On Friday afternoon, Raquel Regalado sat down at law firm conference table to talk to an attorney for the city of Miami, where her father serves as mayor.
It was not a friendly conversation.
“The effect of your lawsuit was to undo a public vote,” said Juan Carlos “J.C.” Planas, the private elections lawyer hired by Miami to fight a suit challenging a city referendum approving SkyRise Miami project.
Regalado responded: “I think that’s a very loaded description on your part.”
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The exchange during Regalado’s four-hour deposition captured several layers of awkward, overlapping political subplots unfolding in her legal battle to stop Miami-Dade from giving a $9 million subsidy to the SkyRise project.
Seated nearby was Jeff Berkowitz, the SkyRise developer and a longtime campaign backer of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who championed county funding to help the planned 1,000-foot observation tower weeks after the referendum passed in August 2014. Regalado is challenging Gimenez in the 2016 county mayoral race, and cites SkyRise as an example of Gimenez using county government to help political allies.
Her top campaign backer is Norman Braman, the Miami auto magnate who joined Regalado as co-plaintiff in the SkyRise suit before dropping out for procedural reasons. He’s still paying her lawyers. And sitting on the far end of the table at the offices of Hinshaw & Culbertson was Planas, working for the city led by Mayor Tomás Regalado and charged with defending the 2014 ballot language that Raquel Regalado claims misled voters by describing SkyRise as a “privately-funded” project.
Though Tomás Regalado campaigned for SkyRise before the August 2014 referendum, he now says the $9 million planned subsidy violates Berkowitiz’s pledge to build the project with private money. Berkowitz noted he informed the city of his pursuit of county dollars well before the public vote, and that the tax funds would only support parking and surrounding infrastructure and not the tower itself.
The suit was filed in February, about a month before Regalado, a two-term school board member, joined the county mayoral race. She said Friday that Braman financed a poll at the start of 2015 to see, among other things, if litigation against SkyRise would hurt her electoral chances.
“Norman Braman wanted to do a poll to see if you filing a lawsuit against SkyRise would hurt your chances for running for office?” Berkowitz lawyer George Yoss asked during the deposition. “Yes,” Regalado responded.
Yoss asked if the poll affected her decision, which Regalado said at the time was a choice between running for county mayor or to succeed her father in 2017. “No, it didn’t,” she said. “It just made Norman feel better.”
Braman wrote Friday in a text message that he has done similar polls over the years, and that the intent was “to see what was on the mind of voters. Which issues were more important, etc.”
The lawsuit seeks to overturn the 2014 referendum and force a new vote. Regalado said she would drop the suit if Berkowitz gave up his request for $9 million from Miami-Dade.
Friday’s deposition was videotaped, leaving at least the possibility of Regalado’s performance reappearing in campaign ads. She wore a black necktie and vest over a white-and-black dress shirt and black skirt. Yoss, of Kopelowitz Ostrow, conducted most of the questioning, and the two had some barbed exchanges.
Regalado is a former practicing lawyer and current radio and television host. When Yoss asked if the radio station had tapes of her program, she replied all recordings are digital. “You’re dating yourself,” she said. “I’ll make you a mix tape when we’re done.” When Yoss noted Miami-Dade was still negotiating a grant agreement for SkyRise and that the money may not ever be awarded, Regalado said, “Carlos Gimenez is a very inefficient person.”
“I’m not here to tell Carlos Gimenez how to do his job,” she added. “I’m here to run against him.” Gimenez’s office had no comment.
Planas, a lawyer with Kurkin Brandes and a former state lawmaker, was hired given the conflicts of having one of the city’s full-time attorneys defending a suit filed by the mayor’s daughter. “I’ve been in much more contentious depositions,” Planas said afterward. “This was nothing. It really wasn’t.”