Bruno Barreiro (J. Albert Diaz)
A Miami-Dade County commissioner has not disclosed he’s liable for a contractor’s $300,000 mortgage, as required by law, and appears to be financially benefiting from his district office lease, an investigation by the Daily Business Review has found.
State disclosure forms required of public officials do not list a 2010 balloon mortgage obtained from Miami plumbing contractor Javier Cruz, which was co-signed by Commissioner Bruno A. Barreiro Jr. and his parents.
The mortgage is not only undisclosed but also appears to create a conflict of interest for the commissioner. The loan is secured by both a five-unit apartment building owned by the commissioner next door and a nearby lot owned by his parents.
Barreiro’s parents also own the office building in Miami’s East Little Havana neighborhood that the county leases as a district office for the commissioner. Because Barreiro is liable for any default on the loan, he has a direct financial interest in his parents’ business, including the county lease.
While his parents’ ownership of the district office building Barreiro has occupied for 14 years is no secret, the DBR investigation found a previously undisclosed benefit the commissioner is deriving from that transaction.
The office lease renewed last month includes use of a parking lot shared by the office building and Barreiro’s apartment building.
The county pays to keep the parking lot free of trash, while Barreiro’s tenants at 1466 SW First St. get free parking as part of their rent in a neighborhood with limited off-street parking.
Interviewed at his district office, Barreiro denied he personally profited from his close relationship with his parents’ business. While acknowledging the shared use of the parking lot and the $300,000 loan, he said he’d derived “zero benefit” from those transactions.
Several law professors who reviewed the DBR’s findings, however, said Barreiro’s disclosure documents and business dealings raised ethical questions.
“These findings suggest that the commissioner may be improperly exploiting his public office for his own private benefit and that of his family,” said Anthony Alfieri, a University of Miami law professor who founded and directs the university’s Center for Ethics and Public Service. “The conduct deserves scrutiny by the Miami-Dade County Ethics Commission at a minimum.”
Barreiro has long has business dealings with his family. Besides his $40,693 in county salary and benefits, Barreiro’s main source of income over the past decade has been his employment at Alicia and Bruno Barreiro Sr.’s health care company, Fatima Home Care Inc.
In 2000, Barreiro asked the county to rent office space in the same building that serves as Fatima’s corporate home. The original lease would have broken a county statute.
But the County Commission amended its conflict of interest ordinance to allow the transaction, deeming it acceptable as long as county staff found the property was being provided for less than 80 percent of its appraised market value.
Since 2001, the county staff has repeatedly recommended the lease renewal for Barreiro’s office suite at 1454 SW First St. With little discussion, the lease with Barreiro’s parents was approved by the commission in 2001, 2007 and again this year. No commissioners have voted against the lease. During the latest renewal, the cost of renting the 2,434-square-foot suite was set at $41,924 for four years, or $17.22 per square foot.
Barreiro bought the apartment building next door to his district office a few months after the initial office lease.
In a private appraiser’s report filed with the county last year as part of the office lease renewal, appraiser Edward Parker noted the lot maintained under the county lease was “also available” to the apartment tenants. But Parker incorrectly identified the apartment owner as Barreiro’s parents rather than the commissioner himself.
In an interview, Barreiro noted his tenants “are not guaranteed” a parking spot. And since he doesn’t specifically charge them for parking, he said there is no discrete financial gain to disclose.
“There’s zero benefit from that,” he said. “No benefit at all.”
‘Didn’t Benefit Me’
As for the 2010 loan, it has never been explicitly disclosed to the County Commission or state ethics authorities. Barreiro told the DBR it was a transaction made by his private investment company, BABJ Investments Corp., and did not need to be itemized for public scrutiny.
The loan was taken out “in the middle of the recession basically as a way to help support my parents,” Barreiro said.
“The way I see it, I was supporting them: My debt was supporting my parents,” he said. “It was their loan and their business. It didn’t benefit me.”
Barreiro said there was no intention to keep the mortgage hidden and suggested the DBR’s discovery of the recorded loan documents proved the information was in the public domain.
The DBR found information on Barreiro’s loan by locating the financing statement and mortgage covenant forms filed with the county recorder’s office.
A form elected officials are required to file every year with the state Ethics Commission detailing all financial interests and liabilities, Form 6, included no mention of the loan.
“If you want to see the glass as half empty and not half full, that’s up to you,” Barreiro said.
Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University and frequent commentator on legal ethics, disagreed with Barreiro on that point.
