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Probe clears developer of improper lobbying allegations in Miami Beach

An investigator has determined that a team member of the development group that had sought a $1 billion bid to renovate the Miami Beach Convention Center did not run afoul of city laws.

In the midst of a hard-fought competition to award the convention center bid, Commissioner Jonah Wolfson had accused Robert Wennett of violating the city’s lobbying rules. Wolfson sought to have the Wennett and his company banned from doing business with the city.

Miami Beach can prohibit companies from getting city contracts if members commit certain violations. Lobbying violations can trigger what the city calls “debarment.”

The allegation against Wennett holds less weight now because the city has scrapped the project that Wennett and his team, South Beach ACE, had bid on — and eventually won. A new commission, elected in November, decided to use a different process to award the renovation deal, and has scaled back the proposal dramatically. The price will likely be halved.

Robert Meyers, the former head of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and the Public Trust, was hired by the Beach to investigate Wolfson’s claims.

At the city’s regular commission meeting on Feb. 12, Wolfson said, “Obviously, I don’t agree” with Meyers’ findings.

“There was a violation,” Wolfson said.

Wolfson added that he’d like to discuss the matter further, including a general discussion about the city’s debarment rules, with the City Attorney’s Oversight Committee.

In his complaint, Wolfson put down on paper allegations that had been floating around political circles for at least a year. The claim was that Wennett failed to register as a lobbyist before speaking in front of a city committee and to commissioners about a Lincoln Road maintenance agreement.

Meyers’ report notes that, according to the ethics commission, “a company or its representative may not be required to register as a lobbyist to negotiate extensions or amendments to an existing contract that are contemplated under the original agreement.”

Wennett has had a contract with the city to maintain a portion of Lincoln Rd. near his 1111 Lincoln Road parking garage since January 2010. The contract includes provisions that allow for an expansion to cover maintenance in other areas of the Lincoln Road Mall. Meyers also points to a memo from the city manager at that time, which notes that negotiations were underway with Wennett’s company, UIA Management, to broaden the scope of the maintenance agreement.

Meyers also concluded that other allegations of unregistered lobbying were moot. In one instance, Wolfson said Wennett illegally lobbied a city committee regarding redevelopment of the convention center. At the time of the alleged lobbying, the bid that Wennett’s team eventually bid on had not yet been released. And Wennett had been a member of a Convention Center Expansion and Enhancement Steering Committee, and identified himself as a member of the committee when addressing the issue.

The investigator concluded this wasn’t illegal lobbying because the city’s rules state: “a public officer, employee or appointee or any person in contractual privity with the city who only appears in his official capacity shall not be required to register as a lobbyist.”

Because Meyers determined Wennett did not illegally lobby in those instances, he also found untrue an allegation that Wennett lied in an affidavit. The affidavit was required of bidders vying for the convention center project, and asked team members to swear they hadn’t engaged in illegal lobbying.

Representatives for Wennett did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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