Sunday, May 16, 2021

North Miami Beach commissioner charged with accepting bribe from strip club owner


Prosecutors on Wednesday charged embattled North Miami Beach Commissioner Frantz Pierre with shaking down a strip club operator in exchange for votes to extend the club’s liquor license hours and with pocketing money from a school program that did not exist.

Investigators say Pierre texted the owner of a the popular North Miami Beach gentleman’s club, Dean’s Gold, with an urgent message: He had been in a car wreck and needed a $7,000 loan, quickly. When told the check was in the mail, Frantz texted back, saying, “Thank you so much. That will not be forgotten.”

And it wasn’t, according to Miami-Dade prosecutors. Neither were three other checks totaling $5,500 issued to the commissioner from the club’s owner Dean Tyler. In exchange for the cash prosecutors say Pierre cast votes in favor of extending the club’s liquor license an extra two hours, until 6 a.m. each morning.

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His taste for money not quenched, prosecutors say Pierre then set his sights on taxpayer money, creating an elaborate scheme in which he ended up with thousands of city dollars, some of which were supposed to feed 92 children at Oak Grove Elementary School.

Yet, investigators charged, no after-school program existed, no one at Oak Grove ever heard of the charity and the children never received snacks.

The Miami-Dade School District issued a statement Wednesday saying it is moving to terminate the commissioner’s employment. Pierre, a bilingual specialist at Oak Grove has been on a school board-approved leave of absence for the past two years.

“He sold his vote,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. “If someone thinks that they can use their public position as a cash cow to take public money, think again.”

Wednesday morning, accompanied by family members, Pierre, 53 — who earlier in the day underwent dialysis treatment at a local hospital — turned himself in to law enforcement. He was arrested and charged with single counts of bribery, unlawful compensation, organized scheme to defraud and grand theft and seven additional counts of money laundering.

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It was the latest setback for the 11-year elected leader who was removed from office in January after failing to attend commission meetings for six months. And who was found guilty in May by the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust of attempting to intimidate a female code enforcement officer by threatening her job if she failed to ignore code violations at his North Miami Beach home.

Pierre’s attorney Ben Kuehne responded to the allegations swiftly, saying his client was innocent and that he’d like to speak with Tyler to gain insight into the claims that Pierre solicited money for votes.

“Commissioner Pierre asserts he has done nothing wrong,” Kuehne said. “He’s always acted in the public interest and we will investigate the allegations.”

Early Wednesday evening, Pierre remained jailed, having not yet posted a $35,000 bond. Also charged Wednesday with one count of grand theft was Jacquelin Alexis, the operator of the North Miami Beach non-profit Community Hope for Children and Families in Need. Prosecutors say Alexis assisted Pierre by funneling money given to the charity back to the commissioner — on checks written under a business account called PyschoEd & Consultation Services.

Fernandez Rundle said Pierre’s alleged misdeeds were uncovered during an investigation earlier this year into former Mayor George Vallejo’s campaign finance fraud scheme. The strip club owner, Tyler, was a key witness in that case and initially revealed his interactions with Pierre during testimony. Vallejo stepped down earlier this year after pleading guilty to diverting thousands of dollars of campaign cash to shell corporations that he used for personal expenses.

Pierre’s 21-page arrest warrant outlines several incidents dating back to 2013 in which the commissioner is alleged to have traded votes for money and had city grants awarded to non-profits, which then wrote checks back to Pierre. In one of the cases, investigators say the city awarded money to a non-profit that never existed.

North Miami Beach Mayor Beth Spiegel said she’s already asked staff to find out who authorized the payments to the non-profits that are alleged to have funneled money back to Pierre. She said Dean’s Gold has been a good partner with the city, even contributing money to parks and recreation programs for children.

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“It’s stunning and frustrating,” said the mayor. “It’s very unfortunate. I want to know how the money got disbursed.”

According to state attorney investigator Robert Fielder, the probe found that Pierre began his alleged public corruption spree after voting against extending the liquor license hours past 4 a.m. at Dean’s Gold at 2355 NE 163rd St., in 2013.

Over the next three years, after receiving a total of $12,500 directly from Tyler and after having the club operator donate another $9,865 to Alexis’s charity, Pierre voted to extend the liquor license to the more lucrative hours. Prosecutors say Alexis used Tyler’s money to write checks back to Pierre totaling $5,250. Over the same time period, the state claims Alexis solicited an additional $2,000 for the after-school program at Oak Grove that never existed. Prosecutors say Pierre was then given another $2,905 from Alexis, some of it coming from the city grant.

After being subpoenaed, Tyler met twice with prosecutors in 2017. He told them he paid Pierre after the commissioner requested the money and that selling alcohol after 4 a.m. was critically important to the club, which profited from its late night crowd.

Pierre, first elected to office in North Miami Beach in 2007, has been embroiled in legal and ethical wranglings over the past year. He was removed from office in January after failing to attend commission meetings for six months, while dealing with a medical condition. Still, city leaders chose to oust him from office, citing the city charter, which allows removal if an official has not attended a meeting in six months. He was reinstated in May pending a court decision on wrongful removal from office.

Then in May, the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust found the commissioner guilty of trying to intimidate a female compliance officer by threatening her job if she failed to ignore code violations at his North Miami Beach home. He was issued a $1,000 fine —the largest fine possible — a letter of reprimand and ordered to pay back $500 of costs incurred in the case.

Now, with the latest charges, Pierre can only be removed from office by Fla. Gov. Rick Scott.

It was the latest in a string of corruption scandals in North Miami Beach, one of the only cities in Miami-Dade that doesn’t have it’s own Ethics Ordinances. Former city attorney Jose Smith had been working on them before he was axed last month, in a vote of no confidence by the majority of the commission. Pierre resided over the meeting as Vice Mayor, and even took the gavel from Spiegel during the discussion of what to do with Smith.

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