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Miami-Dade Commissioner Javier Souto apologizes to Muslim community for remarks about house

Miami-Dade Commissioner Javier Souto issued an unusual statement late Friday apologizing for remarks he made from the dais, which suggested his complaints about a house being built in his district were based on anti-Muslim bias.

Souto’s commentary had implied that a seven-bedroom, 11-bathroom house under construction in Westwood Lakes could become a mosque or other place of worship intended to recruit college students to become Muslims. He said he met Thursday with Muslim community leaders who explained that they took offense to his remarks.

“I repeated some statements that I had heard from my constituents who are also very frustrated and angry with our County Government over this issue in a moment of a heated discourse, and unintentionally offended my friends in the Muslim community,” Souto said in the statement. “Once again, I offer my sincere apologies to my friends.”

The longtime commissioner said he gave his “impassioned” speech out of frustration with county building officials for allowing Samir Ghazal to build the three-story, Moorish-style house in a neighborhood of modest, one-story homes south of Bird Road and east of Florida’s Turnpike. County officials have said repeatedly that the home, at 4260 SW 111th Ave., while larger than its neighbors, complies with Miami-Dade’s building and zoning rules.

Ghazal has said he is building the house for his mother. He told The Miami Herald earlier this month that he felt Souto’s comments about the house were discriminatory because Ghazal’s mother is Afro-Cuban and the family is Muslim.

At the May 15 commission meeting, Souto said he suspected corruption among county officials who approved Ghazal’s building plans. “I want somebody to go to jail here,” he said.

He also noted the house’s proximity to Florida International University, later telling a Miami Herald reporter that he was worried that someone would set up shop at the home “to work on the boys and girls of FIU.”

“This is serious business,” the commissioner said at the meeting. “You know what I’m talking about. Two and two is four.”

Souto took a remorseful tone in his statement.

“I am an elected official and should measure my words when speaking because anything you say seems worse when you later read it in print,” Souto conceded. “However, I am human and I am anything but a politician.”

Souto recounted his past support for Muslims, including backing their requests for a van for a project to deliver food to the poor and for seed money for a free clinic. He said the Muslim community leaders he met with were offended by his comments, but agreed with his concerns that neighbors were not informed about the house before the county approved its construction.

County officials, including the county attorney, have said the plans did not have to be aired at a public hearing because they did not require any special permits, known as variances. Souto has said he disagrees with the county’s interpretation of the building and zoning codes.

In his statement, Souto also directly addressed Herald columnist Fred Grimm, who lampooned the commissioner’s comments in a column this week. Souto took issue with the column, saying “satirical commentary that fuels and makes light of intolerance towards any community is wrong.”

“This is not an issue of racism as you imply in your article,” Souto wrote. “This is an issue of common sense and logic with respect to the placement of a mammoth structure, which has cost several million dollars to build, in a middle-class, single family neighborhood with modestly scaled homes.”