MIAMI (CBS4) – Prominent Miami developer and civic leader Armando Codina took the stand Tuesday in the trial of former Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones on bribery and grand theft charges.
Prosecutors contend that at the request of Spence-Jones’ office Codina and developer Richard Glas made $12,5000 donations each to the Friends of MLK Trust, which she ran from her office.
At the time, Codina was awaiting a vote from city commissioners on a downtown development project. Prosecutors contend 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.
On the stand Tuesday, Condina recounted coming to America from Cuba and achieving the American dream, establishing and building a huge, successful development company. He also denied any wrongdoing in giving a charitable contribution to the group affiliated with Spence-Jones.
Codina said it was important to a project that he was developing that the street the building was on be renamed “Brickell,” to make the development more attractive.
“It was very, very important to have the Brickell name,” Codina testified. “The Brickell name is a franchise name” like Wall Street, he said.
Codina flatly denied contributing to Spence Jones’ charity group, The Martin Luther King Trust, with any expectation that he would get her vote on the street renaming.
Codina said he was contacted by someone in Spence-Jones’ office, asking if he would like to contribute to the charity to help sponsor an event honoring the retiring county commissioner Barbara Cary Shuler.
“They described the event. I asked them to put it in writing, and I felt I could contribute,” Codina said.
Codina insisted the donation was in no way connected to the street renaming request and said he never discussed the issue with Spence-Jones or anyone in her office.
“If I had been asked to make this contribution at any time, I would have made it,” Codina said. “I get dozens of these requests every week.”
Codina said that after he vetted the Spence-Jones charity and was convinced the money wasn’t going “in her own pocket” he called a partner in the Brickell project and suggested he might want to contribute as well.
Codina said he didn’t want to “poke Michelle Spence-Jones in the eye” by refusing to contribute to her charity.
“It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been asked to make a legitimate donation,” Codina said.
Spence-Jones attorney has argued that she was in her legal rights to ask for the money which he said went to benefit the residents of her district.
“Evidence is going to show Michelle Spence-Jones is innocent,” Peter 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.”
Shortly before this trial was to get underway, prosecutors tried to have the 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 that there was no basis for this perceived prejudice and ordered that Rodriguez would preside over the case.