Miami-Dade County leaders have wanted to build a mass transit system to connect Miami and Miami Beach for decades. However, details of an ethics investigation could scuttle the latest proposal.
Next Tuesday, commissioners could take up a motion on whether to continue with the one company recommended to build the “Baylink” transit system, or put the plan in the dustbin and begin the bidding process again.
The Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust investigated claims of burner phones wiped clean and a hastily scheduled Hong Kong meeting with county officials and representatives of the Genting Group, the company behind the “unsolicited bid” to build a $770 million monorail system.
The ethics commission did not take any enforcement but investigators wrote erasing what was on county-used phones on the trip was inappropriate.
“It will forever be associated with a meeting that occurred, you know, on a cloudy day in China,” said Commissioner Eileen Higgins, whose district is one of two where the monorail project will be built.
Higgins sent a memo to the board of commissioners, asking for a do-over on a May 19 vote approving Mayor Carlos Gimenez' administration to review the plan. She asked Miami-Dade’s inspector general Mary Cagle to help steer a path forward to a new project.
Higgins originally voted in favor of reviewing the project but no longer supports the idea. For her, there’s just too many transparency issues connected to the deal.
“First of all, who switches between Gmail and WhatsApp and your county email? My county email is my county email. If I’m working, it’s a public record," Higgins said.
According to the report, the FBI originally recommended using burner phones because of surveillance concerns of the Chinese government. Gimenez told reporters Wednesday he felt he was being surveilled constantly and did not want to pursue business with the Chinese government.
The problem comes when the burner phones were wiped before much of what was on them became public. Ethics investigators were unable to determine who wiped the phones when.
On a call with reporters, Gimenez said Genting Group was interested in investing in the county and they “went there to listen.” The Hong Kong meeting would eventually lead to the bid a year later. Now, county staff have approval to begin early negotiations with the company.
Gimenez has already vowed to no longer use burner phones for county work, saying, “we made the changes that they recommended way before they recommended them.”
“They (ethics investigators) did find the use of the burner phone, actually burning the burner phone, was a problem. So we changed our policy - which we did. And I never had a burner phone. So any information that you request from my phone was available.”
NBC 6 reached out by email to Genting Group for a comment and has not yet heard back.
Genting is the main driver for a proposal, including several partners such as Meridiam, another large company overseeing the PortMiami Tunnel project. The plan would be a four-mile monorail crossing over Biscayne Bay.
The ethics investigation took two years, something Gimenez mentioned on the call. “It really didn’t require two years of investigation to come up with the conclusions they came up with.”
News outlets the Miami Herald and Univision were originally supplied schedules that did not include the Genting meeting. County officials told investigators that was due to a hastily planned trip that changed often. The reporters simply received the wrong draft, county staff told ethics investigators.