South Miami Mayor Stoddard, His Hokey Pokey Lawyer, and the Ethics Commission

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Grant MIller

I’ve written at length about South Miami Philip Stoddard’s travails in getting — and keeping — a lawyer to help him in his myriad of legal problems.  If he were paying for it out of his own pocket, he could hire F. Lee Bailey (if he wasn’t disbarred) for all I care. But Phil has a habit of dipping into the City’s bank account to fund his barristers.  And that makes it our business.

Phil was sued by Lt. Jose Lopez for defamation when he smeared Lopez in his private blog.  The whole thing started when Phil was naked with his tween daughter and a Russian exchange student and Lopez and former Chief Orlando Martinez de Castro wouldn’t cover for Phil. Phil called upon the City’s insurance policy to cover the cost of his defense, with the City paying a huge deductible. Ultimately, the case was settled for a healthy six figures.

Then there were two cases that Chief Martinez brought for wrongful termination and for libel.  Phil called upon the City’s insurance to cover his legal fees. Again, after paying a huge deductible, the City’s insurer assigned a lawyer from its on-call roster.  The case about the Chief’s firing went to trial. The City and Phil lost. The City appealed. It lost. Ultimately, the case came back to the trial court. With attorneys’ fees and costs, the City and its insurer had to pay out about $1.5 million.  The libel case is still pending.

But the tale of Phil’s attorney problems gets even more twisted.

In January 2018, Stephen Cody attempted to speak at a City Commission meeting, but Phil turned off the microphone. Phil claimed Cody was a lobbyist because he was the head of PAC that opposed his reelection. But Cody wasn’t there to talk about the election. He wanted to speak about how the City’s loss in the Martinez lawsuit was going to cost $1.5 million. Phil saw that as a threat to his reelection and shut him down, aided and abetted by City Attorney Thomas Pepe.

Cody filed a complaint with the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and the Public Trust.  He went back to the Commission in February, again trying to talk about the cost of the Martinez lawsuit. Phil still wouldn’t let him speak.

Michael Murawski, the Ethics Commission’s Advocate, wrote a strong memo to support the finding of probable cause. (There’s a link below to copy of the memo so you can read it for yourself.) After some delay, the Ethics Commission voted 3 to 1 to find probable cause that Phil violated the Citizens’ Bill of Rights.

Phil wanted to hire Benedict Kuehne, the lawyer who helped get former Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi off, and have the City pay for it. The City Commission first agreed, but with some confusion as to whether his fees would be capped at $5,000.  Phil made the mistake of participating in the debate and voting on the resolution, only withdrawing his vote when it was clear there were enough votes to let it pass.

That led to a second ethics complaint by Cody because Stoddard participated in and voted on something that would benefit him personally. Stoddard admitted he was unethical, and the Ethics Commission have him a slap on the wrist.

The City Commission took a revote on Kuehne’s fee without Stoddard and repealed the resolution. And it also passed a new resolution saying that the City would not pay for his lawyer. Phil was on his own as to his attorneys’ fees.

Or so we thought.

The Mayor made a claim on the City’s insurance policy once again.  A secret meeting was held with the Commissioners, Pepe, and City Manager Steve Alexander. Alexander told the Commissioners that he was going to write a $75,000 check for the deductible, even though the Commission said the City wasn’t going to fund his defense.

The catch? Kuehne had to submit a proposal to the insurance company and agree that the relatively low fee that they pay their regular counsel, who count on a volume of work, was reasonable.  For a guy like Ben Kuehne, it would have been hard for him to admit that a fee in the low hundreds was reasonable when he commands an hourly closer to $1,000 an hour.

So Kuehne dithered, doing a legal hokey-pokey.  He was in. He was out. The thought of saying a low hourly in writing was reasonable gave him pause to shake it all about.  Finally, Kuehne was out.

The tale gets even twistier.

I caught up with Cody to ask him what was going on the case and why it hadn’t gone to a hearing already. He filed his complaint 15 months ago.

“I got a call from Mike Murawski,” Cody told me over the phone. “He asked if I could come downtown to talk. That felt like when a girlfriend tells you, ‘We have to talk.’ Nothing good ever comes from that conversation.”

