Every year nearly 50,000 people are charged with misdemeanor crimes in Miami-Dade County.  


These small crimes are handled by County Court judges who have the power to “nolle prosse” thousands of cases through a process where defendants agree to pay attendance fees to participate in what’s known as “pretrial diversion programs”.  


Well over $125 million dollars have been paid into these pre-trial diversion programs over the years, yet most people know little or nothing about how these pretrial diversion programs work. 


Added to the mix is that we’re talking about Miami, where political corruption has become ingrained into the system, and where rightly or wrongly few people believe that justice is not affected by race, ethnicity and/or class.


To understand how pervasive political corruption has become during the time that Katherine Fernandez-Rundle has served as the Miami-Dade State Attorney, consider the following email exchange between George Romagosa, one of the founders and Executive Director of the pre-trial court diversion program Court Options, and Assistant State Attorney David Maer, then the Chief of the State Attorney’s County Court Division.


This email exchange took place days after Fernandez-Rundle started collecting campaign donation for her 2012 reelection campaign.

Court Options was, and is one of the two companies providing pretrial diversion programs for the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office (SAO), and in proposing a community program dealing with drug and alcohol awareness for high school kids while at the same time offering it as a way to promote the State Attorney’s reelection campaign reveals the kind of relationship that existed between Romagosa and the State Attorney’s Office, where promoting Fernandez-Rundle’s political career was always at the top of Romagosa’s to-do list, and frequently came before looking out for the interests of his clients.


Romagosa and his partners initially acquired the right to provide pre-trial diversion services not through an open bidding process, but rather through a series of “handshake deals”  memorialized as Memorandums Of Understanding reached behind closed doors with Katherine Fernandez-Rundle. Court Options tacitly acknowledged this in their 2013 bid proposal for a portion of a $30 million dollar contract to provide these pre-trial diversion services that the State Attorney’s Office was eventually pressured into putting out for bid.  

The email from Romagosa to Maer, was discovered among 6000 plus emails and documents that I reviewed during my 5 month investigation leading to this series, and included several dozen emails from Romagosa to Fernandez-Rundle and her senior staff detailing his continuing willingness to commit the resources of his company, including the exploitation of his “clients” in order to ingratiate and align his company fortunes with Fernandez-Rundle’s political and self-promotional needs.


Periodically he would write Maer with new ways that Court Option’s “clients” could work off their community service hours including offering workers for the State Attorney’s Project Green Team, an initiative that was supposedly created to bring together “volunteers to clean, repair, improve and beautify targeted communities,” around the county. 


When he wasn’t offering to commit the company’s resources and “clients” to projects directly tied to the SAO, he was brain storming with both Fernandez-Rundle, Maer and others on the SAO’s staff on other possible ways to use community service workers.


In one instance, he floated the idea of “adopting a church,” and using community service workers to help fix up and beautify the homes of some of the parishioners.

The requirement that elected officials have to report all of the “gifts” they receive on a quarterly basis is a double edged sword, because while it provides a window into who thinks enough of an elected official to give them a “gift,” it also provides an opportunity for elected officials to use these reports as a way to legalize the acceptance of payoffs and bribes.


Now, I’m not implying that this $2,544.46 represented a bribe or payoff, because while elected officials in Miami-Dade County have become notorious for how little money they’re willing to sell out for - currently I’ve been told that at least one County Commissioner was willing to sell their vote for $15,000 - I think that $2,500 is way below the threshold that one would expect you’d have to spend to buy off the State Attorney, if she was for sale.


At the same time there are seldom coincidences when it comes to deconstructing the shenanigans and Quid Pro Quo’s that passes for political deal making in Miami-Dade County, and exploring a disturbing mosaic of questionable contract bids, examples of gross mismanagement and the collection of the $5 million dollars in questionable if not illegal “donations” that involve the State Attorney’s Office, The Advocate Program and Court Options is where this series goes from here


THIS IS THE END OF PART I

               

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On another occasion, after the RFP for the misdemeanor pretrial diversion program was issued, Romagosa sent Katherine Fernandez-Rundle a proposal entitled, Community Relations Initiative, which included using individuals who were required to work off community service hours to work some of those hours off on “special events” sponsored by various County Commissioners, the same County Commissioners who would be approving whatever contract agreement reached through the RFP process.

Assistant State Attorney Don Horn responded to my inquiry as to whether he or Fernandez-Rundle allowed this exchange to take place by replying, “Neither she nor I agreed to allow Mr. Romagosa to trade Community Service hours for Thanksgiving dinners or blood donations.”


There are any number of worthy organizations that could benefit from having individuals work off their community service hours, but what is disturbing about Romagosa’s willingness to exploit individuals assigned to his program to work off their community service hours on projects he kept thinking up, and especially on projects like the “special events” sponsored by County Commissioners - an arrangement that came with an implied, if not overt understanding that these workers represented a political Quid Pro Quo for both Court Options and the State Attorney - was the very troubling question that it raised as to whether he viewed this group of largely poor and uninformed individuals under his control as little more than “human capital” to be taken advantage of in order to curry political favor with various political figures around the county.


