Miami Beach

Fontainebleau owner says competitor met with associate of jailed Miami Beach official

 

cveiga@MiamiHerald.com

A team led by the owners of Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau hotel recently lost a bid for a $1 billion contract to redevelop the Miami Beach Convention Center.

Now the company says that Miami Beach’s jailed former procurement director tried to get a world-famous architect to join one of the other teams that is still a finalist for the lucrative project.

The claim is a bombshell, a yawner or a smear campaign — depending on who you ask. It was made in an affidavit that Miami Beach Commissioners asked all competitors to submit after Gus Lopez, the city’s former procurement director, was arrested and charged with 63 felony counts of public corruption charges. He has pleaded not guilty.

The affidavit, said Commissioner Deede Weithorn, is “not exactly vanilla.” She’s the one who asked for the sworn statements after she heard rumors of the procurement director’s alleged involvement in trying to influence the teams vying for the lucrative contract.

“I certainly will ask our city attorney to look at this,” she said. “For the sake of something so important to the city, I’d certainly like to make sure that we’ve cleared this.”

But several facts make skeptics, including Miami Beach’s chief deputy city attorney, pause when considering the Fontainebleau owners’ claim: The company’s affidavit makes claims that were heard second-hand. It doesn’t say exactly where it got the information. And it makes no claims to having checked it out.

To understand the allegation, you have to know the cast of characters:

• Lopez, the city’s jailed former purchasing director.

• Zaha Hadid, a world-famous architect who eventually joined the Fontainebleau team.

• Walter Garcia, a businessman and ex-con who, investigators found, received leaked documents about the convention center bid from Lopez. The men also exchanged proposed consulting contracts that would have paid millions in fees for Garcia.

• Ugo Colombo, a Miami condo developer who is on the Portman-CMC team. The team is one of only two finalists still being considered for the bid.

Here’s the bombshell, according to some: The Fontainebleau affidavit attempts to make a clear link between Lopez and the Portman-CMC team. It does so by saying that Lopez told Hadid to meet with Garcia to “discuss ... joining the Portman team” — the implication being that Lopez was somehow already connected to the Portman team.

Furthermore, the Fontainebleau team’s statement outlines a series of meetings between Garcia, Hadid associates and Colombo.

“The purpose of these meetings was to convince (Hadid) to join the (Portman-CMC) team,” according to the affidavit.

The architect didn’t end up joining the Portman-CMC team. And the Fontainebleau statement makes no claim that Lopez was actually a party to any of the meetings.

Still, “I think there was direct graft,” said Miami Beach Commissioner Jonah Wolfson.

Here’s why some say this a yawner: Colombo’s link to Garcia has already been publicly reported. And the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office already investigated it, finding that nothing illegal had happened.

Plus, despite all of the allegations against Lopez, the state attorney’s office has said that they have not found any proof that he illegally rigged the convention center bid. Also, Garcia has not been charged with any crimes.

“This is just an attempt to try to throw a monkey wrench into the process. It’s simply a smear campaign,” said Lucia Dougherty, general counsel for the Portman team.

Dougherty also said that the convention center project — which will include a new hotel — will siphon off business that now goes to the Fontainebleau.

Colombo, meanwhile, was included in a Portman affidavit swearing that no team members had inappropriate contact with Lopez’s agents.

Jonathan Kurry — who signed the affidavit as general counsel for the Fontainebleau team — questioned the ability of Colombo to swear to that.

The Portman affidavit, Kurry said, “says that there was no contact,” he said.

But that’s not what the Portman affidavit says.

Rather, Colombo swears — using language prepared by the city — that he hasn’t had any contact with anyone “identifying themselves as representing or purporting to act by or on behalf of Gus Lopez.”

Colombo has insisted that Garcia never told him of any ties to Lopez.

“They said, ‘Did you have any communication with anybody who was representing himself to represent Gus Lopez,’ and that was never case,” Dougherty said.

Chief Deputy City Attorney Raul Aguila said he saw no discrepancies between the Fontainebleau and Portman affidavits, and called the allegations of undisclosed meetings “vague” and “hearsay.” He also noted that the Fontainebleau affidavit excluded language prepared by the city attorney’s office that swore the team members had made a “thorough investigation and inquiry,” into the things they were claiming.

Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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