Cody told me he met with both Murawski and Jose Arrojo, the Ethics Commission’s new Executive Director, in Arrojo’s office on last Thursday. Murawski told Cody he took the depositions of Phil and Thomas Pepe. Kuehne was back in. (That raises the question of who is paying him and at what rate. And it raises the question of whether Steve Alexander stroked the $75,000 deductible check to the insurer against the wishes of the Commission.)

Murawski, who you can see was so gung-ho about going forward against Stoddard when Joe Centorino was the Executive Director, was now reluctant.  Arrojo and Murawski said they’d heard Phil’s side of the story and were no longer sure about the case.  They said that the Ethics Commission had never considered a case involving a violation of the Citizens’ Bill of Rights and didn’t know how this one would play out.

That’s probably because no public official has ever been so brazen about breaking the law.  And Cody has a history of making those in power very uncomfortable. As a young lawyer, he single-handedly won Voting Rights Act cases that brought single-member districts to both the County Commission and the School Board.  It took almost seven years, but Cody ended a lot of political careers by doing that, while making sure that every community had a voice. He’s not the type to give up.

Arrojo told Cody he’s inclined to have the Ethics Commission issue a broad opinion warning other officials not to do what Stoddard did. They’d recommend that Phil be allowed to get away with it this time.  It used to be that before a dog was considered dangerous, he was allowed one dog bite.  Arrojo and Murawski sounded like they’re about to give Phil one dog bite, too.

So what’s changed since Cody first made his complaint?  Ben Kuehne is back in the case. Joe Centorino, who was a bulldog when it came to corruption, retired and was replaced by Jose Arrojo.  Maybe Arrojo and Murawski are afraid that there aren’t enough votes to convict Stoddard and don’t want to take an hour or two to try a losing case.

It’s just as likely that they’re afraid that there will be enough votes to convict him. The City’s Charter says: “Any public official or employee who is found by the [Ethics] Commission to have willfully violated this article shall forthwith forfeit his office or employment.” That is something the people of South Miami voted to include in their Charter.  The Ethics Commission can’t remove Stoddard, but a finding of willfulness would automatically rip the gavel from Stoddard’s fingers.

If you read the probable cause memo, it is clear that Murawski, who’s been a lawyer for 26 years, felt strongly about Stoddard’s guilt in April 2018 and advocated going forward.  Old lawyers generally don’t do a 180 degree turn on their own.  Something caused the wind to shift.

Was it the reappearance of Phil’s hokey-pokey lawyer that has them spooked? Is it a change in the Executive Director’s office? Is it the chance that they might lose? Or is it the probability that they will win, and that Stoddard would be forced from office, that has them rattled?

The Commission on Ethics should finish what they started, take the case to a full hearing, and let the chips fall where they may.  To do otherwise will only confirm what many in the community already believe — that the Ethics Commission a toothless tiger.

It’s all roar and no bite.


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18 Comments on "South Miami Mayor Stoddard, His Hokey Pokey Lawyer, and the Ethics Commission"

  1. What a bunch of wimps!

  2. This has all the appearances of collusion and possible corruption in the so-called Commission on Ethics office. It is not within the “authority” of Mr. Murawski to decide whether to go forward or not with this complaint. The Ethics Commission voted 3 to 1 to support a finding of probable cause, this should be given all due process. Now, it looks like the next complaint should go to Gov. DeSantis to make him aware that the Ethics Office is interfering in a citizens complaint . Calling Mr. Cody in for a “chat” is an intimidation tactic and a thinly veiled request to drop his complaint. The community is watching this case, if it does not go forward we’ll have our answer on how deep corruption in government can go.

  3. JOE CARRILLO | April 7, 2019 at 8:03 am | Reply

    Called it from day one delay, delay, delay find the correct lawyer’s and puff goes the case. Lame duck department all the way controlled by the state atty. Fired the investigator who was going to finally expose the corruption.

    Again, called it from day one.

  4. Lady Justice | April 7, 2019 at 8:03 am | Reply

    When there is no recourse for citizens, that is called a dictatorship! Murawski can not be allowed to interfere with the process! He should be fired! Obviously, he has been compromised.

