Tony Rodriguez-Tellaheche doesn’t fit the profile of the big-money donors who raised $200,000 for People for Better Leaders, a political action committee under state investigation for its secret ties to Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco.
Rodriguez-Tellaheche isn’t a Beach developer, lobbyist or city vendor like most of the contributors. He runs a luxury real estate brokerage, Prestige Realty Group, in Coconut Grove.
So why did he cut a check for $25,000 — the single largest donation the PAC received — to People for Better Leaders last year?
Investigators with the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office don’t believe Rodriguez-Tellaheche was giving away his own money — they believe he was funneling illegal funds from at least two foreign nationals, according to sources familiar with Grieco and the public corruption probe.
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Foreigners who don’t hold green cards are banned from contributing to American elections. The Miami Herald has not confirmed the identities of the possible foreign donors.
Grieco, who on Monday dropped his bid for re-election, could face charges for his role in the financial transactions. In an email obtained by investigators, he explained how to mask the origin of the money through a U.S. bank, according to sources aware of the investigation’s progress. He is in talks with state prosecutors over potential charges. He did not respond to an interview request. His attorney, Ben Kuehne, said he had no comment.
Rodriguez-Tellaheche could also be charged.
After the publication of this article online and in print, Rodriguez-Tellaheche’s attorney emailed the Miami Herald on Friday with a statement asserting that Rodriguez-Tellaheche is not the subject of an investigation.
“Please note that Mr. Rodriguez-Tellaheche is not a target of the Miami Dade State Attorney’s Office investigation,” wrote attorney Carl Kafka. “He has been called as a witness and is fully cooperating with their investigation. Since this is an ongoing investigation we are prevented from commenting further.”
As a Realtor in a Miami real estate market dominated by foreign buyers, Rodriguez-Tellaheche has plenty of access to wealth from abroad.
While he is not involved in Beach politics, he has other connections. Last year, he called State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle a “good friend” on Facebook. He posted a photo of himself and family members posing with Fernández Rundle at a fundraising event in Coconut Grove. State records do not show that he has donated to her campaigns.
Informed of the Facebook post, Ed Griffith, Fernández Rundle’s spokesman, said he could not confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation. He added that while it was clear Fernández Rundle had met Rodriguez-Tellaheche at a campaign event, “they are not personal friends.”
Before Friday’s email from his attorney, Rodriguez-Tellaheche had not responded to repeated phone calls, emails and text messages. When a reporter visited his office in the Grove on Wednesday, a receptionist said her boss did not want to comment because of the ongoing investigation.
Wednesday night, reporters wearing Herald identification badges and carrying notebooks knocked on the front door at the home of his father, Juan Rodriguez-Tellaheche, and asked for an interview. Juan Rodriguez-Tellaheche, standing inside the home, responded by holding up a handgun and tapping it against a glass panel of the locked door. He did not answer questions.
The younger Rodriguez-Tellaheche was one of 22 donors to the PAC. Asked in June why he donated $25,000 to People for Better Leaders, he said, “I don’t like to talk about two things: Religion and politics.”
He declined further comment.
The PAC shut down in June but hasn’t yet returned the $200,000 to donors as its chairman, Grieco’s friend Brian Abraham, promised.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
The investigation into People for Better Leaders began after the Herald published a series of articles outlining Grieco’s connections to the shadowy political action committee. Grieco’s handwriting appeared on a document People for Better Leaders filed with state election authorities.
Grieco, then a leading contender for Beach mayor, denied any ties. But he dropped out of the election after the inquiry became public, choosing instead to seek re-election to his commission seat.
Then, on Monday, he quit that race, too, in a surprise announcement during a city meeting.
The commissioner blamed his exit from public life on the strain of dealing with political “mudslinging” and the sacrifices he has made for his family. He hasn’t mentioned the investigation publicly and refuses to take questions on the PAC.
Sources familiar with the state investigation say the scandal could produce criminal charges. Knowingly and willfully making or accepting a donation in the name of another person is a misdemeanor crime. Making or accepting two or more such donations is a third-degree felony. If financial institutions were used to hide the flow of cash, money laundering and wire fraud charges could follow.
In addition, Grieco could face a civil ethics fine for lying to the public when he said he had nothing to do with the PAC, according to sources familiar with a parallel investigation by the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.
It’s not clear how Rodriguez-Tellaheche got involved with Grieco.
His realty firm describes itself as “boutique” but generates big money. Last year, he rented a Miami Beach condo to a British family for $70,000 per month.
The Real Deal named him one of the most productive sellers of single-family homes in Miami-Dade County in 2016. Rodriguez-Tellaheche sold eight homes for $30.6 million last year, including a Pinecrest mansion for $5.5 million.
Hours after this story was published online, Prestige announced it had closed the sale of a mansion in South Miami listed for nearly $2.5 million.
The firm tweeted out a short video of Rodriguez-Tellaheche clinking a glass of what appeared to be champagne as music pulsed in the background.
Note: This article has been updated with a statement from Tony Rodriguez-Tellaheche’s attorney, who contacted the Miami Herald after this story was published.