The controversial new political action committee dominating the conversation in Miami Beach political circles has broken the million-dollar mark with a nearly $400,000 haul in July — and county ethics officials have taken notice.
Relentless for Progress, the committee chaired by term-limited Miami Beach Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, has brought in nearly $1.4 million from a mix of prominent real-estate developers, city vendors and other notable South Florida names during the three months the group has existed. The fact that Wolfson and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine have solicited PAC donations from these folks — some of whom have recently asked for approvals from city boards — has caught the attention of the Miami-Dade County ethics commission.
“We are aware of it and aware of the concerns around it,” said Joseph Centorino, the ethics commission’s executive director. “It’s something we’re looking into.”
Commissioners bickered in July over whether the city should ask Centorino for an opinion on the matter, and Levine ignored motions to vote on it. After Miami Beach city attorney Raul Aguila corrected Levine, the vote failed.
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But ethics officials were paying attention. Centorino told the Miami Herald that the ethics commission has the power to probe the matter because it involves a Beach law that prohibits city vendors, developers and lobbyists from donating directly or indirectly to commission candidate campaigns.
Wolfson has said his committee will support candidates in this fall’s Beach election, in which voters will fill the seats of three term-limited commissioners, including Wolfson himself. Aguila told commissioners that money given to political committees do not constitute “indirect” contributions unless the donor earmarks those dollars for a candidate.
Although Centorino couldn’t comment on any details of the probe, he said that since the city has a campaign finance law that addresses the issue, the ethics commission can act.
“We have jurisdiction to enforce their code and to interpret it,” he said.
Financial reports posted Monday show July’s largest contributor to the committee was the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel, which donated $100,000.
Other notable contributions include:
▪ $50,000 from George Lindemann, president of the Bass Museum of Art’s board of directors.
▪ $50,000 from Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.
▪ $25,000 from Tony Tamer, founder and co-CEO of Miami-based private equity investment firm H.I.G. Capital
▪ $25,000 from Elmira Miami LLC, a firm that is managing the Raleigh Hotel in South Beach for a new hospitality venture by fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger. Plans to renovate the hotel were approved earlier this year by the city’s Historic Preservation Board.
▪ $18,000 from SMGW Golden Sands LLC, a firm linked to the team of developers who earlier this year received approval to redevelop the Golden Sands Hotel in North Beach.
▪ $10,000 from Bercow Radell & Fernandez, a zoning and land-use law firm with attorneys who regularly lobby before Miami Beach land-use boards and the city commission.
Critics have used the committee’s fundraising to spark a debate about how “soft money” factors into local politics, particularly when there’s a city law that aims to stop monied special interests from funding local elections.
Michael Putney, senior political reporter for WPLG Local 10, in late July blasted Levine on his Sunday morning program This Week in South Florida. Levine later went on the show to defend himself, repeating several times that he is self-funding his own campaign and that the committee is playing by the rules.
“Right now, this is the world we live in,” he told Putney. “It’s appropriate. It’s legal. If we want to change the laws, I’d be the first to do it.”
A new TV spot starring Levine and his dog Earl, paid for by Relentless for Progress, aired at least three times during that program.
Despite increased scrutiny, Wolfson has maintained what he wrote in mailers sent to voters: His PAC will support candidates in this year’s city election.
“Yes, there’s no change to that,” he said Tuesday.
July’s financial reports also show RFP has donated to some local campaigns — four Miami-Dade county judges soon up for reelection. Wolfson’s wife, Andrea Wolfson, is a county judge, reelected to a six-year term in 2012.
Mysterious attack ads
Meanwhile, a strange new wrinkle has formed in the fabric of this year’s election season. A Palmetto Bay man named Stephen Cody — an attorney with a suspended license who also writes children’s books and has worked on redistricting issues — registered a political committee called “Save Miami Beach.”
The name mirrors a more well known group of preservationists who advocate for saving historic homes, but the groups are unrelated.
Cody said he has sent several email blasts attacking Relentless for Progress because he’s interested in good government and he talks to various Beach “advocates, voters and activists” about the city’s politics.
He insists he is a committee of one working for free. City records show he has not reported any contributions to his group.
“I’m trying to keep [voters] informed about things they do not realize,” he said.
Cody said he is not working with any candidates.