In Miami Beach, Mayor Dan Gelber is campaigning for a referendum to approve an 800-room hotel on city land that Turnberry partner Jackie Soffer wants to build under a deal that not only bars gambling but prohibits the operator from owning a casino anywhere in the county.
“We didn’t want anything to do with gambling,” Gelber said.
Gelber, a former state lawmaker, is also helping lead the statewide fight to pass an anti-gambling constitutional amendment — a referendum that’s actively opposed by South Florida’s newest casino mogul, Turnberry partner Jeff Soffer.
“It’s terrible for the state,” Jeff Soffer said at a recent event at the private-jet terminal he owns at Opa-locka airport. “It will kill jobs.”
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The mayor’s fall campaigning touches both fronts of a political fracas involving two of the most high-profile siblings in South Florida.
The senior partners in the Turnberry real estate empire have carved out their own lucrative fiefdoms within the family business: Jeff running Miami Beach’s largest resort, the Fontainebleau, an oceanfront hotel with its own casino ambitions; and Jackie running the county’s largest shopping destination, the Aventura Mall.
During the last decade, the Fontainebleau has paid Tallahassee lobbyists to try and expand gambling in Florida and bring a casino to its oceanfront location. In January, news broke that Jeff Soffer was purchasing the Mardis Gras casino in Hallandale Beach. At the time, Soffer emphasized his purchase of the casino and race track was made on his own, separate from his family’s holdings under the Turnberry umbrella.
That distinction would become notable in the coming months, when his sister and other developers bid on the Miami Beach hotel project, under rules the city inserted into the deal contract that ban any bidder from also owning a casino in Miami-Dade.
The Soffer-owned casino, now called the Big Easy, sits in Broward County, so he may have qualified as a developer on his sister’s team, which includes Jackie Soffer’s husband, Design District owner Craig Robins, as well as high-rise developer David Martin.
But with the hotel project being pitched as a bulwark against gambling interests, adding a local casino owner to the bidding team was bound to complicate the politics of a deal that needs approval by 60 percent of the city’s voters.
Privately, the Jackie Soffer group viewed her brother as a potential opponent to the hotel referendum, according to several people familiar with internal discussions. The Fontainebleau, which has its own thriving convention business, opposed Miami Beach’s 2013 effort to approve a city-owned “headquarters” hotel next to the convention center off 17th Street.
Tensions flared last month when a political committee formed by a consultant with ties to Jeff Soffer started sending out mailers to Miami Beach voters warning “A Mega-Hotel means Mega-Traffic.”
The consultant, Ben Pollara, was a founding partner of LSN Communications, the political-consulting arm of Llorente Heckler, Jeff Soffer’s longtime lobbying firm. Pollara has also been working with Soffer on the campaign against Florida’s Amendment 3.
Jeff Soffer told reporters he wasn’t backing the committee sending out the anti-hotel mailers, Preserve Miami Beach’s Future. “I’m not involved with that,” he said.
In an interview with the Miami Herald, Pollara initially denied being behind it, too — despite a Pollara business partner serving as treasurer and an employee of a medical-marijuana group Pollara runs serving as chair of the committee. In a recent interview, Pollara retracted that statement.
“I didn’t want to be involved in the story,” Pollara said. “It’s only caused me headaches.”
In private talks with the hotel group before the Herald’s first story, Pollara had acknowledged setting up the committee. Pollara’s role in Preserve Miami Beach’s Future infuriated Jackie Soffer’s hotel partners, who had also hired Llorente Heckler to run the Miami Beach campaign.
Pollara and Alex Heckler, a senior partner, both said Pollara had broken off from LSN months before the committee launched. But Pollara still worked on the same floor as the LSN offices in Miami Beach.
At a heated meeting in a Design District restaurant on Sept. 22, Pollara joined Heckler, Martin and Robins, who married Jackie Soffer in 2015. Both of the developers demanded to know who was funding the committee trying to defeat their hotel proposal, according to accounts by Heckler and Pollara that were confirmed by others familiar with the encounter who did not want to be quoted.
Pollara refused to identify the backer of the committee at the restaurant, according to the multiple accounts. But he agreed to talk to the client and have the committee shut down as a concession to the Jackie Soffer group. Pollara also warned the fight against the hotel would continue.
“I told Craig that it would not shut the effort down,” Pollara recalled in an interview. “It would shut down my role.”
Heckler says he doesn’t know the identity of Pollara’s client, and that Pollara’s work for the committee had nothing to do with Llorente Heckler. “We’re working every day for Yes on the convention-center hotel,” Heckler said on Friday.
Preserve Miami Beach’s Future has done what it can to keep its donors a secret. Despite receiving a letter from Florida’s Election Department setting an Oct. 5 deadline for filing its final campaign-finance report, the committee has yet to comply or report the source of a single dollar.
As Pollara predicted, another political committee has taken up the opposition front for the hotel project.
Floridians for Veterans Service sent out an anti-hotel mailer with some identical language from the literature used by the first committee. The new committee took steps to obscure its money trail, with a chain of committee donors linked to other groups, who in turn received money from committees and some individual donors.
One of the individual donors in the chain is Michael Corcoran, a Tallahassee lobbyist with dozens of registered clients. Among them are Turnberry, the Fontainebleau, and the Big Easy, Jeff Soffer’s casino. On Sept. 13, Corcoran gave $100,000 to Justice for Florida, a committee run out of the same Fort Lauderdale office as Floridians for Veterans Service. That donation made Corcoran the largest donor to the committee.
Since Corcoran’s donation, Justice for Florida gave $20,000 directly to the anti-hotel group, Floridians for Veterans Service. It also gave about $45,000 to other political committees — Democratic Services, Florida Institute for Politics — that in turn gave $32,000 to the anti-hotel group. The money tied to Justice for Florida accounts for nearly 80 percent of the $67,000 that Floridians for Veterans Service reported spending in September and early October.
Corcoran, the brother of outgoing Florida Speaker Richard Corcoran, did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
The Miami Beach hotel group declined interview requests, including a request for Jackie Soffer to state her position on Florida’s Amendment 3. When Jeff Soffer donated $500,000 to an anti-Amendment 3 committee, half of that came from a Fontainebleau entity that, according to corporate records, is managed by both siblings.
Miami Beach is highlighting the no-gambling restrictions in its promotion of the referendum to voters.
“If you look at our literature, it always says, ‘No Public Subsidies. No Gambling,’ ” said Gelber, a lawyer and former lawmaker who helped the court fight that put Amendment 3 on the state ballot.
In an interview, Jeff Soffer declined twice to voice his opinion on the convention-center hotel being pursued by his sister.
“I don’t want to comment,” he said. “I don’t want to get in the middle of it.”
This post was updated to correct the ownership of the proposed hotel. The developer would own the actual building, and pay a portion of its revenue to Miami Beach as part of the developer’s rent of the city-owned hotel site.