A public-corruption probe is underway into a controversial political group linked to Miami Beach commissioner and mayoral candidate Michael Grieco, the Miami Herald has learned.
At least one donor to the political action committee has been subpoenaed by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, according to a Miami Beach defense attorney representing the donor. The attorney asked that he and his client not be identified.
The list of donors to People for Better Leaders is stocked with Miami Beach vendors, lobbyists and developers with business before the city. The PAC raised $200,000 in 2016.
Investigators with the state’s public-corruption task force may be seeking to learn if those donations were a quid pro quo for Grieco’s political favor. Grieco may also have broken a city law that bans candidates and elected officials from asking vendors and lobbyists for donations, either directly or through a third-party.
A Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office spokesman, Ed Griffith, said on Tuesday he could neither “confirm nor deny the existence of any investigative activity.”
The Herald wrote a series of articles earlier this month outlining Grieco’s connections to the PAC. He firmly denied any association with the group.
Generally, witness subpoenas come with immunity from prosecution, except if perjury is committed.
It’s not clear how many of the 23 individuals and corporations that gave to People for Better Leaders received subpoenas. Most of the donors did not return calls. Reached on his cell phone, one donor, David Aronow, said he had no comment.
In the Beach, a violation of the city’s ethics ordinance is not a criminal offense, carrying just a small fine. If a commissioner or candidate solicited donations or coordinated with someone else to solicit on their behalf, a fine of $500 per violation would be issued, according to the city code.
In an email, Grieco said: “I have not been contacted by the State Attorney, however I welcome an objective, thorough and professional inquiry because it will show no wrongdoing. My focus remains on serving Miami Beach and improving the residents’ quality of life, just as I have done since 2013.”
‘Look right into my soul’
For months, Grieco insisted he had nothing to do with People for Better Leaders and that the PAC was not raising money for his campaign. But one donor told the Herald that Grieco himself asked for a contribution. Another said he donated to People for Better Leaders at a Grieco fundraiser in South Beach. And two forensic document experts — one hired by the Miami Herald, the other by a supporter of Grieco’s opponent in the mayoral race — confirmed that Grieco’s handwriting appears on paperwork filed by the PAC.
Eventually, the PAC’s chairman, Brian Abraham, a friend of the commissioner, gave an explanation: He had hired Grieco, a criminal defense attorney, to serve as the PAC’s lawyer.
In a June 9 email, Abraham announced he planned to close People for Better Leaders, blaming the Herald and the opposing mayoral candidate, Dan Gelber, for attacking his right to raise money for political speech.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Abraham had not responded to a request for comment.
Gelber, a former federal prosecutor, recently released a video criticizing Grieco for not explaining his association with People for Better Leaders.
The November election is expected to be close. Grieco has so far out-raised Gelber, the son of a popular former Beach mayor. But public knowledge of an investigation could hurt Grieco, who has won over Beach voters with a populist approach since first being elected in 2013.
A former prosecutor, Grieco once worked for State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle. But he resigned from his job as an assistant state attorney after being criticized for his handling of a case against an NFL player, the late Sean Taylor. Defense attorneys said Grieco was using the notoriety of the case to promote his side job as a disc jockey.
Fernández Rundle is also in the mix for higher office: She is believed to be considering a run for governor or state attorney general in 2018. A political scalp like Grieco’s couldn’t hurt her chances.
Miami Beach has strict campaign-finance laws to prevent candidates and elected officials from soliciting PAC donations from city vendors and lobbyists.
One of the People for Better Leaders donors was Boucher Brothers, a company with a city contract to rent chairs and umbrellas on the beach. The company gave a total of $25,000 to the committee in spring 2016. In September, Boucher’s contract was extended five years. Grieco voted in favor.
Another donor, the Angler’s Hotel, gave the PAC $15,000 in August 2016. The Washington Avenue hotel is seeking an upzoning.
In November, Grieco referred the upzoning to the commission’s land use committee. It eventually went before the full City Commission June 7, where the PAC became a flashpoint in the discussion following the Herald’s reports.
Commissioner Ricky Arriola, a supporter of Grieco’s mayoral opponent, said he couldn’t vote for the item amid questions surrounding the PAC and Angler’s donation.
Grieco, who sponsored the item, asked to reconsider the issue at a later date. The item was continued.
Several other donors have business or potential business before the city, including Manchester Capital, a medical marijuana firm; Orange Barrel Media, a media company; and developers, including the Finvarb Group and Ytech International.
Any of those firms could be crucial witnesses to the investigation. None returned calls from the Herald on Tuesday.
Political committees come under special scrutiny in Miami Beach due to campaign finance laws that are stricter than county regulations. Voters are sensitive to the political influence of city vendors, deep-pocketed developers and high-powered lobbyists, many of whom have dumped money into shadowy political committees that produce political advertising during elections.
In 2015, former commissioner Jonah Wolfson and Mayor Philip Levine raised money from city vendors, lobbyists and developers for a committee called Relentless for Progress. After roiling voters and political onlookers and sparking a debate about the role of special interest money in municipal politics, Wolfson closed his PAC that fall.
Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.