The Florida Supreme Court has, for the second time, rejected the stipulated discipline for Miami-Dade County Court Judge Maria D. Ortiz, who was accused of accepting free hotel stays with her husband, Mariano Fernandez, former director of Miami Beach’s building department, who allegedly took them as bribes.
The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) charged Ortiz with ethics violations in May, while her husband lost his job and faces corruption charges.
In June, the justices rejected Ortiz’s first stipulation agreement, in which the JQC had recommended a public reprimand and $5,000 fine.
The JQC went back to the drawing board Oct. 29, filing a revised stipulation. In it, Ortiz agreed to cover the JQC’s court costs and serve a 30-day suspension without pay, in addition to the fine and public reprimand, Ortiz also admitted that she failed to “take reasonable steps” or “make specific inquiry” about how the trips were paid for.
At a recent evidentiary hearing, Ortiz claimed she rarely checked her financial statements and receipts because her husband Fernandez took care of their joint account.
“I never worried about amounts. I always lived very frugally. That was the way it was,” Ortiz said at the hearing.
Ortiz’s lawyer, David B. Rothman of Rothman & Associates in Miami, would not comment on the case.
In the revised stipulation, the JQC maintained that it believed Ortiz was negligent but 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.
JQC attorney Alex Williams declined to comment.
Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince, Ricky Polston and Jorge Labarga stood by the decision, which suggested a longer, 90-day suspension. But Justice Alan Lawson dissented, saying he would accept the stipulation agreed by Ortiz and the JQC. Chief Justice Charles T. Canady joined in Lawson’s dissent.
The 5-2 decision sent the case back to the JQC for reconsideration. If no agreement is reached, the Hearing Panel of the Commission will hold a final hearing and send a recommendation to the high court, which will make its own decision.
Read the court order: