A shadowy political action committee secretly tied to Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco is refunding almost all of the $200,000 it raised from Beach bigwigs, months after it promised to return the money.
“As of last week, all of the checks had been mailed out,” said Eric Padrón, a criminal defense attorney representing the PAC, People for Better Leaders, which is under state investigation.
In a June 12 letter to the state elections department, the PAC’s chairman, Brian Abraham, announced he was closing down the group and said remaining funds will be “returned to the contributors on a prorated basis.”
But the PAC dragged its feet — and the lobbyists, developers and city vendors who donated didn’t much like feeling air in their pockets.
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“I want the money back, of course,” said Andrew Joblon, a Beach developer who now lives in Austin and hasn’t yet received the check. “But I don’t feel great about the whole thing.”
Joblon said a friend — whose name he does not recall — told him last year that People for Better Leaders would help Grieco win the 2017 election for Beach mayor — and a $2,500 check would do nicely.
He had no idea of the scandal that would follow: Grieco — his political ambitions turned to dust after dropping formidable bids for mayor and re-election to the commission — may now face criminal charges stemming from a public corruption probe, according to sources with knowledge of the inquiry. Investigators with the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office believe the PAC accepted illegal foreign money, with Grieco’s knowledge, those sources said.
Abraham is “cooperating fully” with investigators and will not face charges, according to Padrón. The delay, he said, was to ensure the PAC did everything required “in terms of shutting down our operations and refunding the money.”
No donor contacted by the Herald Monday had received a check.
Grieco, who was with his family at Walt Disney World — his second trip to the resort in the last month — did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
At a civic breakfast in September, a week before he dropped his re-election bid, the commissioner said he had “absolutely no control as to the return of that money.”
“Trust me, if I did, it would have been returned a long time ago,” Grieco told voters at South Beach’s Puerto Sagua restaurant in response to criticism from Mark Samuelian, a challenger for Grieco’s seat.
Despite prodigious fundraising for a local election, People for Better Leaders barely spent any money.
Expense reports filed with the state show the PAC spent just $490.15, which it described as a credit-card processing fee. Padrón said he was unaware of any other major expenses.
State law does not force PACs to return donations when they shut down. If the donors don’t deposit the refund checks, the PAC can donate the money to a charity of its choice, Padrón said.
A Miami Beach criminal defense lawyer representing one donor who gave more than $10,000 said the PAC has repeatedly promised the money will be returned.
“The PAC has continuously failed to honor its commitment to return the donation,” said the lawyer, who asked not to be named to protect the privacy of his client in the ongoing criminal probe.
Abraham did not respond to a request for comment last week. When he shut down the PAC, he blasted the Miami Herald’s reporting in a letter, saying the newspaper was attacking his right to “political free speech.” Abraham said he had been inspired to start the committee by the legacy of his grandfather, South Florida businessman and philanthropist Anthony Abraham.
“As a result of your newspaper’s attacks and smear campaign,” he wrote, “I have decided today to close my political committee.”
Another donor said he expected to receive a refund after reading Abraham’s statements. The donor, who did not wish to be named, hasn’t heard a word about getting his money back since. But he said he won’t raise a stink until after an investigation by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office wraps up.
For months, Grieco denied an association with the PAC, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
But the Herald showed his handwriting appeared on a document it filed with the state when it began raising money.
He had started election season with strong support for his mayoral campaign. Then, after the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office opened an investigation, he dropped out, simply hoping to hang onto his commission seat. Even that was too much. Last week, Grieco, a first-term commissioner, announced he was giving up his bid for re-election.
Now, he’s in negotiations with state prosecutors over possible criminal charges. Investigators believe he coordinated an effort by Miami Realtor Tony Rodriguez-Tellaheche to funnel foreign money to the PAC, according to sources familiar with the probe.
Foreign nationals can only donate to U.S. elections if they hold permanent residency.
Rodriguez-Tellaheche’s $25,000 donation was the single largest contribution to People for Better Leaders. His attorney said he is cooperating with the investigation.
Other major donors include:
▪ Boucher Brothers, a city vendor that supplies beach chairs and other concessions, gave a total of $25,000 in two contributions.
▪ Samantha South Beach, a group of investors seeking to open a luxury hotel, contributed $20,000.
▪ Manchester Capital, a firm run by Evan and Rustin Kluge with interests in the medical marijuana industry, gave $20,000.
▪ Angler’s Resort, a Beach hotel, donated $15,000.
▪ JML Services, a real estate investment firm, gave $15,000.
▪ Sean Yazbeck, a tech entrepreneur who won the fifth season of Donald Trump’s television show, “The Apprentice,” gave $13,509.85.
▪ A company controlled by New York developer Infinity Real Estate, which plans to open a CVS pharmacy on Ocean Drive, gave $10,000.
▪ Ytech International, run by real estate investor Yamal Yidios, gave $10,000. The firm owns residential properties in North Beach.
If they don’t get their refunds, the donors don’t have much legal leverage.
“There is nothing in Florida Statutes that enforces or regulates how a political committee must dispose of funds once dissolved,” Sarah Revell, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State, said in an email. “When a political committee files their statement of organization, they must include plans for the disposition of residual funds in the event of dissolution. However, there is nothing in statute that requires a political committee to adhere to that.”
One donor who did not wish to be named said his contribution was too small to merit anger.
Grieco, he said, “is in trouble enough.”