SWEETWATER (CBSMiami/El Nuevo Herald) — At a tow yard in Coral Gables, cars are brought in from all over South Florida.
Some of those cars come from Sweetwater, where signs for Southland The Towing Company are posted in several parking lots.
Southland used to be the Sweetwater Police Department’s go-to towing company, impounding cars under a verbal agreement between police chief Roberto Fulgueira and the owner of Southland, Robert Muriedas.
CBS4 and El Nuevo Herald’s Brenda Medina teamed up to investigate the relationship between the city and the towing company.
We visited Muriedas at the tow yard, but he did not want to speak on camera.
Off camera, he confirmed he’s a friend and former business partner of suspended Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño.
Maroño was arrested in August on corruption charges stemming from an FBI sting.
State records show Maroño was partnered with Muriedas in various businesses during his time as mayor.
As a strong Mayor, Maroño was Chief Fulgueira’s boss.
Muriedas says he had a verbal agreement with Fulgueira to tow the cars of people arrested in Sweetwater.
We’ve asked Muriedas and the city on multiple occasions for the dates of this agreement, but they never gave us specifics
Muriedas said the deal ended abruptly late last year, but claims he doesn’t know why.
In a memo dated February 25, 2013, Chief Fulgueira informed Muriedas of his intentions to have Southland’s “towing contract suspended immediately until the outcome of a pending administrative review.”
“As soon as there was some issues with Southland Towing, which we did have some issues with some vehicles and some problems, I automatically suspended them,” Chief Fulgueira told CBS4’s Lauren Pastrana.
He did not give specific details about the problems, but suggested there were claims some people had trouble getting their cars back.
In Sweetwater, like in many other municipalities, there’s an ordinance that requires your car be impounded if you’re arrested and there’s probable cause to believe the vehicle was used in a crime.
That same ordinance requires you to pay $500 to the city, plus the towing company’s hauling and storage fees, before you can get your car back.
Last Monday, after CBS4 and El Nuevo Herald began asking questions, the fee for those arrested on a misdemeanor charge was reduced to $250.
New mayor Jose M. Diaz proposed the change.
When we first asked about the towing policy a month earlier, he told us he didn’t know who did the towing for the city and referred us to city attorney Ralph Ventura.
Ventura also happened to be the registered agent for Southland Towing.
Ventura said he didn’t find out about the towing arrangement until August 2011.
“My understanding, after having confirmed this with the Chief of Police, is that they were towing under essentially his prerogative, his choice,” Ventura told Pastrana.
Ventura said he contacted the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust to ask whether his dealings with both the city and Southland were a problem.
In a written opinion to Ventura’s inquiry, the commission’s executive director, Joseph Centorino, wrote “I do not find that you have a prohibited conflict of interest”.
“I don’t make business decisions for my clients,” Ventura said. “Mayor Maroño had been in office for many years. What I told him about this and what I told Southland is confidential, but I’m confident that I’ve done everything I’ve needed to.”
Muriedas told us two FBI agents visited the tow yard to ask him questions about former Mayor Maroño.
He says the agents did not ask him anything about the police department, which recently underwent a restructuring.
Mayor Diaz says more changes are coming.
Due to the recent events, I think it will be appropriate to hire a consultation firm,” Diaz said. “They can go through in a detail manner check every department in the city and find areas in which we can improve the function of our government.
Chief Fulgueira said Excalibur Towing is now the city’s preferred towing company.
“El Nuevo Herald’s Brenda Medina co-reported on this report.”