Worse was the notion that the State Attorney’s Office, after assigning these individuals to Court Options’ pre-trial diversion program, would then turn around and have Court Options provide some of these same individuals as “volunteer” workers for the SAO’s community service projects, projects that were as much an exercise in burnishing the State Attorney’s image as they were to spruce up a county park, harkened back to Florida’s bad old days of prisoner abuse when prisoners on chain gangs were contracted out by the Camp Boss to work on private farms, or taken to the home of a judge, county commissioner or other political insider to cut their grass or do whatever other handy work needed to be done.


Unfortunately, the problems I uncovered while going through the 6000 plus documents were more disturbing than just discovering that Romagosa and his company were exploiting individuals and their community service hours.


For now though, allow me to take a step back and set the stage for why and how this series came into being.


ALL OF THIS STARTED WITH A SIMPLE QUESTION


My discovery of the multi-leveled relationships between the State Attorney’s Office, the 11th Judicial Circuit, The Advocate Program, Court Options and the Miami Foundation that are the basis of this 5 part series was a completely unintended consequence of my efforts get to the bottom of what I initially believed to be a simple question that prompted me in June of 2014, to write Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle, asking her to account for the expenditure of the $24,892.85 of unused campaign funds that she had transferred from her campaign account to her “donor assisted” Katherine Fernandez-Rundle Fund, maintained by the Miami Foundation. It’s a story that I’ve previously detailed in my series of 3 stories that have been prominently featured on site for the last 162 days.


Fernandez-Rundle’s refusal to provide me with a straight forward answer as to why she would transfer money to what I had come to consider and describe as a secret slush fund is what prompted me to start filing requests for public records that led me to a discovery that in addition to her creation of the Katherine Fernandez-Rundle Fund, she had also created in 2007, the Denise Moon Memorial Fund, another “donor advised fund” maintained by the Miami Foundation.


That discovery prompted a new round of public records requests including asking for the financial records of the Denise Moon Memorial Fund, that revealed when I got them, that from 2007 thru 2015, this fund received close to $5 million dollars from Court Options and The Advocate Programs in the form of illegal “donations” collected from their “clients.” That amount has now gone over $5 million.


The discovery of these illegal “donations” was both a surprise and a realization that what I thought was simply a case of the Miami-Dade State Attorney engaging in some questionable behavior through the maintenance of a Secret Fund was actually a far, far larger story that in turn, with the access to more documents opened another door revealing how these two companies had managed for years - in The Advocate Program’s case 37 years, and in Court Options, 12 years - to operate ”offender-funded” programs through a series of “handshake deals” that have generated well over $125 million dollars in “client fees.”


CRIME PAYS IN MIAMI-DADE COUNTY


When it comes to crime and punishment, most people mistakenly refer to the administration of justice in America as the “criminal justice system.”


That’s not really accurate. What more realistically describes the administration of justice in America is that it is a “criminal justice industry.”


The cost of administering crime in America is estimated to be a $212 BILLION a year business, with an increasing amount of that administration being turned over to non-profit and for-profit companies, whether it be the operation of private prisons where the country’s two largest private prison companies in 2012 accounted for combined revenues of $3.3 BILLION, or to private pre-trial and probation companies, like the ones in Miami-Dade County.


Around the country some of these privately managed programs have become the subject of increasing concern as their business practices reveal questionable or illegal behavior, detailed in articles, such as a 2014 New Yorker magazine story labeled as Get Out Of Jail, Inc.


While there have been positive results associated with increasing the ability to keep people out of jail while at the same time attempting to provide them with program services intended to help them deal with the problems that got them into trouble to begin with, one of the major justifications, and coincidentally a major pitfall that came from the creation and increased reliance on private pre-trial and probation companies was the fact that they are not funded by tax dollars, but rather through the program fees collect from their “clients.”


In today’s political climate the practice of operating a “offender-funded” criminal justice system resonates favorably with a lot of fiscally and politically conservative folks who unfortunately fail to appreciate that turning over the administration of justice to private companies - and increasingly to for-profit companies - allow these companies to avoid, or evade the kind of scrutiny that comes with the expenditure of taxpayer dollars, and that lead to unanticipated problems as these companies face a never ending need to generate profits.

QUESTIONS REGARDING A POSSIBLE SLUSH FUND MAINTAINED BY STATE ATTORNEY KATHERINE FERNANDEZ-RUNDLE EVOLVED INTO A WIDE-RANGING CRESPOGRAM INVESTIGATION INTO THE ACTIVITIES OF THE TWO COMPANIES THAT OPERATE THE COUNTY’S COURT DIVERSION PROGRAMS, INCLUDING THE FUNNELING OVER $5 MILLION DOLLARS THEY COLLECTED IN QUESTIONABLE, IF NOT ILLEGAL “DONATIONS” FROM THEIR CLIENTS TO YET ANOTHER DONOR ADVISED FUND CREATED BY FERNANDEZ-RUNDLE AT THE MIAMI FOUNDATION

PART I

It was sometimes hard to determine from his emails whether Romagosa was running a company that was supposed to be providing pretrial diversion programs intended to assist individuals in becoming better citizens, or whether he was running a personal Temp Agency that provided him with access to individuals who had tens of thousands of community service hours they needed to work off, that he could exploit for his company’s benefit and political gain.


