Miami-Dade’s ethics board has dismissed a complaint that David Beckham and associates violated lobbying laws while pushing a proposal to build a new soccer stadium and commercial complex on public land — including a law that is supposed to ensure that the public knows who lobbyists represent.
But the ethics board also announced results of an inquiry that found almost nobody in Miami-Dade County was complying with or enforcing the disclosure law.
“In fact, Miami-Dade County’s online lobbyist registration system neglected to include that question, and a review of paper registration forms filed with the County Clerk found almost all were non-compliant with that disclosure requirement,” Rhonda Sibilia, ethics commission spokeswoman, said in a statement.
The findings prompted investigators to work with the county clerk and municipalities to fix their registration processes to improve transparency. Now, the county is modifying its online and paper registration forms, and so is the city of Miami.
Attorney David Winker had filed a complaint alleging that Beckham, his partners and their lawyers had failed to properly register to lobby elected officials on matters related to the proposal to build a $1 billion soccer stadium and office park on city-owned Melreese golf course. The upcoming MLS team, Inter Miami, would play games at the stadium.
The complaint came days before the November referendum where 60 percent of voters endorsed a framework of the deal and authorized the city to negotiate a 99-year lease for the development, Miami Freedom Park.
On Wednesday, the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust dismissed the lobbying complaint. A memo from the commission’s staff attorney concludes that the 16 individuals named in Winker’s complaint — Beckham, his partners and lawyers — did not violate lobbying laws. In many cases, people registered to lobby for one Beckham corporation and not for a newer one formed to hold the proposed lease. The ethics commission determined these two corporations were “inextricably connected.”
“We are pleased with the Commission’s finding as we have and will continue to act in good faith,” Jorge Mas, MasTec chairman and managing owner of Inter Miami, said in a statement.
Mas is in the middle of negotiations with the city on the lease. On Thursday, commissioners will consider a resolution that would force a commission vote on a lease before November’s municipal election — a measure that could imperil the deal because it requires approval from four of five commissioners, and two current commissioners have publicly opposed the deal.
Another part of Winker’s complaint involved a county law that requires lobbyists to identify any person or entity that owns 5 percent or more of companies they represent. Lobbyists representing the Beckham group did not make that disclosure.
But it turns out almost nobody was disclosing this due to the poorly written forms, an ethics inquiry found. Based on recommendations from the ethics commission, the county registration system is being updated with an improved online website and revamped paper forms. Clerks from the county and city of Miami told the ethics board they will be enforcing the measure from now on.
When Winker filed his complaint this year, ethics investigators were already looking into the widespread problem across the county and its 34 municipalities. Two exceptions: Miami Beach and Surfside, cities whose clerks have regularly forced lobbyists to make the disclosures.
Another part of Winker’s complaint accuses the city of Miami’s elected officials and administrators of improperly meeting with unregistered lobbyists. Winker also sued in county court over this. After Wednesday’s ethics meeting, Winker told the Miami Herald he and the city agreed to pause the ethics matter while the lawsuit is pending.
Winker said he was glad to have shed light on the ownership disclosure issue.
“It brought out in the open the problems in the current lobbying registration systems and how hardly anyone is complying with these laws,” he said. “My goal all along has been preserving government in the open by ensuring that lobbyists properly disclose who they are working for, and I believe the Commission on Ethics took a big step forward in ensuring that will happen.”
H. Jeffery Cutler, an attorney who chairs the ethics board, told the Herald he was glad the commission is pushing local governments to improve their registration processes in order to improve government transparency and increase compliance with existing laws.
“Education and enforcement is part of the process,” he said.