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Judge faces discipline over free hotel stays

A Miami-Dade County judge could face a fine and a public reprimand from the Florida Supreme Court after an investigation into free hotel stays in Miami Beach, the Dominican Republic and Mexico, according to documents posted Monday on the Supreme Court website.

An investigative panel of the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission recommended Friday that County Judge Maria Ortiz pay a $5,000 fine and receive a public reprimand from the Supreme Court for failing to properly disclose the 2015 and 2016 hotel stays.

The recommendation, which the Supreme Court does not have to accept, came after Ortiz admitted she had not properly reported the information on financial-disclosure forms.

The disciplinary action comes after Ortiz’s husband, Mariano Fernandez, who served as director of the Building Department for the city of Miami Beach, was charged with felony counts of receiving unlawful compensation, according to the documents filed at the Supreme Court. Fernandez was accused of helping RIU Hotel Group in Miami Beach with permitting problems and receiving free accommodations. As an example, the documents say Fernandez and Ortiz in 2015 received a free vacation at a resort in the Dominican Republican that included benefits such as a trip to the VIP area of the “famous Coco-Bongo Show and Disco.”

The criminal case against Fernandez is pending.

The investigative panel said in its recommendation Friday that Ortiz acknowledges that she failed “to take any steps to inform herself about the household finances generally, and specifically that she failed to take steps to discover how the trips” to the hotels were financed.

“After a thorough review of all the available evidence, the Investigative Panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission has concluded that Judge Ortiz’s lack of awareness as to her personal finances allowed a situation to arise wherein she was the recipient of several substantial gifts which she then failed to identify and disclose as required by the (Judicial) Canons,” the recommendation said. “Her inattention further created the appearance of impropriety when it was discovered that the benefits received by Judge Ortiz were allegedly illicitly procured by her husband.”

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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