s Office and The Miami Foundation — specify that funds can be given only to “qualified public charities” or other groups that fall in line with Internal Revenue Service regulations. The Miami Foundation told WLRN it closely abides by those regulations and standards.
The Miami Foundation does not have an established process used to measure potential conflicts of interest from the State Attorney’s Office.
At least once, The Miami Foundation urged the State Attorney’s Office to grant money to a specific organization, only to have the prosecutor’s office decline.
In 2017, Victoria Fear, who oversaw the Denise Moon Memorial Fund for The Miami Foundation, asked the committee at the State Attorney’s Office to fund Exchange For Change, a group that teaches creative writing to inmates in South Florida. The organization had submitted a proposal for a grant.
“I hope your committee may consider them for some level of funding,” wrote Fear.
The State Attorney’s Office committee chose not to fund the organization.
In a lengthy statement to WLRN, Fernandez Rundle’s office said using charitable contributions as part of a plea agreement or pre-trial diversion program is a “long-standing practice” in Florida courts.
Diversion programs are kinds of rehabilitation programs that serve as an alternative to prosecution. People who complete diversion programs often have charges dropped or lowered on the condition that they attend classes and do other things, like perform community service.
“There is no State or Federal statute prohibiting this practice,” her office said.
The U.S. Department of Justice has explicit guidelines urging federal prosecutors not to carry out the kind of process that Fernandez Rundle’s office has been operating over the last decade.
“Plea agreements, deferred prosecution agreements and non-prosecution agreements should not include terms requiring the defendant to pay funds to a charitable, educational, community, or other organization or individual that is not a victim of the criminal activity or is not providing services to redress the harm caused by the defendant's criminal conduct,” read a section of the Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure guidelines that was recently updated.
The guidelines were updated in January 2020 to specify that prosecutors "may not" enter into these kinds of arrangements, except for in cases of environmental crimes. But the previous version laid out the reasoning behind this policy in more clear language.
These kinds of arrangements have sometimes been called “extraordinary restitution,” the Department of Justice noted, but this is a “misnomer.” The difference is that “restitution is intended to restore the victim's losses caused by the criminal conduct, not to provide funds to an unrelated third party.”
“This practice is restricted because it can create actual or perceived conflicts of interest and/or other ethical issues,” read the guidelines.
The Florida Attorney General’s Office has no similar statewide guidelines. No published opinion from the attorney general has touched on the subject, the office told WLRN.
The Denise Moon Memorial Fund was created in 2009 “to systemize what had been an unfocused approach to charitable donations related to cases,” according to the statement from the State Attorney's Office. For its part in reviewing the grant recommendations submitted to The Miami Foundation, the prosecutor’s office said it only does so “to ensure that there is no conflict of interest or other barrier to the recommendation such as an ongoing investigation of client exploitation or theft.”
And as for recommending that certain groups get funded without going through the regular grant approval process, the office stressed such decisions “are not suggested or directed by individual prosecutors” but rather by the internal committee.
The Denise Moon Memorial Fund has collected and distributed more than $5 million in funds to local nonprofits since 2009.
In 2013, the State Attorney’s Office created another fund called the State Attorney’s Fund for a Safer and Healthier Community, or SASH, aimed at addressing drunk driving. The prosecutor’s office said the money mainly comes from people charged with driving under the influence who take part in diversion programs.
Between 2013 and 2016, more than $2 million was collected into the SASH fund, according to financial records.
By the time The Miami Foundation started accepting grant applications from the public in mid-2017, hundreds of thousands of dollars had already been distributed to groups across the country at the recommendation of the State Attorney’s Office:
- Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, received $57,586.70 between 2016 and 2017. Fernandez Rundle lists herself as “very active” with the group in the biography on her office’s website. The group never submitted an application for grants.
- The National Opinion Research Center, based at the University of Chicago, received $333,500 in funding in 2017 and 2018. This included individual payments up to $75,000, in excess of the $50,000 cap for grants outlined in the Fund’s guidelines. The money went towards a study on drunk driving in Miami-Dade County. It never submitted an application for grants.
- The University of North Florida Training and Service Institute received more than $133,000 between 2016 and 2017 to train police officers in Miami-Dade County. The instruction included sessions on field sobriety testing and on the use of body cameras, according to the institute. It never submitted an application for grants.
- The Miami Coalition for a Safe and Drug Free Community received more than $56,000 in funding in 2016 and 2017. The group received $15,000 in funding in 2018 and again in 2019. It never submitted an application for grants.
Groups that did submit official applications for money from the State Attorney’s Fund for a Safer and Healthier Community have been granted more than $1 million since 2017.
The Denise Moon Memorial Fund in particular has done important work, said Michele Estlund, a defense attorney in Miami and former president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Miami chapter.
