Miami-Dade County

Lawsuit over Miami billboards suggests commissioner’s uncle wanted to sell influence

A lawsuit by a Miami businessman alleges that Commissioner Keon Hardemon’s family is cashing in on his office by acting as a gatekeeper-for-hire to the politician.
A lawsuit by a Miami businessman alleges that Commissioner Keon Hardemon’s family is cashing in on his office by acting as a gatekeeper-for-hire to the politician.

A battle over billboards in Miami’s ultra-luxe Design District has publicly unleashed a bombshell allegation typically only whispered about in the halls of Dinner Key: that Commissioner Keon Hardemon’s family is cashing in on his office by acting as a gatekeeper-for-hire to the politician.

In a $4.8 million lawsuit filed last month, accountant Michael Siegel accused city commissioners of killing his ability to erect massive ads on the building his family owns next to Interstate 195 by plucking the site out of a district where property owners are allowed to mount billboards and murals on the sides or tops of their buildings. Siegel says he lost “hundreds of thousands of dollars per year” when the Miami City Commission voted in July of 2017 to create a mostly mural-free zone around the Design District, where developer Craig Robins was pushing to replace kitschy advertisements with fine art.

But Siegel, who filed the lawsuit under the name of the Karenza corporate entity that owns the property, doesn’t necessarily blame Robins for effectively killing his contract with an advertiser that took its mural and split when the city began debating a change in its laws. In his complaint, he suggests that it was his decision not to hire the uncle of Hardemon, the politician representing the Design District and at the time the chairman of the City Commission, that led the city to take away his right to ever erect a mural again.

“While Karenza had its mural rights taken away, [a] similarly-situated neighboring property that had hired the Chair’s uncle was exempted from the new ordinance and permitted to retain its mural rights,” states the lawsuit, filed Feb. 11 by Stearns Weaver attorney Maria Fehretdinov.

Siegel says he knows this because when his attorney set up a meeting with the district commissioner’s staff, it was actually the commissioner’s uncle, Billy Hardemon, who showed up, offering a promise to save Siegel’s property rights in exchange for a fee and a percentage of any mural profits. But Siegel’s own attorney at the time says the meeting was never supposed to be with city staff, and Billy Hardemon says Siegel is ginning up accusations “to make his claim sexier or whatever.”

“He’s lying. It’s unfortunate, but that’s what he’s doing,” said Hardemon, a longtime activist and consultant in Miami’s black communities.

Still, the allegations contained in Siegel’s lawsuit reinforce whispers that have existed for years about the influence that Billy and his wife Barbara Hardemon — who runs a consultancy called B&B Professional Consultants — wield with their nephew. Those suspicions were stirred this month when the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics released a report that included a note about Barbara Hardemon setting up a meeting between her nephew and InterMiami FC executive Jorge Mas as David Beckham’s ownership group pushes to build a stadium on city land.

Commissioner Keon Hardemon, 35, declined a request to comment for this story relayed through his chief of staff. His uncle says the suggestion that his family has political influence over him is “offensive, particularly toward the commissioner.”

“He has his own mind,” Billy Hardemon said. “He makes his own decisions. So you know, I wish I did have that kind of influence on millennials. Him in particular.”

But Siegel’s lawsuit says he isn’t just connecting dots.

Siegel claims that he was introduced to Billy Hardemon in April of 2017, about a year into an effort led by Commissioner Hardemon’s office to change the boundaries of the area north of downtown where property owners can erect murals. The massive and lucrative billboard-like advertisements bring gobs of cash to property owners, but are treated as eyesores by activists and by Robins, who has spent the last decade building and promoting the Design District as a high-end retail and arts destination.

Initially, at Commissioner Hardemon’s behest, the city planned to completely ban new murals north of I-195 and phase out old ones in 10 years, which would have affected just three properties, including Siegel’s. But, on April 5, 2017, the lawsuit says, the boundaries were tweaked to carve a property at 3704 NE Second Ave. out of the mural-free zone. Today, the seven-story building is home to international fashion school Istituto Marangoni Miami. Visible from I-195, two large billboards cover the sides of the building, one for Miami’s Institute of Contemporary Art and another for Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer.

Siegel’s one-story building at 100 NE 38th St. is home to architecture and interior design firm Shulman + Associates — which, ironically, designed the fashion school building. In his complaint, Siegel contends advertiser Becker Boards, which already had a mural on the property, had permits to erect a larger mural on top of his building at the time the city began debating a change in laws.

After the discussion started, Becker Boards sought and received permission to move its mural south, according to Siegel. He calculates that his property instantly lost $4.82 million in value when the city changed its boundaries and is demanding that the city pay him the difference.

Siegel and his attorney declined requests for comment. But in his lawsuit, Siegel says he hired a consultant who quickly set up a meeting with Keon Hardemon’s staff after realizing that he could lose an enormous amount of income if the proposed legislation went through. But when he arrived at the meeting, Siegel says it wasn’t the commissioner’s staff that was there, but his uncle.

