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Miami pastor who stole public money tries to seal record

@DavidOvalle305

The Rev. Gaston Smith, the prominent Miami pastor who looted public grant money, wants to erase all record of his arrest and conviction by jury — but prosecutors aren’t having it.

Jurors in 2010 convicted Smith, of the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, of stealing from a nonprofit he founded at the behest of one-time Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones. The money was allocated to Smith by then-Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler.

Spence-Jones later beat a criminal charge related to the same pool of grants.

Smith’s lawyer, Larry Handfield, last month asked a judge to seal and expunge his client’s criminal record. Surprised prosecutors then discovered that Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch last year granted Smith a “withhold of adjudication,” which means the conviction technically doesn’t appear on his record.

But Hirsch, before he was a judge, represented Carey-Shuler — a clear conflict of interest, prosecutors say. Hirsch recused himself from Smith’s case Wednesday.

Prosecutor Richard Scruggs told the new judge, Bronwyn Miller, on Thursday that he will seek to overturn Hirsch’s 2013 ruling and keep Smith’s felony record intact. He accused Handfield of failing to properly notify prosecutors. “He flew this one right under the radar on purpose,” Scruggs said during a contentious hearing.

Handfield insisted he properly notified the office — but not Scruggs, because the prosecutor no longer works public corruption cases. “He’s being vindictive against my client,” Handfield said.

Judge Miller will take up the issue March 21.

--DAVID OVALLE

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