MIAMI(CBS4)- Formerly Suspended Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones is officially free and clear to regain her seat on the City of Miami Commission after Governor Rick Scott reinstated her into office.
The move comes one day after the final grand theft charges were dropped agains her. Spence-Jones, 44, spoke Wednesday morning as she left her residence.
“I’m just thankful for the victory, not only for my community, but for my family,” she said. “Today is a victorious day.”
Her attorney Peter Raben spoke at the Metro Justice Building where he expressed his thoughts on the decision.
“We’ve been talking to the state for months and we got a fax at 5:15 yesterday that they were dismissing the charges and I called my client immediately and she was sobbing uncontrollably,” he said. “This is a horrible 18 months when you’ve been falsely accused of a crime and to think that it’s over…she was very, very grateful to the Lord and to the process and she’s looking to get back on the commission and getting her life again.”
Raben said, “pursuant to statute the governor has a mandatory duty to reinstate her and we filed the paper yesterday. We’re going to get a revocation of the suspension from the governor, hopefully as soon as possible, and then she’ll be back on her seat on the dais representing District 5.”
Prosecutors on Tuesday dropped the charge against Spence-Jones, which paved the way for her return to City Hall.
“I’m elated. I’m glad that it’s over. I’m happy that we can go on with our lives,” said her husband, Nathaniel Jones.
The dramatic decision comes five months after Spence-Jones, in an unrelated prosecution, was acquitted at trial on charges that she had solicited a $25,000 bribe from a prominent developer.
According to CBS4 news partner The Miami Herald, the City of Miami charter allows for Spence-Jones’ immediate return to elected office – and for her to collect nearly two years’ of back salary and benefits. That means Miami Commissioner Richard P. Dunn II, who has represented District 5 since her removal, will be out.
“I have to accept it the same way that I received it; and that is to do it with dignity, with integrity and be gracious about it,” Dunn said.
Dunn, who said he believes he may be entitled to the balance of the pay and benefits due him from his remaining term, said he does intend to “make a big deal” of it, that it is not that important to him. He makes a good living as pastor of a Miami church.
“I look forward to continue fighting for the people of district five,” Dunn said.
Regalado said Wednesday that Dunn is not entitled to lost pay or benefits for the remainder of his term.
Spence-Jones’ supporters, including Nathaniel Wilcox, the executive director of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (PULSE), said the organization supports Spence-Jones and investigated her case.
“We met with the state attorney and told her a long time ago that Michelle was innocent based on the evidence,” Wilcox said.
Other supporters drove by Spence-Jones’ home to express their happiness.
“When I saw it on television today that she won it I was joyful because I know that God answered a prayer,” supporter Ronnie McFadden said.
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado also spoke to CBS4. He said he looks forward to working with Spence-Jones and that she is entitled to back pay and benefits lost during the time she was suspended.
“That shows that the system works,” he said. “In theUnited States of America, you’re innocent until proven guilty.”
The action in the grand theft case was not a surprise after a key witness, former Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler, changed her testimony in the past year, hobbling the prosecution’s theory.
“Both cases against my client were the same,” he said. “Both witnesses came forward and both say they were falsely advised by the prosecutor and that’s why both cases ended. And both cases fell apart, one before the jury and one before the state’s own decision.”
Originally, Spence-Jones was accused of illegally steering $50,000 in county grants to a family business in 2005, before her tenure as a commissioner began.
Initially, Carey-Shuler adamantly denied that she had authored an official 2005 letter that re-directed money from the county-affiliated Metro Miami Action Plan Trust to Karym Ventures, the Spence-Jones family company.
When investigators first questioned Carey-Shuler about the letter, which bore her letterhead and signature stamp, she said she never intended for the money to go to the company.
Prosecutors, relying on Carey-Shuler’s testimony, cast the letter as a forgery, part of what they believed was a scheme by Spence-Jones to take over the $50,000 grant, originally intended for two other community organizations.
But Carey-Shuler’s story changed last year after defense attorney Peter Raben uncovered an early draft of the letter, with revisions penned by Carey-Shuler herself, the Herald reported.
“I can’t deny that’s my handwriting,” Carey-Shuler said at a June 21, 2010 deposition.
Though Carey-Shuler said she did not recall writing the notes, she said in the deposition that she believed the letter approving the payment came from her office — and that she had indeed intended for Karym Ventures, the Spence-Jones family company, to get the $50,000.
“Well, no one likes it when a defendant goes to trial,” Raben said. “The shoes on the other foot, they thought my client committed a crime but they couldn’t prove it because there wasn’t any evidence of a crime.
In the political realm, Spence-Jones will return to a very different landscape.
She’ll be doing business with Regalado, whom she knew primarily as a counterpart on the commission, and with three commissioners she’s never worked with before. Also, the city is on its third city manager since Spence-Jones was initially removed from office in November 2009.
She’ll also face surly city union members frustrated about losing benefits to fill budget shortfalls; a lengthy public feud between the mayor and the police chief; and District 5 residents still angered about a series of inner-city shooting deaths by police that began last summer and continued into February.
Commissioner Frank Carollo said he was able to work well with Dunn and said he’s sure he can have a good working relationship with Spence-Jones. Carollo said Spence-Jones will have her work cut out for her.
“The truth of the matter is we still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “We are facing a $61 million deficit.”
District 5 includes portions of Liberty City, Overtown and Little Haiti.
Raben is optimistic about Spence-Jones’ return.
“Her future is wide open,” he said. “She’s going to consult with lawyers and decide. She’s vindicated and entitled to pay from the day of the suspension. ”
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