In another email he pitched the idea of allowing some of his clients to “donate” Thanksgiving dinners in exchange for having 10 hours of their community service knocked off, making sure to emphasis that Katherine Fernandez-Rundle would get the PR credit.

(C) COPYRIGHTED 2016

II - THE COURT OPTIONS PROGRAM


George Romagosa and Ruben Valdivia, the initial partners who created Court Options acquired their knowledge of  “offender-funded” programs by working for The Advocate Program before leaving in 2004 to Court Options.


Soon after forming their company, they showed up at Katherine Fernandez-Rundle’s door to make an unsolicited proposal for the creation of a new Traffic Diversion Program (DPT), which they pitched as a niche program providing a service not adequately being provided at the time by The Advocate Program.


As part of their 2013 application for a portion of the misdemeanor diversion services contract, Court Options described what happened after they met with Katherine Fernandez-Rundle.















Their “pilot project” for the Traffic Diversion Program was the first of several unsolicited proposals they would make to Katherine Fernandez-Rundle resulting in the “handshake deals” that they received without their unsolicited proposals being put out for bid, which is normally the best way to deal with unsolicited proposals.


I have written about the use of unsolicited bids by politically powerful developers with an interest in obtaining pieces of City of Miami property on several occasions in the past, and recently a dust up between art dealer Garry Nadar and developer Jorge Perez of the Related Group occurred after Nadar’s unsolicited proposal to build a new art museum on property owned by Miami-Dade Community College on Biscayne Boulevard. resulted in it being put out for bid, with Related coming in as the top bidder, introduced this concept to the public again.


While all kinds of problems can occur when Requests For Proposals (RFP) are issued by government agencies - some of which are detailed in PARTS II and III of this series, the pitfalls of accepting “unsolicited proposals,” that bypass competitive bidding is one that bedevils government agencies even more, because to sell government property or award government contracts without a competitive process opens the door to questions and speculation of insider dealing and/or abuse of power that most government agencies would normally try to avoid at all costs.


When it came to her dealings with Romagosa and Valdivia however, Katherine Fernandez-Rundle was willing to forgo those concerns in order to make sure that they got whatever they asked for.


III - BEHIND THE CURTAIN


As evidence of this, and contrary to the above narrative where Court Options claimed that they gained additional courtrooms because of their “superior performance,” insiders familiar with what actually happened described to me a different story involving what would become the template for how relations between Court Options, The Advocate Program and the State Attorney’s Office took place during those years. 


Upon hearing that Court Options had been awarded this pilot program, The Advocate Program objected, claiming that as the original provider of pre-trial diversion programs, they were entitled to be the ones to initiate and operate any new program.


Their argument was rejected, and when Court Options started having success - success in this case measured by taking clients away from the Advocate Program, and making money - The Advocate Program returned to Fernandez-Rundle in an effort to have her approve an expansion the “pilot program” to other courtrooms as a way for them to get part of the action.


It was then I was told, that The Advocate Program put up such a fight that Fernandez-Rundle, in an effort to keep the peace decided to give Court Options the courtrooms in the satellite courthouses at the North and South end of the County, and giving the Advocate Program the courtrooms at the main courthouse.


This division of courtrooms lasted only until it became evident that The Advocate Program had gotten the better of the deal because the courtrooms in the Main Courthouse were generating more clients and more money than the courtrooms at the North and South end of the county.


That resulted in Court Options complaining, and the decision was made to divvy up the courtrooms in the main courthouse giving them “an additional (2) Divisions in the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building.”


By 2008, Court Options according to their version of events had done such a good job with their “pilot program” that they were awarded a new felony diversion program, which to this day continues to be operated under a Memorandum Of Understanding Agreement.



















At approximately the same time that Fernandez-Rundle made the decision to award the new felony diversion program to Court Options, George Romagosa, Ruben Valdivia, and their new partner Eddie LaCasa - son of Armando LaCasa, who I’ve written about several times regarding the Bayside Hut/Vero’s On The Bay restaurant next to the Miami Marine Stadium - decided to show their appreciation for all the deals that Fernandez-Rundle had given them by ponying up $2,544.46 to cover the costs of an event that she was hosting.


I’ve written extensively about the volume and value of the “gifts that  Katherine Fernandez-Rundle has received and reported on her FORM 9’s, including everything from flowers, to jewelry, to tickets to Heat games and other high-profile sporting events, to Black Tie Galas. Among all of those “gifts” was the one for $2,544.46 from Romagosa and his partners.

I - THE ADVOCATE PROGRAM