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Miami State Attorney's Office Never Told Prosecutors How Charity Fund Worked, Says Former Staffer

Katherine Fernandez Rundle
Miami Herald
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle

Since 2009, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office has given more than $5 million it collected from defendants to nonprofits in the county. The money was collected from defendants seeking to lessen their charges, or even make their cases completely disappear, as WLRN reported following a year-long investigation.

But a former prosecutor for that office told WLRN that prosecutors were never told the Denise Moon Memorial Fund charity was created and controlled by the State Attorney’s Office.

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“I just kind of figured it out,” said Joanna Sandstrom, who was an assistant state attorney in Miami-Dade between 2004 and 2019. “I don’t remember ever getting a memo or anything official. I think it just became clear to me at some point over the years that this is what it was. That either [the State Attorney] created it or was the chairman of the board, or something where she had complete control or had a say in how the money was allocated.”

The fact that an internal committee inside the prosecutor’s office makes decisions about how money raised from criminal defendants is spent has raised questions of conflict of interest, as WLRN reported. Some groups that received tens of thousands of dollars in funding are closely connected to State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.

In a statement, the State Attorney's Office said that new hires are informed of the way the charity works, and that the Denise Moon Memorial Fund is a "focal point" of the section of training that discusses diversion programs. The office also pointed to a section of the State Attorney's Office website that includes some information about the fund.

That part of the website does not mention the role that the prosecutor's office plays in deciding how the money is spent.

Before the creation of the fund, prosecutors would often negotiate donations to nonprofits in the community as a condition of a plea deal, said Sandstrom. After the Denise Moon Memorial Fund was created, she said it became "very clear" that money should be directed to that charity instead of other organizations.

This was not necessarily a bad thing, said Sandstrom, who now practices appellate law in private practice. 

“If we’re all giving money to Big Brothers Big Sisters, then there’s these other organizations that maybe we don’t know about that are not getting monies that are deserving of monies as well. I can also see it as a kind of equalizer as well,” she said. “So that we could spread the money around a little bit better instead of individually, attorneys having their own pet projects or pet organizations.”

Still, records indicate that there are charities the State Attorney’s Office has favored to receive money through the Denise Moon Memorial Fund.

(WLRN is updating a spreadsheet with the money that has been disbursed by the State Attorney’s Office charities public. You can find that spreadsheet here. Use the tabs on the bottom to navigate our findings.)

In July 2016, Sharon Savoldy, the fiscal director of the State Attorney’s Office, requested a $5,000 “ad hoc donation from the Denise Moon Memorial Fund” to be sent to Victim Response, a center that provides services to victims of domestic and sexual abuse, according to an email sent to the Miami Foundation.

The Miami Foundation technically owns the money at the Denise Moon Memorial Fund, but most of the decision making is handled by the State Attorney’s Office, which created the charity.

The $5,000 payment appears in financial records a few days after the initial email was sent. Just a month earlier, Victim Response received a $25,000 grant from the Denise Moon Memorial Fund, records show.

Between 2012 and 2017, $30,000 in “ad hoc” grants was given to Our Kids of Miami-Dade and Monroe, an organization that for years was contracted by the state of Florida to handle child welfare and foster care services in South Florida.

The money was used for an annual holiday “toy drive for foster children and youth,” the State Attorney’s Office told WLRN. The organization requested the money from State Attorney's Office outside of the typical application process for the fund, said the office.

“Each request is reviewed by a committee, voted upon and if approved, a funding request is made to The Miami Foundation,” the State Attorney’s Office said in a statement. “It should be noted that these donations are not suggested or directed by individual prosecutors but rather via direct request to the internal team that reviews these requests.”

More recently, money for the annual toy drive has been granted to Citrus Health, the new state contractor for child welfare and foster care services provider in South Florida, said the office. The director of Citrus Health is Esther Jacobo, a former State Attorney’s Office staffer.

Jacobo was previously a member of the State Attorney’s Office committee that made decisions about where Denise Moon Memorial Fund money should be sent, records show.

In 2017, emails show the State Attorney’s Office and the Miami Foundation discussing the need to bolster a favored nonprofit that was facing tough financial times.

Miami-Dade County had just eliminated a grant category that the nonprofit MUJER (Mujeres, Unidas, en Justicia, Educacion, y Reforma, Women, United in Justice, Education, and Reform) relied upon for funding its operations. MUJER is a South Dade-based nonprofit that helps women victims of domestic and sexual abuse.

“Based on my conversation with [MUJER Executive Director Susan Rubio Rivera] this week, this will put them into their worst case scenario regarding the future of the organization,” Charisse Grant, a Miami Foundation employee who helps manage the Fund, wrote to Savoldy at the State Attorney’s Office. “Just wanted to fill you in – since they will likely apply for Denise Moon this year.”

“Thanks, Charisse,” responded Savoldy.

MUJER did not receive a marked increase in funding that year. But between 2010 and 2019, the group received more than $450,000 in grants from the Denise Moon Memorial Fund, making it one of the top recipients of funds, records show.

Some groups have come to rely on support from the State Attorney’s Office to their own detriment when the funds fall through.

A 2017 email sent from Survivor’s Pathway, a nonprofit that provides advocacy and counseling services for victims of crime, laid out the consequences of being denied funding.

“This was devastating news for us; especially considering that the funds of this grant were utilized in almost all its entirety to sustain and keep active our advocacy program at the 11th circuit of the court division of domestic violence,” reads an email sent by CEO Francesco Duberli to officials of the State Attorney’s Office, the Miami Foundation and a judge of the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida.

Survivor’s Pathway was “forced to terminate” its victim’s advocate position at the courthouse after being denied funding, wrote Duberli.

“It really hit us pretty badly,” Duberli told WLRN in an interview. He characterizes the relationship between Survivor’s Pathway and the State Attorney’s Office as “kind of like a partnership” since many of the victims the nonprofit works with are referrals from the prosecutor’s office.

Duberli said WLRN’s reporting about how the Denise Moon Memorial Fund operates has given him a better understanding about how funds are allocated.

“I really didn’t know how it worked. It’s good to create a sense of transparency,” he said. “Because you don’t know how the decisions are being made, how the money is distributed through the community. So it’s really important to shed some light on it in my opinion.”

Before leaving the State Attorney’s Office last year, former prosecutor Joanna Sandstrom was asked to participate in a committee meeting to decide where to allocate funds. She told WLRN that she didn’t feel pressure to favor certain fund recipients over others.

But in retrospect, she said, the way the Denise Moon Memorial Fund operates inside the office raises legitimate questions.

“I would imagine that the intentions are good,” said Sandstrom. “The execution in hindsight is a little bit— I don’t want to say lacking, but maybe they could have done things a little bit differently. Maybe, been a little bit more transparent.” 

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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