Days before Miami’s city elections, allegations of unethical campaigning by public employees are stirring up the District 5 race and Miami City Hall.
Miami City Manager Art Noriega said in a letter sent this month to a union leader that at least two city workers used a city-issued car to campaign for District 5 candidate Christine King, a violation of rules that prevent public employees from working for political campaigns on the taxpayer’s dime.
The City Hall controversy comes as King, seen as a top contender, faces six opponents, including incumbent Commissioner Jeffrey Watson. Michael Hepburn, Stephanie Thomas, Francois Alexandre, Zico Fremont, and Revran Shoshana Lincoln are also running.
King told the Miami Herald she did not coordinate campaign activity with city employees. She accused Watson of hypocrisy, saying he distributed campaign material with city-branded gift bags and drove himself to campaign events in his city car.
The employee campaign activity came to light on Oct. 16, when Watson was in District 5 picking up a volunteer to distribute water at a city-sponsored event.
Watson, 64, says he saw people with red King campaign t-shirts knocking on voters’ doors, and noticed they’d arrived in a white 2016 Toyota Corolla with the city seal on the side. He said a woman in the driver’s seat wearing a King shirt showed him a voter list. Watson took pictures and notified Noriega.
Within days, Noriega determined that building department employees were recruited to help the King campaign “either directly or indirectly” by Sean Moy, president of the city’s general employees union, AFSCME Local 1907. Moy’s union endorsed King.
On Oct. 19, Noriega sent a stern letter to Moy to state that it was “clear” employees had violated city policies and announce there would be a broad investigation into union leaders’ involvement in recruiting city workers to work on political campaigns. The city manager wrote that all employees found to have violated city policy will be disciplined.
“I intend to use every available resource to determine the breadth and scope of this abuse of City property and the extent of everyone’s involvement — to include you,” Noriega wrote in the letter, obtained by the Herald.
The city manager later sent a citywide bulletin to the whole municipal workforce, distributing the city’s policy restricting workers from engaging in political activity using city materials or while on the clock.
This week, Noriega’s office would only confirm he was looking into a potential violation of city regulations and declined to elaborate further. On Wednesday night, Moy declined to comment on the matter until the investigation was complete.
In his letter, Noriega said he wanted to be clear that employees have the right to get involved in political campaigns so long as they do it on their own time and with their own equipment.
“It is every city employee’s right to participate in an election process, including assisting with campaign efforts, if they choose to do so,” Noriega wrote. “However, no employee can, either directly or indirectly, use or encourage another City employee to use City property whether it is tangible property, intangible property, real property or any City asset.”
Wednesday night, Watson said the violation should concern voters.
“When you start playing in campaigns, it should give people pause and make them wonder what else is now being done under their nose that is not necessarily agreeable,” he said.
King, 55, fired back at Watson Wednesday night, saying Watson’s campaign has handed out gift bags that feature political advertisements next to water bottles and totes with the city seal and his name on it. She also said Watson has driven himself to campaign events in a city car.
“[On Tuesday,] Jeffrey Watson arrived at a candidate forum in a city of Miami vehicle — outside of the city of Miami, in a city of Miami shirt that identified him as commissioner, not a candidate, and had the gall to complain about the employee,” she said.
Early voting in the city of Miami continues through Sunday. Tuesday is Election Day.