“Commissioner Barreiro absolutely should be disclosing his dealings with Javier Cruz,” Jarvis said. “While it’s possible that one could piece together the situation, ethics disclosure forms are not supposed to be games of hide-and-seek. Instead, anything that’s potentially relevant should be clearly spelled out, and if there’s any doubt about disclosure, the prudent thing to do is to disclose.”
He said the public had a right to know about the apartment building, shared parking lot and co-signed note.
“The test isn’t whether there will be a conflict, only whether there is a reasonable possibility that there could be a conflict,” Jarvis said. “And if there could be a conflict, disclosure is needed.”
It is unclear whether Barreiro’s actions violate any state or county ethics laws or rules.
In response to a query, Miami-Dade state attorney’s spokesman Ed Griffith said the facts outlined by the DBR would be better suited for review by the county’s independent Ethics Commission.
Commission executive director Joseph Centorino, a former public corruption prosecutor, said he was “not in a position to give an opinion on” Barreiro’s dealings since his office had not been asked to review on them.
“Usually, we suggest that people in this kind of situation ask us for an opinion,” he said.
State law requires public officials to fully disclose their financial interests, including all Florida real estate and financial liabilities over $10,000.
The Miami-Dade County Code of Ordinances explicitly bans commissioners from acquiring and holding personal investments that could create a conflict of interest between their private and public interests. Both state and county laws bar public officials from doing business with corporations that in turn do business with agencies they govern.
Violations can be prosecuted as misdemeanors or administrative violations, with penalties ranging from public reprimands and fines to forfeiture of office. Purposely making false statements on disclosure forms, which are notarized and made under oath, is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
Barreiro told the DBR that while he did not explicitly list the loan or investment real estate in state disclosure forms, he took the loan “into consideration when calculating the net value of BABJ Investments,” his personal business. In official 2013 filings, the commissioner listed a one-line entry on the value of his corporation at $134,189.
“I see this as liabilities that belong to BABJ,” he said.
Asked if the debt owed to Cruz might be relevant to state ethics authorities, Barreiro said he would “check that out” and committed to requesting an opinion from the county Ethics Commission.
Neither Cruz nor any of his companies appear to currently do business with the county, but Cruz and his employees are frequent contributors to local Republican candidates, donating thousands to U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio during the last election cycle. Barreiro is a Republican serving on a nonpartisan board.
A request for comment from Cruz was not returned by deadline.
It’s not the first time Barreiro has had issues with financial disclosures. In 1998, when Barreiro left the Florida Legislature for the County Commission, he was fined for being six days late filing campaign finance forms with the state. He blamed the mail.
Barreiro was elected to a seat vacated by Commissioner Bruce Kaplan under a prosecution deal for making false statements on financial disclosure forms.
Barreiro’s brother, former state Rep. Gustavo A. Barreiro, was censured in 2000 for failing to appropriately disclose a child support liability to state ethics officials.
“If you’re looking at an issue and you feel it is illegal, the authorities are there, of course,” he said, noting his business relationships with his parents’ companies have never been hidden.
“They’re my parents and, at the end of the day, it’s very clear what the relationship is,” Barreiro said. “It’s been in the papers. It was a campaign issue.”
Patrick Tolan, a professor of law at Cooley University in Tampa who is an expert in government contract ethics, somewhat agreed with Barreiro on that point. Tolan said it would be hard to conclude Barreiro’s benefit from his parent’s contract is unethical since it was repeatedly approved by the county.
“I would say this is borderline behavior,” Tolan said. “Given the public official’s duty to disclose even to prevent the appearance of impropriety, the disclosures should have been more thorough. It seems like the financial interest would be linked to having the property fully leased, given that he has an interest in making sure the mortgage is paid.”
Added Tolan: “The golden rule here is to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”
Some statutes governing county commissioners’ business dealings:
Florida Statute 112.313 prohibits elected and appointed officials from engaging in a “contractual relationship with any business entity … doing business with an agency of which he or she is an officer.” It bars officials from all contracts that “create a continuing or frequently recurring conflict between his or her private interests and the performance of his or her public duties.”
Florida Statute 112.3145 requires public officials to fully disclose their financial interests, including all Florida real estate and all financial liabilities over $10,000.
Violations can be prosecuted as misdemeanors or administrative violations, with penalties ranging from public reprimands and fines to forfeiture of office. Purposely lying on disclosure forms, which are notarized and made under oath, is a felony.
Miami-Dade County Code of Ordinances, Section 2-11.1
* Paragraph (l): County commissioners may not have “personal investments in any enterprise … which will create a substantial conflict between his or her private interests and the public interest.”
* Paragraph (o): A commissioner cannot acquire “property at a time when he or she believes or has reason to believe that said financial interest will be directly affected by his or her official actions.”