MIAMI - A bribery trial began Monday morning for Michelle Spence-Jones, a suspended Miami city commissioner.
Spence-Jones faces two criminal charges in the same 2006 incident.
"The defendant has been charged with both bribery and grand theft," said prosecutor Richard Scruggs.
The jury will have to determine if Spence-Jones asked a developer for $25,000 in return for a favorable vote on a condo project.
Developer Armando Codina was building a high-rise and knew if he could get the address changed from Southeast Second Avenue to Brickell Avenue, which had more prestige, he could charge higher rent. He took a request to the Miami Commission to extend the name of Brickell to that part of Southeast Second Avenue.
"Codina's got a matter in front of the commission. It was just heard by the commission seven days before, and the final vote is going to be seven days from now on April 5. So right in the middle of that, bingo -- here comes a phone call. Twenty-five thousand dollars is to be paid to a supposed charity. I guess for purposes of our discussion here, we can call it a charity. We can call it anything we want," Scruggs said.
The charity that prosecutors said received the donation was the Friends of Martin Luther King Trust, which was set up by Spence-Jones' pastor.
The developer has said he didn't expect anything in return for his charitable donation.
The case will revolve around what Codina thought he was writing a check for, what the intention for the money was and what the money actually was used for.
Spence-Jones' lawyers say the solicitation was legal and benefited the citizens in her district, which includes Overtown and Liberty City.
"Not one witness will take that witness stand and say that Michelle committed a bribery," said Spence-Jones' attorney, Peter Raben. "Not one witness will take the stand and say she committed a theft."
Spence-Jones insists the request for and the checks Codina and associates wrote for $25,000 were a legitimate request to launch a legitimate charity, the Friends of Martin Luther King Trust, and a legitimate part of her job to bring money to her inner-city district.
"It is not a crime for a public official to solicit a donation from somebody who has a matter pending before them," Raben said.
Codina's leasing agent, Jack Lowell, denied knowing of bribes for the vote.
"Brickell Avenue is known as the Park Avenue of the South, and particularly for the international banking community, a Brickell address has always been preferred," Lowell said.
The street the developers wanted renamed actually was under state jurisdiction. A memo is part of evidence showing that Codina and his associates knew that and knew that Miami commissioners did not even have a say.
After she was charged, Spence-Jones was suspended from office, re-elected while she was still suspended and then suspended again.
Spence-Jones has called the charges against her a "witch hunt."
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