  5. Jezebel Jones | April 9, 2019 at 11:50 am | Reply

    This is all about government oversight agencies that have been corrupted. The FBI should be notified. We the taxpayers are supporting the big fat salaries of these people who are supposed to be protecting us from curruption, and instead, we continue to suffer with a banana republic.

  6. Murawski is an advocate? An advocate for whom? Apparently he is in league with some shadow person or institution that is powerful and is attempting to subvert due process in order to protect the wretched creature who has no moral or ethical compass.

    • Concerned citizen | April 10, 2019 at 11:14 am | Reply

      To the person identified as “Me 2” , who used the expletive “Meh!”: No wonder corruption is so rampant with so many deadheads like you who can only reply to an important case re.the Citizens’ Bill of Rights with “Meh”! I guess even “meh” was a lot of effort for you! What a waste you are! Why did you even bother to reply if all you can come up with is “meh”? Disgusting!

  7. Dear Mr. Miller:

    Greetings.

    Just to be clear. Mr. Cody was invited to the Commission on Ethics for a meeting with the Commission Advocate and me as a professional courtesy so as to update him on the progress of discovery in the case. Any characterization of the meeting otherwise, is, at best, regrettable.

    To suggest that Mr. Cody was “called in” for some other reason is inaccurate.

    Mr. Murawski is proceeding with depositions in this case and the clear outlines of the defense are becoming more apparent. He and I thought that it would be good to share this with Mr. Cody.

    As part of our discussion, we also wanted to speak with Mr. Cody about the interplay between the Citizens’ Bill of Rights, in the County Charter, and the limitations on lobbying contained in ordinances.

    It is, once again, regrettable that a meeting that was called as a professional courtesy, with a Complainant on a matter of public importance, has been characterized in the matter in which it is described in your article.

    Also, the comment attributed to me is, once again, factually inaccurate.

    What I relayed to Mr. Cody was that I believed that an interpretation regarding the Citizens’ Bill of Rights, specifically the access to public meeting section, and its interplay with lobbyist restrictions contained in ordinances, may be ripe for an formal opinion by the Ethics Commission. I am still of that opinion.

    Further, neither my predecessor Mr. Centorino, nor I, as Executive Directors have the authority to compel the Commission Advocate to file a complaint or to dismiss a filed complaint. So to suggest that a change in personnel has had any impact on the prosecution of this case is – once again – inaccurate.

    I understand that there are many persons in the community, beyond Messrs. Cody and Stoddard, that have an interest in the case. Some may have some very strong feelings one way or another.

    All should rest assured that the Commission’s lawyers as well as the Commissioners themselves will act on the law and the facts, in good faith, and will not be swayed one way or another by the identity or public positions of the complainants, witnesses, respondents, lawyers, or interested third parties.

    Our proceedings are open to the public. Please join us.

    Best regards,

    Jose J. Arrojo
    Executive Director
    Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust

  8. Cleaning lady | April 9, 2019 at 3:14 pm | Reply

    Ben Kuehne is back on the job? It will be interesting to see how much of that $75,000 deductible will be sucked up.
    Voters were suckered by propaganda machine created by Stoddard and his deep-pocketed PACs. A wolf in sheep’s clothing who has made a laughing stock of South Miami. Voters need to make sure that we don’t get any Stoddard clones in next election cycle. Special interests will send in puppets with hidden agendas and lots of sweet talk. We need to clean house in City Hall.

  9. The COE director’s comment confirms our suspicions.” interplay between the citizens’ Bill of Rights, and the limitations on lobbying contained in Ordinances” may be ripe for a formal opinion by the Ethics commission ? It has been clearly stated by Mr. Cody that he wanted to speak as a private citizen, he was not representing anyone, not ‘lobbying” on anyone’s behalf. Apparently the director has decided that he alone can read and understand the intent of the Citizen’s Bill of Rights. He can label his meeting however he wants, it was a meeting. The Community Newspaper- South Miami edition and the Publishers are well respected and professional; they report factual information. There is no point in trying to downplay the interference by the COE’s office by discrediting the author/publisher of the community newspaper. We know the truth, those that attend City of South Miami meetings, and many that watch live broadcasts via Granicus. Robert’s Rules of Order are thrown in the trashcan.

