Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle has removed one of her top prosecution teams from the investigation of U.S. Rep. David Rivera and asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to take over as the lead agency in the politically sensitive probe.
This week, aides to Fernández Rundle asked detectives in the Miami-Dade Police Department’s public corruption squad to begin working with the FDLE’s Tallahassee office, which will now lead the Rivera probe. Miami-Dade detectives had previously been working primarily with a team of investigators and prosecutors within Fernández Rundle’s office.
But that team, led by longtime public corruption prosecutor Richard Scruggs, was removed from the Rivera case last week. Along with Scruggs, Fernández Rundle also removed prosecutor Christine Zahralban and Robert Fielder, a veteran corruption investigator and former Miami police detective.
Ed Griffith, a spokesman for Fernández Rundle, said Scruggs was pulled off the case to focus on the bribery prosecution of former Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, which is expected to go to trial next month.
“We think that’s a priority for the office, and the community,” Griffith said.
Scruggs declined to comment.
Assistant State Attorney Joe Centorino, the chief public corruption prosecutor in Fernández Rundle’s office, will now take over as the lead prosecutor on the Rivera case. Centorino had already been working with FDLE on the Rivera probe, though focusing on different elements than Scruggs.
Centorino would not comment on Scruggs’ removal from the case. But he said: “The investigation is continuing.”
Cmdr. Nancy Perez, a spokeswoman for Miami-Dade police, said her department’s role in the investigation will not change following the shake-up. “We are still assisting,” she said.
The FDLE is pursuing the case through its executive investigations office, which investigates state officials, said Jose Arrojo, chief assistant to Fernández Rundle.
Fernández Rundle’s moves come at a time when the scope of the Rivera probe appeared to be expanding on multiple fronts.
Prosecutors and detectives began investigating Rivera, a Miami Republican, weeks before he won his seat in Congress in November, after serving eight years as a state lawmaker.
Investigators found that Flagler paid $510,000 to Millennium Marketing — a company owned by Rivera’s mother and godmother — as part of a deal for Rivera to manage a pro-slots political campaign on behalf of the parimutuel.
Rivera long denied receiving any income from the dog track, and he made no mention of Flagler or the Millennium deal in his financial disclosure forms. But days before taking office in Congress, Rivera admitted receiving $132,000 in undisclosed loans from Millennium — money Rivera says he repaid after the election.
Investigators are also examining Rivera’s campaign spending, including $30,000 he paid to Millennium for campaign consulting in 2006, and $75,000 he paid last year to a now-defunct consulting company owned by the daughter of a top aide. Rivera has denied any wrongdoing.
Scruggs and his team had been focusing mainly on Rivera’s ties to Millennium and the dog track, while Centorino and the FDLE focused on Rivera’s personal and campaign expenses. Now Centorino will handle both.
Since joining the state attorney’s office in 2003, Scruggs has worked on some of the largest public corruption cases in recent memory.
Aside from the Spence-Jones case, Scruggs also prosecuted Miami Commissioner Arthur Teele, who committed suicide while awaiting trial on corruption charges in 2005. He also led the corruption investigations at the fuel farm at Miami International Airport, and at the Miami-Dade Housing Authority.
Scruggs had previously led the public corruption division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami, and also served as a top aide in the Justice Department to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in the mid-’90s.
“I brought Richard Scruggs in to join the team because I am tough on public corruption, and I have been and will continue to be tough on public corruption,” Fernández Rundle said when she hired Scruggs eight years ago.
But Scruggs can be controversial. In 2009, he was scolded by a judge for failing to promptly disclose secret recordings of a suspect and his lawyers made by a detective during a meeting with prosecutors. The judge found that Scruggs did not know about the recordings.
Centorino is also a veteran public corruption prosecutor. Last year, he negotiated a plea deal with Miami Commissioner Angel Gonzalez removing Gonzalez from office. He also prosecuted Miami-Dade Commissioner Miriam Alonso, who in 2006 pleaded guilty to stealing campaign funds after a four-year legal battle.
Centorino was also the lead prosecutor in the vote-fraud scandal involving the 1997 city of Miami elections.