His company on trial over its tactics in a controversial condo project, Jorge Pérez, the celebrated developer, found himself on the witness stand Monday answering to an unexpected foe: Jorge Pérez, the author.
Pérez, the chairman of the Related Group, testified in the trial of a lawsuit brought against his company by The Vizcayans, a fundraising and support group for the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. The Vizcayans have accused Pérez’s company of secretly manipulating the zoning process at Miami City Hall to win approval in 2007 for a three-tower condo project next to Mercy Hospital in Coconut Grove — forcing the Vizcayans to spend more than $1 million in legal fees in its successful effort to kill the project.
The Vizcayans, who objected to the project because it would have intruded on the views from the historic property, have also accused the developers of quietly buying the approval of two local neighborhood associations by offering them $8 million in exchange for their support.
William Davis, a lawyer for the Vizcayans, questioned Pérez about the arrangement by citing passages from Pérez’s 2009 book, Powerhouse Principles: The Ultimate Blueprint for Real Estate Success in an Ever-Changing Market (foreword by Donald Trump). In the book, Pérez discussed his efforts to build the Mercy Hospital project, and said his team decided to keep the payments to the neighborhood groups secret because “we gave them a lot of money,” and he feared other groups would ask for more if they got wind of it.
Pérez sheepishly conceded that he didn’t exactly write his book — it was the work of a ghostwriter with whom he worked.
“They were my thoughts interpreted by a person that was writing,” he said.
Davis also tried to hoist Pérez on one of his powerhouse principles from the book: “neutralize the opposition.”
He suggested that Related sued the Vizcayans seeking public records in an effort to harass them. Pérez denied the allegation and said he had no recollection of that lawsuit.
Pérez insisted that there was nothing sinister about the deals with the neighborhood groups; he said the payments to the groups were simply a routine practice his firm follows when it seeks community support for its projects.
“I’m doing that on probably 10 projects right now,” Pérez said.
Yery Marrero, the president of the Natoma Manors homeowners’ association, told jurors that her group supported the condo project not because of the promise of money, but because they thought the condos would prevent Mercy Hospital from expanding and bringing even more traffic to their already congested neighborhood.
“Our issue in our neighborhood is traffic,” Marrero told jurors. “Per day we have so many cars going through there.”
The Vizcayans’ lawyers have portrayed the payments as part of a larger scheme to win over the Miami City Commission, which had to endorse zoning and land-use changes for the condo project. They have accused Related’s staffers, lawyers and lobbyists of working behind the scenes to essentially rig the commission vote.
In one January 2007 email, a Related vice president told Pérez that they had confirmed the votes of three commissioners in favor of the condo deal — days before the first public hearing on the project.
The City Commission ultimately approved the project in a 3-2 vote. But following a suit from The Vizcayans, an appeals court later overturned the decision, finding that the city ran afoul of state zoning laws and that then-Mayor Manny Diaz had improper contact with Pérez during the veto period after the vote.
Diaz is expected to testify Tuesday.
Related’s lawyers, John Shubin and Israel Reyes, have asked Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Daryl Trawick to throw out the case, saying The Vizcayans have failed to prove that the developers set out to deliberately harm the nonprofit.
The developers’ lawyers also called Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado as a witness Monday. Regalado, who was on the commission at the time of the 2007 vote, said he never heard anything suggesting that the developers were trying to harm The Vizcayans.
Shubin said the Vizcayans are wrongly seeking to punish the developers for simply petitioning the government for a zoning change.
“This is all about petitioning activity,” Shubin said. “They can’t even cite to you a case that looks remotely like this one that has been brought.”
Pérez took his day on the witness stand with good humor. “I’m glad someone is reading my book,” he said when his testimony ended.
The trial, now in its fourth week, is expected to end this week.