Miami city manager's wife was hired for office remodeling, raising ethics concerns
Updated at 9:30 a.m.
Early last year, when Miami City Manager Art Noriega wanted to remodel parts of his office at City Hall, his office picked a familiar salesperson from a familiar company to provide new furniture — in contracts worth more than $37,000.
The salesperson: Noriega’s wife, Michelle Pradere-Noriega and her company, Hialeah-based Pradere Manufacturing.
Pradere-Noriega’s husband was appointed city manager less than four years ago. In that time, her family company has been awarded over $440,000 in city contracts for new office furniture and furniture assembly, according to public records obtained by WLRN.
Ethics experts say the contracts could raise potential conflicts of interest because of Noriega’s high-ranking position in the city and may violate state ethics laws.
In an interview Wednesday, Noriega told WLRN that he’s done everything by the book. He did acknowledge, however, that the contracts and invoices could arouse “suspicions” of impropriety.
The invoices for renovating the city manager’s offices — which were reviewed by WLRN — show that Noriega’s wife was explicitly listed as the salesperson, though she left out her married name.
Michelle Pradere-Noriega, who uses the hyphenated spelling in official documents, is listed on the invoices without her husband’s last name, simply as “Michelle Pradere.”
Noriega’s executive assistant Ofelia E. Gonzalez was listed as the direct contact for the purchase orders for invoices connected to re-furnishing the city manager’s offices in both City Hall and the Miami River Center, according to public records.
Those separate contracts — one for $27,563 and one for $9,560 — added up to $37,124.06 in sales in just two months, WLRN found.
“These are the types of facts that often give rise to ethics complaints filed with the commission on ethics,” Caroline Klancke, the executive director of the non-profit Florida Ethics Institute, told WLRN. “At its heart, ethics laws are designed to protect the impartiality of the decision making of public officers and public employees, and the fairness of the process.”
For his part, Noriega disclosed his wife’s business relationship with the city in a June 2020 memo to the mayor and commissioners, four months after he was appointed as city manager at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The memo noted that he would recuse himself from “any and all involvement, decision making and/or approvals between the city and the company.”
In the interview with WLRN, Noriega maintained that he created strong firewalls between any decision making about furniture and himself, even if it directly involved his office.
“I had zero involvement in any of the acquisition or purchase of furniture at all. And I made that very clear to my staff when I wrote that memo,” Noriega said.
Any decisions made to expand or remodel offices at city hall were made from “a personnel perspective” because of an increase in city staff, Noriega asserted.
“But the execution of how all of that redesign or additional furniture that was brought into the office to accommodate those additional people and personnel – they weren't done through me. I specifically said: ‘Look, you guys make whatever decisions you need to make,’” said Noriega.
Thousands of dollars in contracts
Pradere Manufacturing has done business with the City of Miami since 2008, according to Noriega’s memo, and the company regularly enters into contracts with other government agencies.
When Noriega became city manager, the couple discussed Pradere-Noriega potentially pausing contracts with the city altogether, he said, but they decided against it.
Pradere-Noriega already had relationships with people in city hall, he said, and he didn’t want to jeopardize her family business and their existing contracts.
The company has entered into contracts with the City of Doral, and is a regular furniture vendor for Miami-Dade County. It was also listed as an approved vendor in a State of Florida furniture contract that expired on Dec. 1, 2023. Many of the city’s purchases were done through that state contract.
The City of Miami sales documents also offer a window into how much money the city is paying for furniture. A single 17-foot conference table for city hall cost taxpayers $17,860 in 2022, records show. Similarly sized tables from less expensive brands can be found online for between $1,600 and $3,000.
Re-laminating a TV console with wood grain cost the city $6,720 in the same order, which also included sixteen swivel chairs. Pradere Manufacturing charged taxpayers a total of $6,201 to deliver and install the products, an invoice shows.
The total bill for the furniture order — for a table, sixteen chairs and re-laminating a TV console — came out to $38,212 in city funds.
Other city contracts Pradere Manufacturing fulfilled since 2020 include furniture orders for the office of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, totaling $8,707.94. Former District 1 Commissioner Alex Diaz De La Portilla’s office paid the company $1,160.18 for re-furnishing. One of the largest orders was for a total revamp of District 5 Commissioner Christine King’s office in May of 2022 that totaled $56,833.64.
According to the city code, any contract above $50,000 “must be approved by the city commission upon recommendation by the city manager.” City legislative records do not reflect any vote being taken on the contract to revamp Commissioner King's office in 2022.
