BRADENTON, Fla. — Miami officials have been told that civil charges may be brought against the city for failing to disclose serious budget problems in recent bond offerings.
The charges are a result of winding down a Securities and Exchange Commission probe that began in late 2009 with the agency obtaining documents and emails between 2006 and 2009 on Miami’s budget and its deficit, internal audits and bond issues.
City Commission chairman Francis Suarez said Wednesday he was advised by the city attorney that the SEC is considering filing civil charges against Miami and several former city employees.
Suarez did not know if the charges would be based on violations of a previous cease-and-desist order Miami signed with the SEC in 2003. In that order, Miami promised it would not commit or cause any future violation of the antifraud provisions of the federal securities laws.
“I’m sure that’s something [the SEC] is looking at in terms of fashioning a penalty as a remedy to the situation,” Suarez said. “It stands to reason they would take that into account.”
Suarez expects to call an executive session of the commission soon to discuss legal strategy with the outside firm handling the SEC case, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.
Miami is still grappling with some budget problems that appear to have gotten the SEC’s recent attention, though Suarez said the city is making headway and he is optimistic.
“I’ve been here two years and four months, and the budget deficit has decreased significantly from when I first arrived,” he said. “For the first time in six years, we will have a balanced budget at the end of the year and we’ll put money into reserve.”
However, the upcoming fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 has a projected deficit of $45 million.
Suarez, an attorney who worked in the SEC enforcement office during a summer honors program at law school years ago, said he hopes the agency will not seek disgorgement from the city, though he is well aware of Miami’s past.
In the 1990s, Miami had a $68 million deficit due to pension problems and rising costs. The governor appointed an oversight board and eventually, the budget reached structural balance and reserves were built.
As an outgrowth of those issues, the SEC filed securities charges against Miami for failing to disclose financial problems in bond documents and in financial reports.
Robert Doty, president of Sacramento, Calif.-based municipal consulting firm AGFS, said he could not recall any issuer that became a repeat offender of SEC regulations.
“Based upon repeat actions against underwriters … the second time around then, the SEC might seek something more serious in the way of remedial action,” Doty said.
In the 1990s case, Miami fought the SEC charges for several years until a change in administration brought a resolution in 2003.
“My gut feeling is that I don’t know how much fight we have left,” Suarez said. “We don’t have much money to spend fighting the federal government, and the people involved in the transactions [in the current investigation] are not with the city any more.”
The SEC recently opened a second probe involving the city and Miami-Dade County over the financing for the Marlins new ballpark, which opens for its first game early next month.
Miami has already paid more than $1.5 million in legal fees to address the current SEC investigation.
“This started with one administration and another administration inherited it,” Suarez said. “We want to close this out.”