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Ethics commission finds probable cause in Homestead election complaint


Special to the Miami Herald

In the heated race for Homestead mayor, candidates have not been shy about taking jabs at each other through ads and campaign mailers.

But now, candidate Mark Bell has said his opponent, Jeff Porter, went too far.

Bell, 57, takes issue with a Porter-funded mailer that depicts a mock $25,000 check made out to Mark Bell and his wife, County Commissioner Lynda Bell, and says the money was a “gift” to the Bells from Homestead taxpayers. The flyer also says that Mark and Lynda Bell “gamed the system and received a BIG FAT CHECK!”

"When you say stuff in a political ad that isn’t truthful, unfortunately some folks believe it," said Bell. "Mr. Porter is not following fair campaign practices."

The mailer refers to a $25,000 grant Homestead’s Community Redevelopment Agency awarded for the upgrade of The Hotel Redland, which Bell owns in downtown.

J.C. Planas, Bell’s attorney filed an ethics complaint saying the mailer violates a county campaign fair practices law.

“The ad lied. That’s the bottom line,” Planas told the Miami Herald. “It was not a gift. It was a grant. And the money was given to the hotel, not to Mark and Lynda Bell.”

The Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust is investigating. At a hearing Wednesday, a magistrate said the claim is justified to move on to a hearing in front of the commission.

The complaint is based on a county law that says that a municipal elections candidate is not allowed to publish an untrue statement “with actual malice” about his opponent or his opponent’s family that will bring “hatred, contempt, or ridicule.”

Porter and his attorney, Joseph Geller, said the flyer was accurate. After Wednesday’s hearing, Geller added that the county ordinance has been interpreted in a way that "chills free speech."

“If the flyer said that they stole it, that they took the money, that would be different,” he said. “But saying that someone used the system, that doesn’t expose them to ridicule. ... If this ordinance is going to be interpreted to say that every time you write a political ad you have to defend your ad, that will constitute prior restraint on political speech. It will chill anyone from sending out any political ad ever. That’s unconstitutional."

Depending on how the ethics commission hearing goes, Geller said that he may file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the county law.

Carolina Mala Corbin, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Miami, said the county law on which the complaint is based closely mimics the U.S. Supreme Court’s language when it comes to defamation claims brought by a public figure. To successfully bring a defamation claim, a public figure must prove the speaker acted with actual malice, meaning that the person knew the speech was false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

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