City spokesperson Kenia Fallat told WLRN that a resolution passed by the city in 2006 allows the city to buy furniture through the state contract without requiring votes by the commission, no matter the cost. That same state contract also lets the city buy furniture without opening orders up to competitive bidding, according to the city procurement department, she said in an email to WLRN. The code allows the city to bypass regular bidding rules when it enters into contracts with other government agencies. Competitive bidding is a process normally done by governments to find the best possible price for goods or services.
No Pradere Manufacturing contracts since 2020 were open to bidding. Normally, any purchase above $25,000 must be open to bidding, per city code.
By contrast, the City of Doral used the same state contract in 2017 to buy furniture. Pradere Manufacturing was originally supposed to get a $113,500 contract, but when the city opened it up to public bidding, taxpayers saved nearly $50,000 when another company gave a better offer for comparable furniture.
Jose Arrojo, executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, told WLRN that the Miami-Dade County ethics code specifically prohibits family members of government officials from contracting with their relatives’ government body.
The county-level ethics rules are more stringent than state law.
“Without commenting on any specific matter, the County Ethics Code prohibits the immediate family member of a municipal government executive from entering into a contract or transacting any business with the executive’s city,” Arrojo said. “The prohibition extends to the immediate family member individually, and also to any entity in which the family member has a financial interest.”
“There are some exceptions to that general bar for lower-tier municipal employees, but not for city managers or department heads,” he added.
After WLRN contacted them for this story, the county ethics commission began requesting records related to Pradere’s contracts with the city.
Ethics opinions are often sought by officeholders when they need guidance on potential ethical issues, but they are not required. Noriega acknowledged that he made a “decision of choice” not to seek an opinion from the county or state ethics commissions while he was entering into his role as city manager.
“We didn't do it. Quite frankly, I didn't think it was warranted at the time,” he said. “I felt the disclosure was certainly creating transparency around the relationship.”
Noriega said his wife is not contracting with the city directly at all. Pradere Manufacturing is owned by her parents, and she does not hold a financial stake in the company, he said.
A staff member of recently-elected District 1 Commissioner Miguel Gabela — who has quickly cultivated a city hall reputation as an anti-corruption advocate — was also offered Pradere-Noriega’s company as a possible furniture vendor.
Steven Miro, special advisor to Gabela, said an employee from Miami’s General Services Administration approached him after Gabela’s swearing-in. He said the employee showed him an emailed catalog with furniture he could purchase for the new commissioner’s office. When Miro scrolled down and saw the last name “Noriega” at the bottom of the email, he quickly refused when he determined it was Pradere-Noriega’s furniture firm.
“I said, ‘absolutely not.’ We're not going to use this because we're coming in with a clean slate and I don't want anything that sounds like improprieties or quid pro quo’s or anything like that,” Miro told WLRN. “When you're the city manager, and then you have a vendor that's your wife, you're putting the commissioner in a tough spot… It just looks odd.”
Miro is not a newcomer to city hall. He worked as a district liaison for District 3 Commissioner Joe Carollo when he was elected to the commission in 2017.
Miro was fired by Carollo after he blew the whistle on his boss, telling investigators that Carollo used city funds to provide food and supplies for a political fundraiser for former Commissioner Alex Diaz De La Portilla, while Portilla first ran for the seat in 2018. The city settled a wrongful termination suit with Miro in 2022 to the tune of $125,000 but admitted no wrongdoing.
Other city offices and departments have contracted Pradere-Noriega’s firms — and Noriega's staff has had some connection in contracts that were unrelated to his own office space.
In other sales — not directly involved with the city manager’s office — Gonzalez, Noriega’s executive assistant, was listed as the main contact. For example, when the city ordered ten plastic chairs for an affordable housing development through the company in 2021, Gonzalez was named on the invoice.
Pradere-Noriega’s company also listed her husband’s assistant on a $4,993 invoice for 42 plastic chairs for Coral Gate Park in 2022 — rather than the city’s parks department or procurement office.
Kenia Fallat, the city spokesperson, told WLRN that executive assistants play no role in approval decisions for purchases, and Gonzalez was likely just a point of contact.
Damian Pardo, Miami city commissioner for District 2, told WLRN he believes the city needs more “guardrails” to avoid potential conflicts of interest and issues with city contracts. Some city employees, he said, might not be aware of possible conflicts when contracting with approved vendors.