“The Fund itself benefits, from my understanding and my research, a good number of very, very worthy causes in Miami that happen to align with my personal beliefs,” she said.
Nonprofit groups like MUJER, Catholic Charities, Ladies Empowerment Action Program, Camillus House and others have received grant money through the fund.
But in a broader sense, the way money is raised for the funds highlights concerns Estlund has with the relationship between money and the criminal justice system.
“We’d like to say that money plays no role in the criminal justice system, and we know that that’s just not true. There are going to be opportunities available to people in different circumstances that are not available to everyone else,” she said. “With respect to someone who has the opportunity and the means to make a donation, then yes, that’s gonna open up another option for how the case might be closed out.”
Several active criminal defense attorneys told WLRN they have long questioned the ethics of the State Attorney's Office requirement that their clients pay into the Denise Moon Memorial Fund as part of a plea deal or in order to enter into a diversion program. However, many worry that speaking publicly about their concerns could impact future clients.
“We’ve always had questions about where that money goes, and the fact that they’re requiring our clients to pay into this fund in the first place,” said one active defense attorney, who asked to remain anonymous. “Do I have issues with it? Yes. But I don’t want the prosecutor on Monday to read that I said something about it, and they take it out on my client in some way. It’s an imperfect tool, but it’s what we have, so we work with it.”
In 2018, the State Attorney’s Office created a third fund, called the STOP Human Trafficking Fund. It has collected more than $25,000 since it started but has not yet granted money to any organization.
THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THE FUND
The first, and most active, of the State Attorney's Office charities was named after Denise Moon, a longtime staffer at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, where she specialized in victim advocacy.
She started in the office under then-State Attorney Janet Reno. During that time Moon launched the first domestic violence unit inside a prosecutor's office in Florida. Moon also helped pioneer the creation of a misdemeanor domestic violence court.
Moon died in 2004 after a long battle with breast cancer, and Fernandez Rundle established the Denise Moon Memorial Fund in 2009 to honor her memory of commitment to victim advocacy.
“Contributions to the Fund come primarily from criminal defendants at the time of their sentencing or election to participate in pre-trial deferral programs,” according to the application guidelines for receiving grants from the fund.
In the fund's early years, financial records show details about who was putting money into the fund, including check numbers and the names of many individuals who were charged with crimes. These early examples provide a look at how everyday cases were administered, since those case files were easy to find. The payments stemmed from crimes including prostitution, marijuana trafficking and possession of alcohol by a minor.
But all information about defendants who put money into the fund became anonymized in financial reports beginning in 2015.
In some outlying cases, these anonymized dots putting money into the Denise Moon Memorial Fund can still be connected.
THE $100,000 CASE
The single largest payment ever into the Denise Moon Memorial Fund was made by the Fort Lauderdale-based Sabal Insurance Group in a 2015 case involving the company’s president and CEO Ian Norris. The company and Norris were accused of defrauding the Miami-Dade Aviation Department of more than $400,000 by charging falsely inflated premiums for workers' compensation and liability insurance.
Prosecutors charged Norris and his company with five felony counts of grand theft.
But they then reached a deal with the State Attorney’s Office to make the case go away. The deal had three components. First, the parties would pay more than $180,000 back to the Aviation Department as restitution — a statute of limitations capped the amount of restitution that would have to be paid. An additional $20,000 would be paid to the Aviation Department to cover the cost of the investigation.
Finally, Norris and his company would also give a $100,000 “donation” to the Denise Moon Memorial Fund, according to a copy of the “stipulated settlement agreement,” the legal document that outlined the deal.
There would be no admission of guilt to settle the case. The State Attorney’s Office would simply stop prosecuting the case once the money was paid.
The only stipulation on the payment to the Denise Moon Memorial Fund was that neither Norris nor his company “claim this money as a charitable deduction on any income tax.”
The money was paid by Sabal Insurance Group’s account, according to a scan of the check obtained by WLRN. Norris paid no money to settle the case from his personal account.
Afterwards, Norris and his company tried to get their own insurance company to reimburse them for the payments. A legal dispute over the payments ended up in a federal appeals court in Atlanta, which last August ruled that the “donation” was not insurable, since it was part of a criminal punishment.
“The Donation is plainly a penalty,” the appeals court wrote in its decision. “Although the parties call this payment a ‘Donation,’ it is neither voluntary nor tax deductible.”
If Norris was found guilty of the five counts of grand theft from taxpayers, he would have been barred from holding an insurance license in Florida for 15 years.
Norris told WLRN it was a "prudent business decision" to enter into the settlement agreement in order to "minimize reputational losses in the court of public opinion" and to minimize "very expensive" elements of a lengthy court case such as "time, money and morale."
