South Florida

Fundraiser’s link to developer Lennar stirs controversy in Miami Lakes

Lennar plans to build nearly 500 homes on a former cow pasture at Northwest 154th Street and 87th Avenue in Miami Lakes.
Lennar plans to build nearly 500 homes on a former cow pasture at Northwest 154th Street and 87th Avenue in Miami Lakes. Miami Herald

When Miami Lakes councilman Tony Lama pushed a proposal to allow developers to obtain building permits faster, he kept insisting it was meant for “economic development” in general — not only to benefit Lennar Homes.

The state’s largest builder is itching to break ground on an already approved 484-home project on land that is now one of the town’s last cow pastures, for which it paid $74 million.

But at a council meeting in July, Lama eventually singled out the Miami-based developer, saying his proposed change “would allow Lennar to start to build prior to” Miami-Dade County’s recording of its massive site plan — a bureaucratic process that can take several months.

What Lama, who is seeking a second term in November, did not mention was that an attorney in a major Miami law firm that has regularly represented Lennar held a fundraiser for him at the same time he sought to expedite the town’s policy of granting building permits.

Attorney Melissa Tapanes, a longtime friend of Lama’s from high school, hosted the event at a downtown Miami restaurant and raised thousands of dollars for him. Her law firm, Bercow Radell and Fernandez — headed by the influential land-use lawyer Jeffrey Bercow — contributed $500 to Lama’s re-election campaign, while Tapanes and her husband, Manny Llahues, contributed more than $1,700 to cover the cost of the event.

Tapanes told the Miami Herald that about 30 people — many of whom are old friends from their high school, Monsignor Pace, and are now attorneys — attended the fundraiser and made campaign contributions to Lama.

But she insisted that the event had nothing to do with Lama’s legislation that would benefit Lennar because her law firm did not represent the home builder before the Town Council. She said her firm actually represented the family that sold their Miami Lakes property to Lennar.

Still, Tapanes acknowledged that her firm has represented Lennar on other land-use issues in Miami-Dade County. But Tapanes, who had also held a fundraiser for Lama in 2012, said she has had “no discussions” with the councilman about Lennar in general or about his building-permit proposal in Miami Lakes.

Lama said he was offended that anyone would suggest that his friend’s fundraiser and his proposal were directly or indirectly linked in any way or that he was doing a “favor” for Lennar. “Absolutely not,” Lama told the Herald on Wednesday.

“I find it a little offensive — these people [at the fundraiser] are my friends,” Lama said. “I did not even know that [the Bercow law firm] represented Lennar in the past.”

He defended his proposal, saying that developers such as Lennar would be able to start construction faster and the town would be able to collect impact fees for traffic improvements sooner.

According to Miami-Dade ethics laws regulating local politicians, the fundraiser benefiting Lama is not an issue. Nor are the amounts of the contributions, which are capped at $1,000 in Miami Lakes elections. Moreover, Lama is not doing business with Lennar or the Bercow law firm.

However, legal experts say there may be an “appearance of impropriety” because of the indirect connection to the home builder through his friend, Tapanes, a shareholder at the Bercow law firm. The firm prominently lists Lennar as a client on its web page and has represented the home builder in legal matters and lobbying battles, such as expanding the county’s Urban Development Boundary near the Everglades.

Lama’s proposal, which passed 4-2 at a July 26 council meeting, must still face two public hearings in September and October to be approved. His proposal would allow developers such as Lennar — which is being represented by the law firm Holland & Knight on its residential project in Miami Lakes — to obtain building permits from the town before Miami-Dade’s clerk records a plat, or construction plan.

Councilman Manny Cid, a candidate for mayor in November, opposed the change, saying Miami-Dade’s government should be responsible for changing the policy for all towns and cities.

But Mayor Michael Pizzi has turned the Lennar project — to be built on 142 acres off Miami Lakes Drive at Northwest 87th Avenue — into a “political hot potato,” according to other council members. He opposed Lama’s proposal at the meeting last month, saying it “could result in public perception that we’re doing this to assist one particular developer that is building hundreds of homes and has a hundred million dollars invested in [the project].”

Pizzi expressed even greater outrage when he reviewed Lama’s campaign finance report filed last week. He noted that the fundraiser held by the councilman’s lawyer-friend, Tapanes, was held on the same day, July 13, as the date on the councilman’s memo proposing to accelerate the building permit process in Miami Lakes.

“This is the type of behind-the-scenes influence peddling that gives good government a bad name,” Pizzi, who is seeking a third term as mayor, told the Herald. “Councilman Lama was elected to represent the public’s interest, not to represent the interest of Lennar or his friend who works for Lennar’s law firm.”

Pizzi and Lama, who were once allies, had a falling out after the mayor was indicted on federal bribery charges in 2013. Pizzi was acquitted the following year, but he had to wage legal fights against Gov. Rick Scott and his own town council to regain his seat in 2015.

Lama’s sole council challenger in the November election — who is supported by Pizzi — echoed the mayor’s view on the building-permit proposal.

“I used to be a prosecutor,” said attorney Elizabeth Delgado, who has raised $5,200 from her own money to Lama’s nearly $30,000 in campaign funds. “If it looks bad and it smells bad, it probably is bad.”