Pardo’s chief of staff, Anthony Balzebre, previously signed off on invoices for furniture purchased from Pradere Manufacturing, when he was assistant executive director of the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) in 2020.
One invoice was for $1,147 for cabinets for the CRA office on June 10, 2020. The CRA also paid the company $281 the following month for an office chair, including delivery and installation costs.
Balzebre said the invoice was sent to him to sign off on and he was told the company was an approved vendor with the city.
“I had zero awareness of any familial relationship. I had no idea she was married to Art [Noriega]. She used her maiden name,” Balzebre told WLRN.
Out of the spotlight
A figure who has largely remained out of the spotlight amid the chaos of recent city hall scandals, Noriega has spent many years in Miami government leadership. Before becoming city manager, he spent 20 years as the chief executive officer for the Miami Parking Authority. In 2009, Noriega hired Pradere Manufacturing to do a full remodeling of the corporate offices in downtown Miami, to the tune of $569,865, agency records show.
Unlike during Noriega’s tenure as city manager, the Miami Parking Authority did not repeatedly contract with the furniture company. The full office rehab is the only contract on record with the company during Noriega’s tenure at the MPA.
Pradere-Noriega and Noriega did not get married until 2015, years after that single contract with the family company.
The revelations of Noriega’s family connection to hundreds of thousands of dollars in city contracts could create yet another headache at city hall at an already difficult time.
Commissioner Joe Carollo is facing a $63.5 million civil judgment for allegedly using city government to violate the rights of city residents and businesses. Another city commissioner was arrested on corruption charges. And Miami Mayor Francis Suarez is currently under investigationfor possible conflicts of interest, and new city leaders have called for his resignation.
State ethics law prohibits a public official from “directly or indirectly” purchasing goods or services from a company in which a spouse “has a material interest.”
Klancke said the Florida Commission on Ethics would likely investigate if Noriega has broken that law using its subpoena power, in the event that an ethics complaint is filed.
Pradere Manufacturing, which does business as Pradere Office Products, was incorporated in 1972 by Pradere-Noriega’s father, state corporate records show. Pradere-Noriega’s mother, father and sister are listed as the corporate officers.
The city of Miami has also received invoices from Pradere Designer Workspaces, where Pradere-Noriega is listed as the company’s vice president of operations and an authorized officer, according to her LinkedIn account and state corporation records.
Despite the differences listed on the invoices, all payments have been made to Pradere Manufacturing, according to city records.
In practice, the line between each of the companies is difficult to distinguish. The website for Pradere Designer Workspaces, for example, is PradereOffice.com, which also refers to the company as “Pradere Office Products.”
Asked why his wife’s company is listed on invoices that were actually paid out to her family’s company, city manager Noriega said he had no idea why the invoices would say that.
“I couldn't tell you if I tried, by the way, because I've never seen them and played no role in it,” he said.
City manager Noriega has maintained close proximity to the various companies since becoming Miami’s chief executive officer. In September of 2023, Pradere Designer Workspaces was awarded the Commercial Interior and Design Firm of the Year by the Latin Builders Association, a politically powerful group in South Florida. Michelle Pradere-Noriega is also an executive director of the association.
A social media post shows Miami city manager Noriega was at the event celebrating the Latin Builders award for the company alongside family and friends, including his wife. Other posts show Noriega celebrating Pradere corporate parties with company staff and family; Noriega brought Pradere-Noriega to City Hall for the swearing in ceremony for former police chief Art Acevedo, a picture of which was posted on Pradere Office's business Instagram account.
Acevedo told WLRN that Noriega specifically mentioned his wife’s company when he came on board in 2021, and the chief of police’s office was about to undergo office renovations.
“I specifically remember the city manager saying — ‘Michelle has this business — you should think about going with them,’” said the former police chief. “I should have asked more questions about it at the time to be honest. I remember thinking to myself: Is this a Candid Camera moment or something? Because in the places where I’ve lived and worked that would be conflict.”
Acevedo said he eventually directed his department to use a different contractor for the renovation.
In retrospect, the incident raises serious ethical questions for the chief, who was ousted in a public dressing-down shortly after taking office, in large part for claiming the city is run by the “Cuban Mafia.”
“You can’t insulate yourself or build a firewall when whatever you own, she owns, or whatever she owns you own,” said Acevedo.
After publication, Noriega vehemently denied that this conversation with Acevedo ever happened. He maintains he has never sent his wife any business.