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Developer cleared in Miami Beach convention center bidding probe

A key developer linked to a public-corruption investigation into Miami Beach’s bidding of a $1 billion convention center district redevelopment project has been cleared of wrongdoing, according to Miami Beach’s city attorney.

CMC Group, a master developer with front-running convention center bidder Portman-CMC, paid $25,000 early this year to the company of a businessman suspected of working with the city’s purchasing director, Gus Lopez, whose job was to oversee the bidding.

Lopez later was forced to resign when city officials became concerned that he was possibly rigging the process by assembling his own development team. Officials’ concerns focused on the director’s dealings with Walter Garcia, whose company, Peninsula Development, received the $25,000 from CMC Group.

Lopez and Garcia are being investigated on allegations of bid-tampering, bribery and unlawful compensation, according to court documents. Both men have denied any wrongdoing.

CMC president Ugo Colombo told The Miami Herald that Garcia approached him in January about forming a team to bid on the project. In a subsequent statement, the company said CMC then paid Peninsula “for time and expenses that Peninsula said it incurred” after CMC ended a month of negotiations and decided not to enter into a partnership.

CMC Group said that during their last meeting Garcia mentioned having ties with Miami Beach city staff members.

According to a letter CMC attorney Daniel Lurvey sent to the city last month, Colombo and CMC representatives met with assistant state attorney Timothy VanderGiesen and “provided all relevant documents and records” regarding their dealings with Peninsula. Lurvey said his client was then cleared of “improper or illegal conduct.”

“Furthermore,” Lurvey wrote, “there is no evidence that their participation in the new convention center selection process was tainted.”

Lurvey urged City Attorney Jose Smith to contact VanderGiesen to confirm his letter.

‘No evidence’

Attempts to reach VanderGiesen on Monday were unsuccessful. But a July 27 memo from Smith to city commissioners explains that the city did contact the prosecutor, who confirmed that “there is no evidence suggesting that either CMC Group or Ugo Colombo engaged in any criminal wrongdoing” while bidding on the project.

The reported clearing of Colombo and CMC Group could provide peace of mind to city officials, who hope a major convention center renovation and redevelopment of the surrounding publicly owned acres will revitalize a facility that is steadily losing millions of dollars’ worth of business.

The city initially pursued its own design for a new convention center, but decided to bid out the project to potential private-sector partners in the hope that the developers would design an iconic complex and largely finance the pricey project.

Ranked first

The project remains in the early stages. Bidders have presented their financial statements and résumés, and an evaluation committee has ranked them from first to seventh. Portman-CMC was ranked first.

Commissioners now are awaiting a recommendation from interim City Manager Kathie Brooks on which team should move on to craft master plans for the convention center district’s 52-acre site and begin negotiations for a long-term lease on the public land.

But Garcia and Lopez remain under investigation, and Brooks said she would wait until the probe is concluded before making a recommendation.

“It’s unfortunate that we’re in this situation, but that is where we are. I don’t think it would be prudent to proceed forward with that investigation underway,” she said.

Brooks said the last time she met with authorities, they said they hoped to complete their investigation this month.

Miami Beach Deputy Police Chief Mark Overton said he could describe the investigation only as “pending but still ongoing.”

“We hope to have it resolved as soon as possible,” he said.