Alex Díaz de la Portilla under investigation for alleged witness tampering in bribery case

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Law enforcement is investigating possible witness tampering by former Miami City Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla in a bribery and money laundering case against him after his former chief of staff reported that he had sent her text messages about her witness testimony.

The former City Hall staffer, Karla Fortuny, alleged in a May 20 petition that Díaz de la Portilla’s messages were “intimidating and obviously meant to tamper with my presentation of complete and truthful testimony regarding my time as an employee of the City of Miami.”

Díaz de la Portilla was released from jail hours after his Sept. 14 arrest on a host of corruption charges. Díaz de la Portilla and his co-defendant, lobbyist William “Bill” Riley Jr., are accused of conspiring to launder $245,000 in political contributions in exchange for the commissioner’s support of a plan to build a sports complex on city land. The two men have pleaded not guilty and denied any wrongdoing.

Díaz de la Portilla was released on a $72,000 bond, according to a court filing. But prosecutors in the Broward State Attorney’s Office argued in a May 23 motion that, based on Fortuny’s claims, Díaz de la Portilla should be prohibited from contacting any state witnesses as a condition of his pretrial release.

Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Miguel M. de la O tentatively approved the motion on Saturday, ordering Díaz de la Portilla to have no contact with state witnesses, besides his brother Renier Díaz de la Portilla and government employees, whom he can only communicate with about matters unrelated to the pending criminal case. The parties are expected to schedule a hearing to present evidence and arguments on the matter soon.

In their motion, prosecutors wrote that on May 20 “law enforcement began an investigation into the possible tampering with a witness and/or harassing a witness.” Paula McMahon, a spokeswoman for the Broward State Attorney’s Office, said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is conducting the investigation.

Reached by phone Monday, Díaz de la Portilla’s attorney Benedict Kuehne called the investigation “outrageous.”

“It reads to us like a totally fictional and fabricated claim of an investigation,” he said.

In a text message to the Herald, Díaz de la Portilla wrote Monday that: “The only tampering is the State’s tampering.”

Kuehne and his co-counsel Susy Ribero-Ayala wrote a scathing response to the state’s motion, calling it “error-laden” and saying a judge should consider disqualifying the Broward State Attorney’s Office from prosecuting the case. Broward County took over the case after Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle reported a conflict of interest because of her relationship to Riley’s father.

Kuehne went on to say in the filing that prosecutors’ “true goal here is to fan the flames of public interest against the Defendant in a way that threatens the fairness and impartiality of the defendant’s right to a fair trial.”

Text messages and an alleged ‘burner phone’

Prosecutors’ motion to modify the terms of Díaz de la Portilla’s pretrial release included a May 20 petition from Fortuny, saying she was being stalked by her former boss and asking a judge to issue a no-contact order. It is unclear if Fortuny has formally filed the petition with the court, as such records remain confidential until after the respondent is served.

Starting in mid-April, Fortuny alleged that she began receiving “unsolicited and unwanted text communications from the Defendant.”

According to a screenshot included in the filing, Díaz de la Portilla texted Fortuny on the morning of April 13 that, “We are getting ready to depose our witnesses...what dates are good for you?”

On April 24, he sent her another message, according to the filing: “Did she retain an attorney?”

Then on May 16, Díaz de la Portilla allegedly wrote to Fortuny again: “Hi Karla. Can you tell me what date and time is good for your depo? We are trying to schedule.” According to her petition, Fortuny’s attorney had already scheduled the deposition at that point in time, and “all parties had been informed the day prior,” on May 15.

Hours later on May 16, according to the screenshot, Díaz de la Portilla wrote to Fortuny: “No response which is indicative of the intention.”

Fortuny did not respond to any of the messages, according to the filing.

A screenshot of text messages Alex Díaz de la Portilla allegedly sent to his former chief of staff, Karla Fortuny.
A screenshot of text messages Alex Díaz de la Portilla allegedly sent to his former chief of staff, Karla Fortuny.

Days later, on May 20, Fortuny’s current boss received a text message from an unknown number, alleging that Fortuny received thousands of dollars from another witness in the case. “... More to come in depositions,” the text said, according to a screenshot included in the filing.

Broward prosecutors said the message to Fortuny’s boss was sent from an inactive Verizon Wireless number. Fortuny alleged that Díaz de la Portilla sent the message to her employer using a “burner phone.”

“This conduct is extremely intimidating,” Fortuny wrote in the petition. “The respondent knows that I am listed as a prosecution witness in [the case] in which he is a named defendant. He also knows that I am represented by counsel. Regardless, he stalks me via texts and now has used a ‘burner phone’ to text my supervisor at my current job.”

Kuehne, however, wrote that the burner phone accusation, among others in the state’s motion, is “unfounded” and that the allegations are part of a “concocted and fraudulent effort to convince this Court that the Defendant is intimidating witnesses.”

“At no point had Ms. Fortuny, who one time referred to Sen. Diaz de la Portilla as her ‘second father,’ ever requested that the Senator not contact her,” Kuehne added. (Díaz de la Portilla formerly served as a Florida state senator.)

An attorney for Fortuny did not immediately respond to the Herald’s request for comment.

In his June 1 order, the circuit court judge struck from the court’s record the portion of the state’s motion that included Fortuny’s stalking petition after the Miami Herald received it from the Broward State Attorney’s Office through a public records request. De la O said that he did so “in an abundance of caution” because the petition, which appeared to “substantially comply” with Florida law, was “incomplete and (apparently) unfiled.”

Kuehne had also argued in his response to the state’s motion that Fortuny was not formally listed on the state’s witness list. Defense attorneys had subpoenaed Fortuny for a deposition in December, according to the state’s motion, which prompted prosecutors to speak with Fortuny “at some length.” Prosecutors did not, however, add her to the state’s official witness list until May 23, after Díaz de la Portilla’s legal team pointed out prosecutors’ error in describing her as the state’s witness.

“The State’s ongoing effort to weaponize the criminal justice system against the Defendant in defiance of the facts and law is both reprehensible and unacceptable. It must be met with the sternest judicial response,” Kuehne wrote.

Fortuny was first hired by Díaz de la Portilla’s District 1 office as a communications aide in 2020, according to an investigative report from the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust. She became deputy chief of staff in early 2021, then chief of staff in May of that year, according to the report.