October 6, 2022

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Just Do Travel

Former Miami Beach building official accepts plea deal

3 min read

Former Miami Beach building official Mariano Fernández won’t be going to jail for illegally accepting free hotel stays and gifts from a Spanish hotel company.

In a plea deal struck with Miami-Dade prosecutors earlier this week, Fernández accepted two years of house arrest, to be followed by two years of probation. He also received a withhold of adjudication, which means he won’t technically have a felony on his record. He accepted the plea deal on a charge of unlawful compensation.

Fernández, 67, had been awaiting trial since his arrest in February 2018.

Prosecutors said Fernández blatantly traded his influence and work for luxury rooms in South Beach, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. The stays came from RIU Hotels & Resorts, which owns more than 100 hotels in 19 countries, including a resort on South Beach that needed building permits from Fernández’s department.

His defense attorney, Jeffrey Weiner, said the safety of buildings in Miami Beach was never compromised and that Fernández did not realize that his friendship with RIU executives crossed the line.

“It was poor judgment on his part, looking back, and he knows it,” Weiner said.

As the top building official at City Hall, Fernández had significant power over inspections and permitting for construction and renovation projects in the resort city — crucial functions that determine the timeline for completion of big projects. Between October 2013 and June 2016, RIU needed permits for a major renovation to its South Beach property.

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Mariano Fernandez, center, surrendered to the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office on a charge of receiving unlawful compensation while serving as Miami Beach’s building official. Miami Herald file photo

Prosecutors said Fernández regularly solicited free and comped rooms for himself and his employees, even helping to organize “team-building” department retreats at deeply discounted rates. In all, at least five of Fernández’s employees got outright free stays through Fernández, and dozens more got discounted rates, amounting to over 200 nights.

One of those “team-building” trips was in September 2015 to the RIU Palace Bavaro All-Inclusive Resort in Punta Cana. There, Fernández and his wife got a free suite — and a birthday bottle of Johnny Walker Black Scotch in their room, plus a VIP night at the Coco Bongo nightclub.

City building departments across South Florida have been in the news since the June 24 collapse of the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside. The town’s former building official, Ross Prieto, who told condo residents the tower was in good shape despite a 2018 report detailing structural damage, used to work for the city of Miami Beach.

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Alejandro Sanchez del Arco, regional manager for the Caribbean for RIU, left, and Luis Riu Guell Jr., CEO and owner of the RIU Hotel & Resort chain, surrendered in Judge Jorge Cueto’s Miami courtroom Monday morning, Feb. 12, 2018, to face allegations they gave free hotel stays to a Miami Beach city official in exchange for help with building permits. The two RIU executives were handcuffed in court and led away to be booked into jail where they both could post bond. Emily Michot [email protected]

Fernández was hired at Miami Beach in 2013, and was fired shortly before his arrest.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office also charged Luis Riu Guell Jr., RIU’s owner, as well as the company itself, along with RIU’s regional vice president, Alejandro Sanchez del Arco.

In February, the case was dismissed against Guell, while the company itself was put on probation and had to pay nearly $500,000 in fines and donations, and develop a program aimed at ensuring compliance for employees in future building matters. Sanchez del Arco also received two years of probation and had to spend 30 days under house arrest.

The public corruption case also indirectly ensnared Fernández’s former wife, Miami-Dade County Judge Maria Fernández.

In 2019, the Florida Supreme Court ordered her suspended because she failed to report the free hotel stays while the two were married. She also agreed to pay a $5,000 fine and accept a public reprimand.

David Ovalle covers crime and courts in Miami. A native of San Diego, he graduated from the University of Southern California and joined the Herald in 2002 as a sports reporter.