It doesn’t much matter if developers employ lowdown tactics; if they wheedle, cajole, bully, induce, mislead, secretly manipulate, pay off — whatever it takes to wrest approval for controversial projects.
Unseemly, it turns out, is not the same as illegal.
After a month-long trial a Miami-Dade jury last week went through a verdict form with a long checklist enumeratoring the ways the Related Group might have inveigled approval for a bayfront condo project next to Mercy Hospital in Coconut Grove.
The jury voted yes — 28 times. Jurors found that Related held backroom meetings with former Mayor Manny Diaz and various Miami city commissioners trying to elicit zoning variances for the three luxury condo towers. They found that the builder had hired well-connected lobbyists to work the city commission. That Related hired another set of lobbyists to make sure the county commission wouldn’t interfere.
The jury decided that Related hired away an assistant city manager to wangle the city commission’s approval. That the company paid “substantial sums of money” to a pair of “consultants” because they were “known to be closely associated” with Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, whose vote was considered crucial.
The jury said yes, Related did indeed hire “a large number of persons” to attend a crucial city commission to “create the false impression of strong community support for the project.”
And the jury showed that it was offended by the secret millions the company offered two local neighborhood associations to support a condo project they had previously found unpalatable.
The jury considered those various sins and decided that Related had been ruthless, as it rolled over opposition from the Vizcayans, a support group for the nearby Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. Related coaxed a favorable 3-2 vote out of the city commission in 2007. The Vizcayans, however, sued and eventually won an appeals court decision that killed the project.
In January, the Vizcayans were back in court arguing that Related should be required to reimburse the group for its $1.3 million in legal expenses. The jurors’ collective disgust came in at $3.1 million.
But Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Daryl Trawick tossed the verdict. The jurors were stunned. “We think they did manipulate the political system,” jury foreperson Maria Utrera told the Herald’s Scott Hiaasen. “The evidence showed that what they did was wrong.”
Wrong, maybe. Offensive, certainly. But not unlawful. If Judge Trawick had ruled otherwise, he would have cast doubt on the very template Florida developers employ to get controversial developments approved. Related, after all, was only doing what developers do.
They hire whole platoons of power boy lobbyists. They find jobs for close friends and relatives of city and county commissioners. They employ key city and county bureaucrats to run their projects. They and all their flunkies make maximum campaign contributions. Then they send generous contributions to commissioners’ favorite charities. They put former city and county commissioners on their payrolls. And when commissioners meet to consider their projects, they pack the room with faux “supporters,” all decked in T-shirts with pro-development slogans.