He maintains he and his company were innocent of all charges and stressed there was no admission of guilt in the settlement.
The criminal case has been sealed and expunged, but documents relating to the case remain publicly available as exhibits in the federal lawsuit.
The State Attorney’s Office told WLRN it was prohibited under state law from acknowledging that a case that has been expunged and sealed ever existed in the first place. At the same time, the $100,000 case was only expunged and sealed because of the non-prosecution agreement the defendants entered into with prosecutors.
In general terms, the State Attorney’s Office said that in cases with corporate defendants, “financial penalties are the only options available as corporations cannot go to jail.”
“Financial assessments for first-time offenders committing non-violent financial offenses, which never result in jail sentences under Florida’s sentencing guidelines, can help improve life in Miami-Dade,” the prosecutor’s office said. “These donations help add to our community’s ability to provide effective programs to individuals and families in the hope of positively effecting [sic] their future.”
The way the settlement and payment was handled in Norris’ case raises severe conflict of interest questions for the prosecutor’s office, said Ashley Thomas of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
“What we don’t know is — are they doing it in the interest of justice and because it’s the right outcome for that particular case, or are they doing it in the interest of their own charity?” she said. “That is the question that’s raised when you see these massive payments such as $100,000 that are directed towards one of these funds that’s controlled by the state’s attorney.”
Thomas also pointed to the federal appeals court ruling that found the donation was in fact a criminal penalty.
“The judge in that case said it pretty clearly, that these donations are fines in disguise,” she said.
That’s an important distinction, she said, because the use of fines in the criminal justice system is regulated by specific statutes passed by the Florida Legislature.
“But in this case, these donations — which are really fines — are fines that are not authorized by the Legislature, and the Legislature has zero oversight over where the money is going,” said Thomas, a former public defender. “That’s a problem.”
The judge in that case said it pretty clearly, that these donations are fines in disguise. - Ashley Thomas, Florida director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center
Oliver Dunford, a Palm Beach-based attorney with the libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation, said the amount of leeway the prosecutor’s office has in how much money defendants are ordered to pay into the funds is troubling.
“If you speed [while driving], it’s pretty objective. You’re going over the speed limit, you’ve gotta pay a fine, and the fine is set by the statutes,” he said. “But in this case, there seems to be a lot more discretion. In other words, they can charge one party $10,000 — or ask them to donate $10,000 — and they can ask another party to donate $100,000.”
PAYMENTS ARE SYSTEMATIC
The Denise Moon Memorial Fund, the State Attorney’s Fund for a Safer and Healthier Community, and the STOP Human Trafficking Fund were all created under the management of The Miami Foundation.
The philanthropic organization manages close to $350 million in assets and has helped disperse about $300 million in grants since 1967.
The Miami Foundation serves as a conduit for organizations that want to raise funds and give grants but which have not taken all the steps needed to become their own independent nonprofits. Wealthy families, local film festivals and other cultural organizations operate funds that are managed by The Miami Foundation.
This setup means that groups raising money through the foundation generally don’t have to disclose key financial information the same way a registered nonprofit would.
In some cases, it means even state regulators are left in the dark about who is raising funds. The Denise Moon Memorial Fund, for instance, didn’t appear on the state’s Check-A-Charity database until WLRN inquired about it with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which regulates charities in the state.
At the time of publishing, the State Attorney’s STOP Human Trafficking Fund and the State Attorney’s Fund for a Safer and Healthier Community are still not listed on the Check-A-Charity database, even as the latter has raised millions of dollars in funds from defendants in Miami-Dade County.
Payment into these funds are so routine and systematic, the required donations are baked into the contracts the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office has with third-party diversion programs.
In the active contracts, there is a list of fees that “are required to be paid by the offender and collected” as a condition of participating. Payments to the Denise Moon Memorial Fund are listed in the contracts with the Advocate Program and Court Options.
The amount to be paid is “determined by the [State Attorney’s Office],” the contracts read.
The State Attorney’s Office said in a statement that requiring payments as a condition of diversion programs “can help make the community better,” since the money funds nonprofit groups that do work in Miami-Dade County.
THIRD PARTIES RECEIVING FUNDS?
The State Attorney’s Office in Florida’s Eighth Judicial Circuit, including Gainesville and the surrounding area, has a somewhat similar program to the one operating in Miami-Dade. Defendants are sometimes required to pay donations to the nonprofit groups Black on Black Crime Task Force and the PACE Center For Girls, State Attorney Bill Cervone told WLRN.
Cervone described the donations as “the functional equivalent” of fines and fees for cases that “don’t actually get taken to court.” The payments are required for defendants who enter into different kinds of diversion and deferred prosecution agreements.
