Already high-drama, a Miami Dade College solicitation to develop an iconic downtown cultural center just got a little stranger after college officials revealed a consultant hired to help police its competition was tailed by private investigators and recorded visiting the home of a real estate executive bidding on the project.
Twice in April, Bilzin Sumberg attorney Suzanne Amaducci-Adams was followed to the Cocoplum residence of Related Group honcho Lissette Calderon, including once on the day before a crucial board of trustees vote on the project. College officials were alerted to the encounters weeks ago by a Naples PI, who questioned whether the private meetings were improper.
But after conducting a “fact-finding” mission, the college’s board of trustees decided nothing untoward had happened, and noted that Amaducci-Adams disclosed long ago that she and Calderon sometimes socialized because their daughters were friends and schoolmates. Now — amid some heavy criticism about the lack of public disclosures — the college is looking into whether it was actually one of Related’s competitors who broke the rules by hiring the investigators.
“The whole thing is crazy,” said Gregg Covin, one of the developers bidding on the project.
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The strange developments were revealed Monday when the college published a 73-page report scrutinizing its own competition to build a public-private complex at 520 Biscayne Blvd. Currently, three teams led by Related Group, Covin, and art dealer Gary Nader are competing for the project, which includes a museum, theater and conference center and could also include some combination of condos, hotels, restaurants and apartments. An award recommendation is expected in July.
According to the memo, the college became aware that someone was investigating Amaducci-Adams after a private investigator contacted board trustee Marili Cancio on April 29. Cancio reported the meeting to college administrators, who responded by hiring past board chairman and former U.S. Attorney Roberto Martinez to investigate the matter.
Martinez, whose report and notes were among the published documents, interviewed Amaducci-Adams, who reportedly told him she’d visited Calderon’s home only to pick up and drop off her daughter, and that the project was never discussed. Reached on her cellphone, Amaducci-Adams declined to comment, and referred a reporter to a Bilzin Sumberg statement that said she’d “acted professionally and responsibly throughout the entire procurement process.”
Martinez also met with attorney Ben Kuehne and private investigator Mike Perl, who investigated Amaducci-Adams. Neither Perl nor Kuehne would say who they represented or whether they were even paid, but they told Martinez during an interview that they were looking into problems with the college’s procurement process. They said the meetings with Calderon raised questions of impropriety and said they were bringing the information to the college in order for it to be handled internally, and quietly.
But the college chose instead to post Martinez’s report to its procurement website Monday. Notes from an interview with Provost Rolando Montoya show the college already knew that Amaducci-Adams and Calderon were friends because the former disclosed the relationship shortly after her hiring. A conflict of interest waiver submitted in January by Related Group shows the college was already aware that Amaducci-Adams’ firm, Bilzin Sumberg, represents Related on a series of other projects, some of which is common knowledge anyway.
“I know that they are good friends, their kids are friends, and they have socialized together as parents,” said Montoya, who referred to Amaducci-Adams as the “policeman” of the college’s developer selection committee. “Suzanne disclosed that very early in the process.”
But in an interview, Kuehne said the college’s response ignores the fact that officials never publicized Amaducci-Adams’ conflict, choosing instead to keep it quiet and leave other bidders and the public in the dark. Furthermore, he said the college declined to seek an ethics opinion, and their own published documents show they didn’t sign a conflict of interest waiver until June 1, weeks after questions were raised.
“I wanted to bring this to the attention of the college. Apparently they did know and all they were interested in was ‘Gee, Ben. Who are you representing?’ ” said Kuehne. “The college doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of this situation and I find that disturbing.”
If any bidders agree, they have until Friday to file a protest raising issues with the college’s process. Related Group’s general counsel said in a statement that neither Calderon nor anyone else from the company has done anything inappropriate. But Bill Riley, an attorney for Nader, said he’s reviewing the college’s report to see if a contest of the process is warranted.
In the meantime, Nader declined to speak to the Miami Herald, but has publicly denied hiring the investigators. Covin said he only learned of the issue Monday after it was first reported by The Next Miami blog and worried that prolonging the process will only make it more contentious.
“As this thing drags on it seems to get uglier and uglier,” he said. “I’m not really sure what’s going to happen.”