Miami-Dade County Court Judge Maria D. Ortiz has agreed to harsher sanctions in an ethics case brought by the Judicial Qualifications Commission.
The judge faced allegations she accepted free hotel stays with her husband, Mariano Fernandez, former director of Miami Beach’s building department, who alleged took them as bribes to speed city permits for Spain’s RIU Hotel Group.
The JQC charged Ortiz with ethics violations in May, while her husband lost his job and faces corruption charges.
In June, the Florida Supreme Court rejected Ortiz’s prior stipulation agreement, in which the JQC had recommended a public reprimand and $5,000 fine.
But under the revised stipulation, Ortiz will cover the JQC’s court costs and serve a 30-day suspension without pay, in addition to the fine and public reprimand.
The JQC conceded in its response that despite Fernandez’s alleged criminal conduct, it would likely be unable to prove the judge intentionally violated the judicial canons. It stands by its claim that Ortiz was negligent.
‘I Always Lived Very Frugally’
The case against the judge hinges on whether she was aware her family received valuable gifts, including free local and international hotel stays from RIU Hotel Group.
According to an affidavit from Ortiz’s husband, the judge’s paycheck went into a joint account that he controlled until May 2018.
The JQC quizzed Ortiz about the trips at her examination hearing, where she claimed she’d only just opened her own account — one week before testifying. Before then, the judge said her husband controlled the finances and reviewed the bills for credit cards she said she used to pay for the trips. She said she never knew the hotel offered a 100 percent discount on the family’s vacation expenses.
Ortiz said that she’d “tried” to open her own account years ago, when she almost got divorced, but “it was such a battle” that she opted out.
“I should have taken it out then and taken over my finances, and I wouldn’t be here today,” Ortiz said before the JQC.
The affidavit bolstered Ortiz’s claims that she never paid attention to credit card statements and receipts and didn’t know that hotel stays in Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Miami Beach were free.
“I never worried about amounts. I always lived very frugally. That was the way it was,” Ortiz said at the hearing.
According to Ortiz, she only checked her financial statements if she “would get a call that there was fraudulent activity, which is rare.”
Ortiz fielded questions about her adult children and their friends, who accompanied her and her husband on some of the trips. According to her testimony, she paid for their stays, and gave her personal credit card to hotel staff on at least one occasion.
This raised a red flag for JQC attorney Alex Williams, who pointed out that one receipt referred to a “special discount” of “100 percent” and asked Ortiz, “You handed your credit card over to pay for $986 worth of hotel fees, and your testimony to the commission so far is that you never checked to see if that actually went through. Is that correct?”
Ortiz claimed she didn’t remember the cost being $986 but said, “If that’s what it is, I signed it and gave it to them.”
Williams did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.
When asked to specify who and what she paid for, Ortiz revealed she covered expenses for one of his son’s friends, Ralph, who hadn’t brought enough money with him for the hotel stay.
Ortiz’s lawyer, David B. Rothman of Rothman & Associates in Miami, declined to comment on the case.
Ortiz has admitted that she failed to “take reasonable steps” or “make specific inquiry” about how the trips were paid for, according to the revised stipulation.