“We have what amounts to contractual agreements with defendants that they need to donate to so-and-so organization as a condition of the kind of agreement that we reach,” Cervone said.
A major difference between the Eighth Judicial Circuit's approach and that of the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office is that the groups that receive the money in the Gainesville area are independently operated nonprofits. Cervone said his office plays no role in how the funds collected are used.
“We are not decisionmakers. We are partners,” he said of the Black on Black Crime Task Force in particular. “But we are supportive of it.”
In emails exchanged by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office and The Miami Foundation, the question has been raised whether money from defendants has been diverted directly to an independent third-party nonprofit without being sent to The Miami Foundation as intended.
A June 2018 email to the State Attorney’s Office from Victoria Fear, the former program director at The Miami Foundation, alerted prosecutors to the potential issue. A probation officer for the state of Florida called Fear and said payments were erroneously being made to Kristi House, a Miami nonprofit dedicated to helping victims of child sexual abuse.
Paraphrasing the probation officer, Fear wrote: “She said that in plea agreements written by the [State Attorney’s Office], it says where to make the payment, however — all the payments she has personally seen are payable to Kristi House, not [the Denise Moon Memorial Fund].”
Kristi House shares a building with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Child Sexual Battery Unit at 1265 NW 12th Ave.
Amanda Altman, CEO of Kristi House, acknowledged the nonprofit occasionally gets donations directly from defense attorney’s offices or through the Florida Department of Corrections, which oversees the state’s probation officers.
“Usually a case number is referenced in the memo line of the check, but we do not know the defendant’s name or the circumstances under which they were asked to pay this directly to Kristi House,” Altman said.
The Florida Department of Corrections, which oversees the state’s probation officers, was unable to confirm that money from defendants was mistakenly sent to Kristi House. But if a mistake about where money should be sent is found by a probation officer, the state “will work to rectify the error promptly,” the department said in a statement.
Fernandez Rundle’s office called the issue brought up by the probation officer a “mistake by a particular data entry staff member at the probation office.”
“The error was corrected when it was brought to our attention and has not reoccurred [sic] to our knowledge. This appears to have been a singular problem related to the error of a particular data entry staff member,” the office said.
Despite this, money connected to criminal cases has continued flowing to Kristi House.
In the fiscal year that ended in June, Kristi House received about 20 direct payments from defendants in Miami-Dade, totaling just over $4,000. (An earlier version of this story listed the funding amount as $40,000. A representative of Kristi House said CEO Altman mispoke in an interview and meant to say $4,000.)
“We have an operating budget of approximately $5.2 million a year,” Altman said. “So it’s a very small portion of our operating budget.”
THE PUBLIC CORRUPTION CASE
One previously unreported case where prosecutors asked someone to pay $10,000 into the Denise Moon Memorial Fund involves thousands of dollars of illegal campaign contributions to a sitting Miami-Dade County commissioner.
Mario Ferro, who owns Chico’s Restaurant in Hialeah, was caught giving $1,000 to five friends and employees, and directing them to contribute the funds to Commissioner Joe Martinez’s 2016 reelection campaign.
Ferro, 90, had for years been a staple of the Hialeah business community. Mayor Carlos Hernandez named a street after him in 2017. The restaurateur and his family own 42 acres of undeveloped property in western Miami-Dade that he had long pushed the county to rezone.
By funneling illegal money into Martinez’s campaign, Ferro hoped to sway the commissioner to back him in those efforts, according to investigative documents from the Miami-Dade Office of the Inspector General.
After his plot was discovered in 2017, Ferro pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of campaign finance violations. As part of a plea deal, he agreed to pay $10,000 into the Denise Moon Memorial Fund in January 2019, records show.
Ferro received two years probation. Court records show he was released from probation three months later.
Contacted by WLRN, Ferro said he did not want to speak about the case.
Commissioner Martinez’s office did not respond to calls and emails from WLRN over the course of several weeks. Martinez is in the middle of a reelection campaign, and is facing two opponents on the Aug. 18 ballot — Robert Ascencio and Cristhian Mancera.
What happened after Ferro’s plea deal was reached sheds light on the unusual arrangement between the state attorney’s office and The Miami Foundation:
The top prosecutor on the case was unsure of what to do with the money.
Tim VanderGiesen, the head of the public corruption unit at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, sent an email to a representative of The Miami Foundation who helps manage the Denise Moon Memorial Fund for clarification.
“A defendant agreed to make a charitable donation to the Denise Moon Fund in the amount of $10,000,” wrote VanderGiesen. “I have the check and would like to know who and where to deliver it to.”
This story was updated at 1:30pm Monday, July 27.