Michael Grieco, the former Miami Beach commissioner who left office last year as part of a plea deal involving an illegal campaign donation, has asked a judge to lift his probation as he contemplates a run for a vacant seat on the Miami-Dade commission.
The terms of Grieco’s plea prevent him from running for office while on probation.
He was nearing the end of his six-month minimum probation term when Bruno Barreiro announced his immediate resignation March 31 from his District 5 seat on the County Commission in order to qualify for his congressional bid. The Miami Republican’s exit gives Miami Beach politicos a rare chance to compete for an open seat on the 13-county member board, which has no representatives from the coastal city.
The district stretches from Little Havana in Miami to South Beach and up part of the Miami Beach coast, and Barreiro, a Miami resident, has held it for 20 years. Barreiro’s wife, Zoraida Barreiro, has already filed to run for the seat, and Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a former state senator from Miami, has said he wants to run.
The interest from two prominent names in Miami politics raises the possibility of a Miami Beach candidate being able to take advantage of a divided mainland vote. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff between the top two contenders will be held June 19.
Candidates have until April 14 to qualify for the May 22 special election, and the six-month mark following Grieco’s Oct. 24 no-contest plea for accepting a foreign campaign donation arrives in late April. He filed a motion Thursday to have his probation lifted, but a hearing on the matter hasn’t been scheduled, said Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.
In a statement this week, Grieco said: “It’s no surprise that I would be interested in serving my community again. … I was humbled to receive numerous exploratory phone calls regarding the recent District 5 vacancy. If eligible I would consider it, but regardless someone from Miami Beach should run since I don’t think we’ve had a Beach resident on the County Commission since before the internet.”
Grieco is one of two prominent Miami Beach politicians known to be considering a run for the District 5 seat. Michael Góngora, a sitting city commissioner who rejoined the board after a lopsided win last November, said he’s being encouraged to run for the seat. Joining the county race would require him to resign his city post, a requirement of the Florida “resign to run” law that forced Barreiro to give up a county commission seat he could have held until 2020 if he lost his bid to replace Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Congress.
In an interview, Góngora said he’s leery of leaving his newly reclaimed city seat in favor of a county district that has a significant number of voters across the bay in Miami. He said he would have to get to know the residents in downtown, Little Havana and Shenandoah before running for the county post — a campaign he might consider when the seat is up for election again.
“I am interested in the seat in the future,” he said.
Privately, Góngora has told supporters he wants to see the results of a poll being commissioned for District 5 to show his chances in the hastily called race. District 5 is one of two districts representing Miami Beach. Sally Heyman, a North Miami Beach resident, represents the other one: District 4. Góngora and Grieco both were elected to nonpartisan city posts as Democrats. Zoraida Barreiro and Diaz de la Portilla are registered Republicans. County commission seats are nonpartisan positions, with all candidates facing off in the same primary.
Grieco would enter the race on the heels of scandal, but also with a legacy of strong support in Miami Beach.
He was a favorite for Miami Beach mayor in 2017, buoyed by residents who supported his populist rhetoric, including an opposition to anti-Zika insecticide spraying. But behind closed doors Grieco curried favor with the special interests he accused his rivals of serving. In private meetings with prominent developers, hoteliers and lobbyists, Grieco asked for donations to a political action committee, People for Better Leaders, that he was secretly running, many of those donors told Miami-Dade prosecutors in sworn testimony.
One donor in particular, Norwegian businessman Petter Smedvig Hagland, proved problematic because he was not a U.S. citizen and therefore banned from contributing to American elections. Instead, Hagland’s $25,000 donation to People for Better Leaders was made in the name of a local Realtor, according to charges filed by the State Attorney’s Office. Such “straw donations” are illegal.
For months, the commissioner denied any involvement with the PAC — but the Miami Herald showed he had filled out paperwork registering the group with Florida’s division of elections. Eventually, Grieco dropped out of the race for mayor and pleaded “no contest” to a misdemeanor campaign-finance violation for accepting a straw donation. The October plea deal allowed Grieco to escape without a criminal conviction on his record. He has continued to deny wrongdoing.
Grieco’s no-contest plea allows him to end his probation after six months — instead of a year — provided he took a Miami-Dade campaign-finance ethics class and paid certain fees.
He remains under investigation by the Miami-Dade ethics commission for the scandal that forced his resignation. The commission is seeking to determine whether Grieco violated a county ethics rule against lying to the public when he denied involvement in People for Better Leaders. “It is absolutely untrue,” Grieco told Herald reporters when they asked last summer if he was raising money for the PAC. “You can look right into my soul.”
His actions might also have violated Miami Beach’s strict campaign-finance rules against taking money from those with business before the city.
Grieco’s criminal defense attorney, Ben Kuehne, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In order to meet the terms of his probation, Grieco attended a county “clean campaign” ethics class at Surfside City Hall on Feb. 7. He spent much of the two-hour session checking his cellphone, a Herald reporter observed. Among the topics covered? Florida’s prohibition on using straw donors — the very strategy that got Grieco in trouble.
He declined to talk to a Herald reporter after the class.
“I’m a private citizen,” Grieco said as he briskly strode away. “No comment.”
Miami Herald staff writers Joey Flechas and Kyra Gurney contributed to this report.