MIAMI (CN) – A jury on Wednesday found Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones not guilty of bribery and grand theft. But she awaits trial on separate grand theft charges that got her booted from office in 2009. The verdict in the 2 1/2-week trial came the day after Miami voters recalled their mayor and another commissioner.
“In the end, the truth finally comes out,” Spence-Jones, former commissioner for Liberty City and Overtown, among Miami’s poorest areas, told reporters after the trial.
Spence-Jones was accused of soliciting a $25,000 contribution for a bogus charity from Miami developer Armando Codina in exchange for a favorable vote that affected Codina’s downtown Miami hotel-office project in 2006.
Codina was supposed to be prosecutor Richard Scruggs’ star witness, but in a deposition before trial, Codina said that Scruggs had misled him: “You told me there had not been an event. You told me the charity was a fake and that she had used the money as her own piggybank,” Codina said.
He added, “I know that there was an event,” and “I found out my check was deposited at the Dade Community Foundation.”
Codina reiterated his contentions on the witness stand last week and said that he never paid a bribe; he gave a donation.
Miami-Dade County Court Judge Rosa Rodriguez also seemed skeptical of the prosecution’s case.
“I’m finding it difficult to understand the state’s theory in all this,” Judge Rodriguez said during the trial Tuesday. “Ultimately, the money, whether her fingerprints are there or not, the money did not go to her personally.”
Spence-Jones’ attorney Peter Raben pointed out that the commission shelved the item up for vote that Spence-Jones was supposed to swing.
In his closing argument, Raben said, “This case is all about a vote. It’s the first bribery case I can ever imagine where there is no money going to the elected official and there’s no vote. Think about that.”
The jury deliberated for about 90 minutes Wednesday afternoon before delivering its verdict.
“We disagree with the judge’s interpretation of bribery law,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Kath erine Fernandez Rundle said in a statement. “The jury had no choice but to acquit the defendant because the judge instructed the jury that, in effect, soliciting or accepting a bribe through a charity is legal, even if done with corrupt intent. We believe that bribery done to influence a public official, even if done through a charity, is illegal.”
In November 2009, before these charges were brought, Gov. Charlie Crist suspended Spence-Jones. She was arrested and charged with redirecting $50,000 of Miami-Dade funds to a family business in 2005. She is awaiting trial on those charges, for which former Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler will be the prosecution’s main witness.
Carey-Shuler has already said that, like Codina, she was confused and forgot that she had authorized Spence-Jones to transfer the money. Carey-Shuler also played a role in the charges that Spence-Jones just beat: Codina’s donation was solicited to help fund an event honoring Carey-Shuler.
Spence-Jones ran in the special election after Crist recalled her, and won, and Crist suspended her again in January 2010.
Spence-Jones sued, claiming the governor was unconstitutionally trying to prohibit her from serving in office, but her case was dismissed in March 2010.
The Rev. Richard Dunn took her place.
She has not made any comments about a return to office.