Miami-Dade County

Fisher Island residents needed a lobbyist. They hired Miami’s mayor.

City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez delivers the 2019 State of the City Address at the Miami Freedom Tower on Tuesday, January 29, 2019. He works as a part-time lawyer, and has declined to reveal his clients, citing confidentiality rules.
City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez delivers the 2019 State of the City Address at the Miami Freedom Tower on Tuesday, January 29, 2019. He works as a part-time lawyer, and has declined to reveal his clients, citing confidentiality rules. adiaz@miamiherald.com

When Fisher Island residents wanted a lobbyist to help them navigate county government, they hired a part-time lawyer with a knack for local politics: the mayor of Miami.

Weeks after he was elected mayor in November 2017, Francis Suarez’s law firm sent the Fisher Island Residents Association a letter that laid out the terms for hiring Suarez to represent the group’s interests before the county.

The first page of the Dec. 20, 2017 letter from Carlton Fields partner Richard Linquanti carries the heading “Re: Miami-Dade Lobbying,” and cites previous discussions about the legal work being offered. The firm already represented the association, and the letter laid out two new areas of representation in Miami-Dade to be handled by Suarez.

The firm said it would “use our efforts” in the county’s zoning process to prevent Fisher Island’s developer from building a new tower higher than 76 feet. It also would “lobby with Miami-Dade County” to review the developer’s obligations for the ferry system that connects the island with the Miami Beach mainland.

“The representation addressed by this letter is for the services of Francis Suarez alone,” Linquanti wrote association president Richard Kracum. “For this matter, we propose adopting a flat fee of $10,000 plus costs for the first 30 days of this engagement and $2,500 for every month thereafter until you advise that representation is no longer needed.”

A handwritten notation on the opening page of the letter obtained by the Miami Herald circled the $10,000 figure and stated “Paid” and the date 12/21/2017.

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An aerial view of PortMiami, a county-owned facility that sits on land once owned by Miami, with Fisher Island in the foreground. Courtesy PortMiami

A luxe island served by a private ferry service, Fisher Island sits just beyond the city limits of Miami and is governed by the county’s zoning rules and regulations. So the letter is not offering to have Suarez, 41, lobby the government he leads.

It does offer a rare glimpse into Suarez’s professional life as a part-time mayor who has declined to identify his legal clients or discuss in detail what he does for them.

“I have ethical obligations,” Suarez said when asked about his Fisher Island work during a brief interview on March 14. “Any client that I spoke about, without the permission of the client, is a breach of confidentiality. So I would be disbarred.”

Suarez is not registered to lobby in Miami-Dade. His father, Xavier Suarez, is a Miami-Dade commissioner. In a statement released by the Miami mayor’s office Friday, Suarez said he has not worked as a lobbyist.

“I am a real estate and corporate attorney,” Suarez said in the statement released by his city spokesman. “My representation of clients has been confined to those areas, which have limited, if any, interaction with government. The limited interactions relate to gathering information, something that is not lobbying and can be done by Freedom of Information Act by any member of the public.”

The Herald obtained the first page of the Carlton Fields letter to Kracum, who is listed as the resident association’s president in documents filed last year with Florida. The letter is an offer of paid legal services.

There is nothing in the first page of the document saying Suarez or Fisher Island agreed to the arrangement, or what the final terms were for Suarez’s representation. Suzanne Irving, the Fisher Island Residents Association secretary who is currently leading a petition drive against an assessment to pay for an upgraded ferry system, declined to comment on Suarez.

Kracum confirmed by email this month that the association did hire Suarez “to arrange a meeting for FIRA with the port authority.”

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One of two marinas on Fisher Island, a luxe enclave off of Miami Beach. CARL JUSTE MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Miami-Dade’s port rents dock space to Fisher Island. An urgent need to replace that facility was one of the selling points the developer made in pitching residents on $65 million in assessments to upgrade its ferries and main docks off the MacArthur Causeway in Miami Beach.

“The current port lease expires in June 2018,” Jim Politis, Fisher Island’s vice president of transportation, said in a video sent to residents ahead of the May 18, 2018, vote that ended up approving the plan by a wide margin. “We are currently working with the port until the project is finished.”

Two weeks before the vote, Miami-Dade ports director Juan Kuryla and assistant county attorney Steve Bass drove downtown for a 10 a.m. meeting with Suarez on the 42nd floor of the Miami Tower, home of the Carlton Fields firm. The topic was the future of Fisher Island’s county docks, Kuryla said.

“The meeting dealt with what are the port’s intentions going forward,” Kuryla said. “I think we’ve been clear that we want to help out Fisher Island.”

