MIAMI, FL – In a last-ditch effort to keep his job, suspended Miami Police Chief Miguel Exposito has asked a court to disqualify two of the five commissioners who would determine his fate because they have already expressed opinions saying the chief should go.
Exposito lost a year-long fight to keep his job on Tuesday when City Manager Johnny Martinez suspended him for insubordination and temporarily replaced him with veteran Maj. Manuel Orosa. Commissioners will meet at 9 a.m. Friday to hear the manager’s case and Exposito’s defense — and ultimately decide the suspended chief’s fate.
Anticipating at least two votes against his reinstatement, Exposito struck back quickly, filing suit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court against the city Tuesday afternoon. Exposito argues that Commissioners Wifredo “Willy” Gort and Francis Suarez can’t sit as impartial judges of his termination because they have already expressed opinions on his future.
The case will be heard at 8 a.m. Thursday before Judge Barbara Areces.
Exposito’s 12-page complaint says “neither commissioners Gort nor Suarez should be permitted to consider the aforementioned charges against Chief Exposito insofar as it appears that they are unable to sit as objective and impartial triers of the allegations in question.”
Specifically, the lawsuit cites a Feb. 2, 2011 Miami Herald story in which Gort is asked if it’s time for the chief to step down. “I think he should,” Gort said.
In the same story, Suarez said, “If I were the chief, I think I would strongly consider resigning at this point.”
To bolster his legal argument, Exposito cites a handful of cases questioning the impartiality of jurors in criminal cases. But the role of jurors is not the same as the role of elected officials, who routinely express opinions and are required by state law to discuss city business in public.
“You’re trying to prevent two elected officials from performing their duties according to the charter,” City Attorney Julie Bru said. “It’s well within their rights, obligations and duties.”
Two other commissioners also expressed opinions on Martinez’s decision to suspend the chief Tuesday, though they refrained from saying how they would vote on Exposito’s termination. Commissioners Frank Carollo and Marc Sarnoff said it was bad timing to suspend Exposito before two important budget hearings in September. Sarnoff also praised Exposito’s tenure.
Neither commissioner is mentioned in Exposito’s lawsuit.
The fifth commissioner and possible swing vote, Michelle Spence-Jones, has closely guarded her opinion on the chief. She did not return interview requests Tuesday or Wednesday.
Murray Greenberg, a former Miami-Dade County attorney who now works at the law firm Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson, acknowledged how difficult it would be for elected officials to avoid discussing such a hot City Hall topic. Still, he said the city charter addresses the commission’s role by laying out the rules for dismissing a police chief.
“The decision must be based solely on testimony elicited at the hearing,” Greenberg said of the meeting scheduled for Friday.
Exposito’s lawyer, Ruben Chavez, could not be reached for comment.
The chief’s fight for his job has been so front and center at City Hall that commissioners spent two hours in January discussing whether or not to have a ceremonial vote of no-confidence against him. In the end there was no vote, though then-Commissioner Richard P. Dunn II repeatedly asked the chief to resign.
In the lawsuit filed Tuesday, Exposito says Gort, the commission chairman, would be biased against him because one of his aides prepared a draft letter earlier this year for then-City Manager Tony Crapp Jr. to use in the dismissal of the chief. It also cites a whistleblower protection letter written by Cmdr. Jose Perez that says Gort interceded to keep Exposito from demoting the commander.
Perez is one of three high-ranking police officers Exposito tried to demote last month — a move that prompted the impasse with the city manager.
Reached Wednesday, Gort said he “completely” disagrees with Exposito’s lawsuit. “We’ve got to be grateful we live in the United States of America, where there are freedoms,” Gort said, without elaborating.
Suarez released a statement Wednesday saying Exposito’s lawsuit “has no basis in law or fact.”
“Accordingly, I have asked my counsel to take all appropriate legal actions, including seeking sanctions against the chief and his attorney for filing a frivolous lawsuit,” Suarez’s statement said.
Exposito, anticipating his suspension, requested whistleblower protection from the city last week. A decade ago Exposito prevailed in a different whistleblower claim against the city when he argued he had been unfairly demoted. That lawsuit was settled in 2002.
City Manager Martinez said he suspended Exposito because the chief circumvented an order not to demote the three high-ranking police officers by stripping most of their responsibilities anyway, and because Exposito ignored requests by the manager to reduce overtime costs.
The Exposito lawsuit hints at what his defense may be Friday, claiming the chief “was in no way insubordinate to the directives set forth by the city manager.” The lawsuit says the chief “never rolled-back the three individuals at issue, nor did the chief reduce their salaries or benefits.”
“In short, Chief Exposito simply reorganized the information reporting structure within the police department once the actual roll-backs were denied by the city manager,” the lawsuit says.