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North Miami mayor’s role in Haiti island project raises questions

Earlier this year, North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre changed his mind about a proposal to develop the controversial Biscayne Landing site — a switch that proved instrumental in developer Michael Swerdlow and his associates winning the lucrative city contract.

But Pierre did not publicly disclose his own ties to the Biscayne Landing development firm.

Pierre, before taking office, had signed on as an advisor to an ambitious project that would revamp a little-known island off the coast of Haiti called Petite Cayemite into a luxurious tourist destination.

The main players in Cayemite Enterprises, the group that is pitching a serene island resort in Haiti, are also principals of Swerdlow’s Oleta Partners, the firm that is developing the city-owned Biscayne Landing site.

Brothers Emmanuel and Jean Cherubin, who own Cayemite Enterprises, are in charge of attracting minority-owned businesses to work on the Biscayne Landing project. Swerdlow, the lead developer of Biscayne Landing, is an investor and advisor to the Cayemite firm.

Pierre serves as an advisor and has not profited financially from the proposed project, and does not receive a salary or consulting fee from Cayemite Enterprises, said Jean Cherubin. But Pierre has expressed an interest in investing in the project, Cherubin said.

City rules prohibit North Miami officials from doing business with city vendors.

But because Pierre has not directly profited from the Cherubin’s unrealized venture, it is unclear whether that prohibition would apply.

Neither Pierre nor City Attorney Regine Monestime responded to requests for comment.

The relationship came to light last week when Pierre addressed Haitian government officials — including the country’s tourism minister — at North Miami Beach’s public library. The officials were in town during Haiti President Michel Martelly’s high-profile visit to meet with South Florida’s Haitian diaspora.

There, Pierre introduced Swerdlow and the Cherubin brothers, and touted their business acumen, according to one official in attendance. Martelly was not at the meeting.

The Petite Cayemite group pitched a lush green island with untapped potential. A video rendering of its proposal shows state-of-the-art buildings, a marine conservation center and bungalows perched on stilts above the water.

The Cherubins say they want to turn Petite Cayemite, a mostly uninhabited island off southwest Haiti’s coast, into a high-end eco-tourism destination with modern condominiums and attractions like horseback riding and scuba diving.

North Miami City Council member Scott Galvin said he was dismayed to learn that Pierre was involved in a business venture linked to the Biscayne Landing developer.

“This Petite Cayemite situation is totally wrong,” said Galvin, who voted against giving the contract to Swerdlow. “Even if there are no rules on this, you should disclose these things.”

The 190-acre Biscayne Landing property has been mired in unrealized development plans over the years. Swerdlow knows the property because he was once the Biscayne Landing developer before selling his interest in the project.

Swerdlow reemerged after the property went into foreclosure, seeking to gain control of the lease. During public debates, some residents questioned whether the bid process was tilted to favor Swerdlow. The city received two bids; one from Swerdlow and one from another firm that later dropped out.

When Swerdlow won the bid, North Miami negotiated the 100-year lease with Oleta Partners. The city has collected an initial payment of $17.5 million and expects to collect $1.5 million yearly in rent.

According to Jean Cherubin, Pierre does not have a financial stake in the Haiti project. He said Pierre, an attorney, is an unpaid advisor who provides free legal advice when needed. Former State Rep. Phillip Brutus is Cayemite Enterprises’ attorney, Cherubin said.

“Pierre currently is an advisor. He has shown some interest as an investor,” said Jean Cherubin. “If the project turns out successful, we hope to have him on board with us.”

But ethics experts say the mayor, at the very least, should have disclosed his relationship with the men before voting on any city business involving Oleta Partners.

“He certainly should have let the city know just so that everything would be on the table,” said Bob Jarvis, law professor at Nova Southeastern University.

The relationship has also added fuel to criticism that the Haiti-born mayor is too involved in his homeland, at the expense of North Miami taxpayers.

“Andre mostly cares about and speaks about Haitian causes,” said Carol Keys, a vocal critic of Pierre’s who unsuccessfully ran against him in 2011. “He’s not taking care of the people here in our city .”

Pierre, did not respond to telephone calls, texts or an email for comment. But in the past, Pierre and his supporters have dismissed such claims.

“The mayor is a Haitian American. He would love to see good things happen in Haiti,” said Jean Cherubin.

Pierre joined Cayemite Enterprises as an advisor in 2008, one year before he was elected mayor. Swerdlow joined the team as an investor in 2010, Jean Cherubin said.

While the Cherubin brothers were adding the finishing touches on their Petite Cayemite proposal to the Haitian government earlier this year, Pierre was deliberating on Biscayne Landing.

After months of heated meetings, in March the City Council rejected a proposal from Oleta Partners, the sole bidder. Then, Pierre voted no.

In April, Pierre had a change a heart and asked the council to vote on an item that was not on the agenda. He asked the city to resume talks with Oleta Partners and to rescind the earlier vote.

This time, the item passed.

Asked by Galvin at the April meeting why he changed his mind, Pierre responded: “You do not have to ask me that question. I do not have to answer that question.”

Galvin said he did not know of Pierre’s connection to the Cayemite project when they voted.

Some North Miami residents also think the mayor should have come clean about the relationship.

“If a sitting elected official wants to be in partnership with a city contractor on a private venture, I would think they would be smart enough to go to the ethics commission and get an opinion first,” said Joe Celestin, former North Miami mayor.

Pierre, who will leave office next year, frequently jokes at city meetings that he plans to retire to a tropical island.

“The mayor always talks about spending time on an island after he leaves office, drinking Cuba Libres,” said Keys, “Maybe this is the island he’s talking about.”