MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones will get a second bite at the apple in court as she looks to secure a third term on the Miami Commission after Judge Jorge Cueto disqualified himself from the case.
Judge Cueto was not pleased with how either Spence-Jones or the Reverend Richard Dunn’s attorneys acted with regards to him.
“After reading and hearing allegations in the media impugning this court’s judicial ethics without any party having the courtesy to serve any paper or motion on the court prior to one and one half hours ago, this court moved sua sponte this morning to disqualify itself from any further action in this case, to avoid any taint of impropriety in the process,” Judge Cueto wrote in his ruling.
The move from Judge Cueto came after Spence-Jones’ attorneys alleged a conflict of interest against Judge Cueto after he ruled against their client. Judge Cueto originally ruled that due to charter limits, Spence-Jones couldn’t seek a third term in office, even though she missed much of her second term in office as she successfully fought corruption charges.
“Over 73 percent of the electorate said we support term limits and so it speaks for itself that is what this case is about, it is about term limits,” Dunn said Tuesday.
But it turns out, Judge Cueto allegedly, according to Spence-Jones’ attorneys, was once a prosecutor on a public corruption unit that at one time targeted Spence-Jones in multiple investigations. None of those investigations would turn out successful.
But Dunn’s lawyers said Spence-Jones’ attorneys knew about Cueto’s past and had plenty of opportunity to try to get him removed from the case.
“They were encouraged to move to disqualify the judge and they chose not to,” said one of Dunn’s attorneys Monday. “They are trying to just find a different judge who may give them a different result.”
In his ruling Monday, Cueto wrote that even Spence-Jones’ attorneys disagreed with the decision, they “complimented the court for the thoroughness, promptness, and interpretative skill which it delivered its opinion” in a statement to CBS4 news partner the Miami Herald.
“More importantly, the opinion of this court was strictly based on well established and recognized standards for statutory interpretation – nothing more,” Judge Cueto wrote in his ruling.
Cueto said he had no recollection of prosecuting Spence-Jones six years ago, but that he contacted Joe Centorino, who is head of the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and formerly head of the SAO’s PCU.
“He (Centorino) confirmed that he did not recall any involvement by the court as a prosecutor in the investigation of Spence-Jones,” Cueto wrote. “In fact, after checking his records, he related he had assigned himself the investigation, and had conducted a two-year investigation during which he interviewed over 40 individuals and reviewed hundreds of documents. At the end of his investigation, he cleared Spence-Jones of any criminal wrongdoing.”
Cueto continued in his ruling, “In conclusion, Mr. Centorino reiterated that the court in its former role of prosecutor had no significant role in his investigation and that he had complete and exclusive control of the case and its disposition throughout its duration.”
Judge Cueto went on to quote Spence-Jones from the time of the investigation when she told the Herald, “I am pleased and thankful to be cleared by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office of public corruption and wrongdoing…They were not persuaded by gossip, rumor or innuendo, or influenced by political agendas.”
Cueto said that Spence-Jones would have had to have known, through her attorneys, of the “full scope, content, and participants in the investigation before writing such a laudatory statement. This is the very investigation in which the court is alleged to have participated and somehow tried to conceal.”
Judge Cueto also blasted Spence-Jones’ attorneys for allegedly leaking the Motion to Disqualify him from the case to the Miami Herald.
“To say that this court was surprised by this information is an understatement,” Cueto wrote. “Once again, while the press had prior full access, the court had not been served with any such motion and was not served with it until after the court at approximately 10 am today ordered the parties to appear for a hearing at 1 pm this date on its own motion to disqualify. At 11:20 a.m., the court was finally served a motion to disqualify.”
Cueto wrapped up his motion saying, “Truth be told, this court does not know of any judges who relish the thought of having to render decisions related to political matters – a field in which passions run high. If given any opportunity the judge would most likely prefer to pass on handling any such matter.”
For her part, Spence-Jones is holding a rally on Wednesday at 11:45 a.m. at Mt. Tabor Baptist Church to try to rally support for her cause. Supporters are calling it an “hour of power, praise, and prayer for Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.”