Kuryla said the port didn’t plan to cancel Fisher Island’s lease but that the current docks would need to move to make way for new cruise ship facilities. He had the same message sent in an email to the island’s management in February 2018, writing the port would only extend the lease through June 2019 and “continue working” toward a new home on the facility for the commercial docks.

It’s not known who from the residents association may have attended the meeting with Suarez, the group’s lawyer. Kracum, who said he was fishing in Mexico without cellular service, only responded to limited questions by email. Kuryla said other people were there besides Suarez, but both he and Bass said they couldn’t recall their names.

“This was a while back,” said Kuryla, a veteran county administrator who said he made no written account of the discussions. “I make it a habit of not taking notes.”

While Miami-Dade controls the port, Miami retains some legal rights over a facility that used to sit on city property. A clause in the deed allows Miami to take back the land if the county ever stops using the property as a port.

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A view of Fisher Island from the air. Residents and staff have to use ferries to get to the island from docks on the MacArthur Causeway near South Beach. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

The obscure provision prompted negotiations between the two governments in 2016 when Suarez’s predecessor as mayor, Tomás Regalado, threatened to exercise it if the county built an office complex on the port that competed with downtown Miami. The development ended up being shelved. Suarez took office on Nov. 15, 2017.

His May 2018 meeting with the county port director came at the tail end of Suarez’s time at Carlton Fields. On June 4, Greenspoon Marder announced Suarez had joined the firm’s Miami office, at roughly the same time a Fisher Island resident said his legal representation ended for the association.

The nature of Suarez’s real estate and corporate finance practice came under scrutiny last year when he campaigned to dramatically expand his authority. His “strong mayor” referendum would have shifted administrative control of Miami’s government from its appointed city manager to the mayor, a charter change that would have given Suarez final say on contract proposals and zoning recommendations.

Suarez planned to continue practicing law as the city’s top administrator, and cited confidentiality rules in declining to identify clients to back up his assertions that his legal work presented no conflicts with an expanded role as mayor. The “strong mayor” referendum failed in November.

In his statement Friday, the former city commissioner said: “I have been blessed to have a good and ethical reputation both as a lawyer and as a public official. I take very seriously my duty to my residents to avoid any conflicts or even appearances of impropriety.”

Miami-Dade’s government was a prime battleground in the run-up to Fisher Island’s vote on the ferry plan last year.

Citing resident complaints, Bruno Barreiro, then the county commissioner representing Fisher Island, sent a Jan. 24, 2018, memo to Miami-Dade’s zoning department asking regulators to “determine whether the ferry service is adequate to accommodate the traffic engendered by the ongoing development of Fisher Island.” Drafted by Dennis Kerbel, an assistant county attorney, it asked county staff to inform the commissioner of any “enforcement action” that may be needed on Fisher Island.

Some residents argued the upgrades should be paid for by developer Fisher Island Holdings and not owners of the island’s 660 homes — almost all of them condos. The opposition hoped to have the county intervene, using its authority from a 1970s agreement that allowed condo development on the island, the former winter retreat for the Vanderbilts.

A May 17, 2018, email from board members of the residents’ private club bemoaned the lack of progress in Miami-Dade, saying “none of us have succeeded in getting the attention of the Commissioners and County staff to spend time and money to get involved.”

Eric Zichella, a lobbyist representing Fisher Island Holdings, the development firm headed by Heinrich von Hanau, said the existing fleet of five ferries is more than is required under the original terms. “It is clear the developer is in full compliance with all the covenants,” he said.

The ferry plan passed by a vote of 336 to 224, mandating assessments of about $80,000 per unit for an expanded ferry operation and a second complex of MacArthur docks to replace the commercial piers at the port.

Barreiro, who gave up his District 5 seat to run for Congress in March 2018, said he never talked to Suarez about Fisher Island. Barreiro’s request for Miami-Dade to consider intervening against Fisher Island Holdings did not gain traction.

County zoning regulators “analyzed the ferry service and determined that it is operating consistently with the covenant,” spokeswoman Tere Florin said this month. “Therefore, no enforcement action was necessary.”

Irwin Potash, a longtime Fisher Island resident who had pressed Barreiro for help in the ferry dispute, said he was invited to attend the meeting with Kuryla and Suarez but mistakenly went to the port instead of the Carlton Fields office.

A former president of the Fisher Island Residents Association, he said he never met the mayor and that Suarez stopped representing the group shortly after the ferry plan passed.

“They were spending a lot of money on him,” Potash said, “and not getting many results.”

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