Warrant: Commissioner sidelined plan to help public school kids after taking private school cash

Former Miami Commissioner Ken Russell weighs in after arrest of ex-colleague Alex Diaz de la Portilla

MIAMI – A plan to help public school kids was sidelined, investigators say, when Miami City Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla began secretly taking in tens of thousands of dollars from owners of a controversial private school.

As Local 10 News reported Friday, following Diaz de la Portilla’s arrest on 11 felony corruption charges on Thursday, the case is centered on Centner Academy, owned by David and Leila Centner, who haven’t been charged.

Authorities alleged that attorney William Riley Jr., the District 1 commissioner’s co-defendant, “controlled a bank account in the name of a Delaware-based corporation to launder approximately $245,000 in concealed political contributions made by a management services company” in exchange for permission to build the $10 million athletic complex at Miami’s Biscayne Park.

The park, located at 150 NE 19th St., is described in an arrest warrant as “one of the largest remaining undeveloped tracts of land in Miami’s urban core.”

Before Diaz de la Portilla came to office in 2019, there was a plan for the land that included helping provide expanded educational space and green space to public school students, as well as affordable housing for teachers.

“Half of it would stay as green space for the public and the school, and the other half would be for affordable housing and the expansion of iPrep,” former Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell, who represented District 2, said.

Diaz de la Portilla’s arrest warrant states Biscayne Park was viewed as a “key component” of a redevelopment plan in partnership with Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency to relocate the public school, iPrep, and, per a memorandum of understanding, develop housing opportunities for local community members and district employees.

The vision, Russell said, was to “redevelop 9 acres of school board-owned land and master plan it for education, teachers’ housing, affordable housing and) technology.”

“But in order to make that plan come to fruition, they needed to move iPrep, the public school that is on those acres right now,” he said. “So, this piece of land was the target area where we would expand iPrep to give more local seats for downtown residents and unencumbered that school board property.”

Once Diaz de la Portilla became a commissioner and took over as head of the Omni CRA, “this plan never saw the light of day again,” Russell said.

“It is a big shame. We had worked together on this plan for four years, five years, between the district, city of Miami, and Omni CRA because the land, that one piece, Biscayne Park, is owned by the city, so they had to be on board,” he said. “The Omni CRA had agreed, the district had agreed, so many pieces were in place for many years of work.”

Diaz de la Portilla’s arrest warrant states after he was elected, political contributions begin pouring in from the Centners, a wealthy couple seeking to build an indoor recreational complex on the public land to benefit the students of their private school.

By early 2020, Diaz de la Portilla took over as CRA chairman and “largely” ignored “CRA’s professional staff,” “occupying the CRA’s main conference room to eat, consume alcohol, and hold after-hours fundraising sessions,” along with his brother Renier.

The District 1 Commissioner then introduced resolutions to support the Centners’ project at Biscayne Park, per his arrest warrant. He failed to disclose “the receipt of tens of thousands of dollars from the Centners” and “failed to refrain from voting on the matter.”

In just one example, a $50,000 check is dated Oct. 20, 2020. Two days later, on Oct. 22, the Miami city commission would adopt a resolution to direct the city manager to start negotiating with the David and Leila Centner Family Foundation.

Eight days after that, Riley, the Centners’ registered lobbyist and in-house counsel, would bill the Centners for reimbursement of more than $1,500 for a “celebratory dinner with the city commissioner, manager, and staff following the unanimous vote on the Biscayne Park project.”

Jason Walker, the former Omni CRA Executive Director, described that 2020 resolution to investigators “as a setback to the pre-existing plans involving MDPS and others that had been ‘a priority’ of the OMNI CRA up until that time.”

The Miami-Dade school district released a statement about the matter Tuesday.

“Miami-Dade County Public Schools recently became aware of the allegations indicated in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation through media reports,” a spokesperson said. “The matter is currently (being) reviewed.”

A vote to discuss if and how Diaz de la Portilla’s seat will be filled, previously scheduled for Monday, has been moved up to Saturday because of Yom Kippur.

Diaz de la Portilla, who, along with Riley, faces charges including money laundering and bribery, has denied any wrongdoing. So has Riley.

Read the warrant:

About the Authors:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."

Chris Gothner joined the Local 10 News team in 2022 as a Digital Journalist.