MIAMI (CBS4) – Opening statements are underway in the trial of former Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones on bribery and grand theft charges.
But before the attorneys could start their opening statements could get started, there was an attempt by prosecutors to have CBS4’s Jawan Strader testify.
Strader conducted an exclusive interview with Spence-Jones shortly after her arrest, in which she vehemently denied soliciting a bribe. She said the $25,000 in question was simply a donation to a charity she was heading.Prosecutors wanted the judge in the case to order Strader to testify and that his testimony and story could help prove Spence-Jones was lying.
“What the state wants to do, they want to use the CBS interview and Mr. Strader to win a conviction in this case,” said CBS4 attorney Alan Rosenthal. “That is directly contrary to the policy embodied in the Florida statute.”
Judge Rosa Rodriguez ruled that Strader would not have to testify in the trial, but portions of his reporting in the Spence-Jones case will be admitted.
Once that piece of business was out of the way, opening statements in the case began.
Prosecutors say Miami developer Armando Codina and another chief developer, Richard Glas, had made a $12,5000 donation to the Friends of MLK Trust, which Spence-Jones ran from her office.
At the time, Codina was awaiting a vote from city commissioners on a downtown development project. Prosecutors said Codina thought the money would be going to an event honoring former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler.
Investigators said they found that the money never went to the Carey-Shuler event and the Trust wasn’t established until months later.
“I submit to you if it were legitimate, it would have been spent for those purposes and spent for good reason and that would have been absolutely fine,” said prosecutor Richard Scruggs.
In sworn statements, Spence-Jones later admitted that she solicited Codina for the money. Her attorney said she was in her legal rights to ask for the money which he said went to benefit the residents of her district.
Prosecutors said that everything Spence-Jones said was supposed to happen with the money, never came to fruition.
“What happens is nothing,” said Scruggs.
Spence-Jones’ defense attorney Peter Raben was not moved by the prosecution’s charges.
“Evidence is going to show Michelle Spence-Jones is innocent,” Raben said in his opening statements. “There was no bribe, there was not theft. That’s what Mr. Codina is going to tell you.”
Raben focused in on the fact that both the prosecutors and defense agree that Spence-Jones didn’t receive the money.
‘The state will agree that she did not receive a penny,” Raben said. “The state claims it was a theft because Michelle misled the person who gave the donation. The person who received this email Armando Codina will tell you they are wrong.”
Last week, prosecutors tried to have the judge presiding over the trial, Judge Rosa Rodriguez, removed from the proceeding because she herself had been charged in a corruption case in 1998. Back then, Rodriguez had been charged with two misdemeanors over improper campaign contributions – however, both charges were eventually dropped.
In their filing, prosecutors wrote that Judge Rodriguez’s “past personal judicial problems” could cause her to side against the state.
A state appeals court sided with the defense and ruled that Rodriguez would preside over the case.