A Question of Official Conduct: Castro’s Ethics Case

The Ethics Probe of Commissioner Melissa Castro Deepens

It’s been close to a year since Commissioner Melissa Castro’s ethics case was first brought to the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust. Now, finally, an opinion is being issued that should clarify matters.

The issue at hand is a potential conflict of interest between the commissioner’s two jobs: Coral Gables city commissioner and owner of permit expediting company M.E.D. Expeditors. Previous Ethics Commission meetings had debated over the optics of a city commissioner’s company working for clients in the city they represent and whether a permit was considered ministerial or discretionary, and therefore requiring advocacy by the expeditor to city staff.

Commissioner Castro, absent from the March meeting due to illness, said in a previous meeting that “everything” her company does is online and strictly clerical in nature. But Ethics Commissioners Nelson Bellido and Dava Tunis seemed skeptical of this at the March meeting, with Tunis even reading out a list of services M.E.D. claims to provide on its website. “When I look at that, in my mind, it’s not ministerial,” she said.

castro's ethics
Commissioner Melissa Castro on the M.E.D. Expeditors website: A conflict of interest?

To help clarify matters, former Miami-Dade County Building Official Charles Danger was brought in. In response to Tunis’ question of whether M.E.D.’s services qualified as exclusively ministerial, Danger responded definitively, “No.” He added, “You have other cities you can do business in. Stay away from your city. Don’t influence your city.” He testified that, in his experience, most permit requests have problems that have to be addressed in face-to-face meetings between city staff and someone on the requestee’s side, such as an expeditor.

According to Castro, her company only uses software to expedite permits, and therefore will not be affected by the Ethics Commission’s ruling. In an interview with Coral Gables Magazine, her counsel, David Winker, said, “The old days of walking in there and schmoozing [city officials] to get things done [are over].That’s no longer the case.” Today, he says, “there is no advocacy.”

Elizabeth Hernandez, former general counsel for the City of Coral Gables, had some qualms, however, citing “red flags” about the process and optics involved. “If I want to pull a permit for something and I know that an elected official has a company in my city, that’s where I’m going to go with my business,” she said.

Furthermore, she added that permits almost always necessitate using some discretion, and that city staff might feel pressure to put permits handled by M.E.D. Expeditors “to the front of the line” rather than risk the ire of Castro, who could push for their termination. “They’re nervous. They don’t want their boss to call them in and say, ‘Why did you make these people wait?’”

Hernandez also pointed out that in cases regarding appeals and violations, employees of expediting companies may have to advocate in front of code enforcement boards like Coral Gables’ Planning and Zoning Board. She, too, appeared skeptical of any permit expediting process that did not require discretion by city staff. “You’re talking about .0001 percent of the time when the permit application and the response of the city is purely ministerial,” she said.

castro's ethics
The Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust discussed Castro’s ethics case during their March meeting.

In the end, Ethics Commission Director Jose Arrojo made it as plain as possible: “If you have an elected official who is involved in some type of advocacy and on the other side of that advocacy is a [member of the city government] who is exercising some discretion, that is prohibited…. If, at any point after you submit that permit, there is some interaction with an inspector or you have to go the job site, well, you can’t do that.” An official opinion will be drafted and presented to the Ethics Commission in May.

Stay up to date with the latest news in the Gables with our Talk of the Town and City Hall sections.