“Billy Hardemon was introduced as a consultant who had successfully ‘negotiated’ on behalf of the owner of 3704 NE 2nd Avenue to keep that property within the Geographic Area so that it retained its right to host murals,” the lawsuit states. “Billy Hardemon offered to provide the same help he had provided to the owner of 3704 NE 2nd Avenue if Karenza agreed to pay him a $10,000 retainer, and if successful, 10% of all of Karenza’s future mural revenues.”

In an interview Wednesday, Billy Hardemon said he remembers a meeting. But he said he didn’t offer to lobby for Siegel. And Siegel’s own attorney at the time, Bill Riley, says he arranged the meeting at his law office with Billy Hardemon. Riley, a well-known lobbyist and attorney on local Miami government issues, said he may have suggested a fee amount, but wasn’t sure of the amount. And he couldn’t remember if he was the one who asked Hardemon to attend the meeting or if Siegel requested that he reach out to the commissioner’s uncle.

“I can tell you for sure there was nothing discussed about 10 percent, according to my notes,” said Riley, who reviewed his record of the meeting.

The property owner who was allowed to continue hosting murals also says Siegel’s lawsuit is mostly inaccurate.

Alex Karakhanian, a developer who owns a number of properties in the city, said he didn’t hire Billy Hardemon to lobby city commissioners when they were debating a change to the billboard boundaries because his mural had been on the property since 2008 and he wasn’t worried about the city taking his property rights. He said the mural company — different from the one that had contracted with Siegel — also hired Greenberg Traurig to represent its interests in the area, so he was covered in that sense.

He says he has hired Billy Hardemon in the past as a consultant on “community” issues. But he said he did discuss the billboard legislation with him.

“I’ve dealt with Billy and Commissioner Hardemon on a lot of issues, not this particular issue specifically. I’ve dealt with them. I have property in the neighborhoods where Commissioner Hardemon is the commissioner and obviously, that ends up being a scenario where we come across the commissioner multiple times on a lot of issues,” Karakhanian said. “But no. Billy was retained for other kinds of matters that didn’t pertain to that specific element. We did discuss it. It’s something that came up, but there wasn’t any sway.”

Karakhanian said Billy Hardemon has never lobbied City Hall for him — “not to my recollection.” Hardemon says that’s because he’s never lobbied at City Hall for anything — because it’s his wife, Barbara Hardemon, who does the lobbying. Billy Hardemon offered a different version of Karakhanian’s account, saying he was simply present when his wife and Karakhanian discussed the mural issue.

“If I recall correctly, they hired Barbara,” he said. “They hired B&B. They didn’t hire me.”

Barbara Hardemon has lobbied on issues involving murals and signs in the city, but there’s no evidence she ever lobbied for Karakhanian. At the time the city was amending its mural boundaries, court records show the developer and Outfront Media entered into a covenant restricting the extent to which they could advertise on the building.

Court documents also show that at the time the city was considering the legislation, Karakhanian was negotiating a $7.5 million loan from Valley National Bank using his property as collateral. On the day that the City Commission approved the new mural district, sparing Karakhanian’s building, Outfront Media Miami’s general manager signed a subordination, non-disturbance and attornment agreement with a bank and with Karakhanian, laying out each party’s rights under the loan.

The document makes clear that Karakhanian couldn’t have closed on the loan without the agreement. But Karakhanian — who purchased the property in 2012 for $3.5 million and flipped it in December 2017 for $22 million — says the collateral for the loan was based around his new tenant, the school, and not the mural. He says the city’s legislation has nothing to do with the loan, just as he says the city’s decision to leave his property alone has nothing to do with Billy Hardemon.

“It had nothing to do with hiring somebody,” he said.

Billy Hardemon Jeffrey M. Boan

In the past, the Hardemons have been accused of being involved with bribery and extortion. Billy Hardemon was accused by the state in 1997 of stealing $10,000 from his campaign account from when he ran for county commission. He blamed the issue on sloppy accounting — he was his own campaign treasurer — and the case fell apart after two campaign workers who claimed they’d paid him kickbacks either died or recanted. He received probation for accepting contributions larger than the legal limit.

Billy Hardemon also beat accusations by the state that he participated in a $600,000 bribery scheme alongside late County Commissioner Jimmy Burke to land a bond deal for a California businessman. Former Miami City Manager Howard Gary, who’d been caught in a different city of Miami bribery scheme, wore a wire for prosecutors to help bring the indictments. But a federal judge threw out most of the charges against Hardemon and he was acquitted by a jury of the remaining counts.

On the mural issue, Billy Hardemon maintains he was never engaged on the matter and did nothing wrong.

“I think his dissatisfaction is with the wrong person,” he said of Siegel. “Craig Robins ate his lunch. Not me.”

This story has been updated to reflect that it was Outfront Media Miami’s general manager who signed the subordination, non-disturbance and attornment agreement with Alex Karakhanian and Valley National Bank on July 27, 2017, the day the city commission voted to create new mural regulations. Karakhanian signed the document the day before.