  10. Antoinette B. Fischer | April 10, 2019 at 1:36 pm | Reply

    I spoke recently at a public hearing within a Commission meeting. The Commission was voting to change the zoning on the Commerce Lane area from Light Industrial to allow 12 story buildings. MAYOR STODDARD INTERRUPTED ME TO LET THE WORLD KNOW THAT HIS CAR DOES NOT NEED MAINTAINENCE!!! He is extremely rude, self-centered, and breaks the rules frequently. Thinks nothing of interrupting citizens during public remarks and has done it countless times throughout the years. At the last Commission meeting he interrupted a speaker to TELL HER THAT SHE WAS NOT ALLOWED TO USE THE COMMISSIONER’S NAME THAT SHE WAS COMMENTING ON, AND THE SPEAKER HAD NOT USED HIS NAME. Stoddard does not hesitate to impose rules on us, yet does not hesitate to break rules that apply to his own conduct. There is no one to censure him and he continues to attempt to impose his own new rules, as evidenced by a proposed Ordinance on Decorum that was on the last Commission meeting agenda!
    His arrogance and scofflaw attitude is out of control and has been for years! He
    even bullys and makes threats against Commissioners during meetings. This behavior is emblematic of dictators, and is not acceptable for a democratic society with rules that govern all of us, even the MAYOR! Citizens and all residents need protection from his out of control behaviour, and we have none! Without enforcement, rules are useless.

  11. Thank you Grant for your article. I agree with Anonymous 2, Lady Justice, Jezebel Jones Jones & Mrs. Fischer. Mr. Arrojos response reads like political double speak. In my opinion the Ethics Commission has MORE THAN ONCE deferred to Stoddard & Co. when action should have been taken. The violation of the Charter ALONE is enough to oust Stoddard. Why are 2 Commissioners getting health insurance when the benefit is for EMPLOYEES ONLY….NOT Commissioners according to the Charter. The corruption is as bad, if not worse, than OpaLocka. The problem is: the culture has changed: payments are taken under the table, lies are perpetuated, people don’t care about what’s happening, they are raising children in a drug infested society & live within their A/C walls. Boxes are not flattened for recycle, the City wants to become Coral Gables or Dadeland, now the City of Political Living, million dollar homes, none for the middle class – where are the promised affordable living units in Red Commons? Why was the building allowed to be built – sandwiched in the alley one block before Sunset on 58th Avenue? Aren’t there enough empty places to rent without more doors into the sidewalk & a car exiting the alley having to enter the street to see what’s coming in either direction? I’m tired of fighting for a pleasant place to live…FYI: my house is for sale! Leaving jacuzzi, pool, loaded avocado tree, bananas & papaya. Aahhhh…..

  12. Bamm-Bamm Rubble | April 10, 2019 at 8:00 pm | Reply

    So sad that Mr. Arrojo feels the need to make a mockery out of the Citizens Bill of Rights.

  13. The article should be titled “ Stoddard Beats the Wrap”. This reminds me of the recent Jussie Smollett case in Chicago…. Zero accountability by COE or State Attorney. Glad we have Governor DiSanti… our only hope.

  14. The title of the article should have been, “Stoddard Beats the Wrap”. Sad that the COE, like the recent Chicago Smollett case, practices zero accountability and takes the easy way out. No doubt the City Attorney was used as the fall guy once again, allowing Stoddard to continue his practice of violating the Citizen’s Bill of Rights. Little wonder SM continues in it’s decline and is laughingly referred to as South Opa-Locka.

  15. Concerned citizen | April 12, 2019 at 12:28 pm | Reply

    Stoddard’s new Rules of Decorum Ordinance is on the agenda for the Tuesday night Commission meeting (4/16) for second reading and final vote. Concerned citizens had better read up and prepare to voice your concerns.

  16. the Mayor has the audacity to rewrite the “Decorum” ordinance/rules aimed at the commission and the public. He alone is responsible for the disintegration of professionalism, order, respect, rules, truth, and civility in commission meetings; he set the example. Sadly, those that were elected to represent the citizens forgot that they are public servants, they are all self serving. As more life long residents leave out of exasperation, more of the city’s history will be gone. That’s the result of a voter turnout of less than 23% of the electorate. City of Pleasant Living ?

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