A Miami pastor began his trial this week in an effort to be acquitted of theft and fraud charges. The Reverend Gaston Smith sat with his Miami criminal lawyer as opening statements were presented to the jury. The Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office has charged Smith with stealing in excess of $10,000.00 in grant money intended to be used to help the citizens of Liberty City, one of Miami's poorest communities. The case is another example of the many public corruption cases that have come to light in recent months in Miami.
Prosecutors allege that Smith committed grand theft by misappropriating "seed" money intended to be used for the benefit of the citizens of Liberty City. Some of the money allegedly went to pay a bar bill in Las Vegas. Smith's Miami criminal defense lawyer argued that Smith got tangled up in the public corruption investigation that led to the recent arrest of another local politician, Michelle Spence-Jones. The defense argued that the case had nothing to do with theft, but was the result of bad book keeping.
The criminal jury trail began after two long years with many individuals expressing their support for Smith. Spence-Jones, once a member of Smith's church, is an essential part of the defense. Smith began the non-profit organization at her request and she arranged a $25,000 county grant for the "Friends of MLK". Smith told prosecutors that Spence-Jones demanded $8,000 in return for the favor. The investigation into Smith's alleged crimes began when with many unexplained withdrawals from the organization's account.
During the pendency of the criminal case against Smith, his Miami criminal attorney offered him as a witness in the case against Spence-Jones. Unwilling to use Smith as a witness, the prosecution pushed for a criminal trial. The basis of the alleged grand theft charge against Smith involves 27 ATM transactions and account charges for rental cars, lodging and airfares. All of the charges were allegedly made with the authorization of the organization.
Although the Miami criminal justice system is swamped with drug trafficking, mortgage fraud and medicare fraud cases, public corruption cases are becoming as popular in the media. If a public official becomes ensnared in a criminal investigation and prosecution, it will certainly become a media event and the Public Corruption Unit at the Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office will use only the most seasoned prosecutors to prepare the case for trial. Whether they can actually prove their case to a Miami jury is a different question.
Trial Begins for Miami Pastor Accused of Stealing County Funds, The Miami Herald, November 9, 2009.