Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade commissioners resist greater PAC disclosures

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava.
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Daniella Levine Cava joined the Miami-Dade County Commission a year and a half ago — unseating an incumbent commissioner with promises to restore the public’s trust and bring greater transparency to County Hall.

On Tuesday, Levine Cava found out just how hard it can be to put those promises into practice. At the final vote for Levine Cava’s proposed new political action committee law, which would require greater disclosures from local elected officials, Miami-Dade’s newest commissioner had almost no support from her colleagues.

Levine Cava’s proposal is relatively modest, and built to mirror existing regulations that apply to state politicians, who must file a disclosure for certain types of political action committees they are raising money for. If approved, Levine Cava’s ordinance would apply to county and municipal elected posts in Miami-Dade.

But county commissioners expressed all sorts of fears, and delayed any action for now. Commissioner Barbara Jordan said not everyone who’s asked to donate actually does so, and keeping track of it all isn’t easy.

“I may make a phone call, but there may not be a contribution,” she said. “I’m so forgetful, I don’t want to go to jail.”

I’m so forgetful, I don’t want to go to jail.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan

The penalties spelled out in Levine Cava’s proposal call for fining violators, but no jail time. If there are unusual circumstances, the fines can be disputed through the county’s ethics commission.

Commissioner Juan Zapata worried about the fact that phone calls soliciting donations don’t leave a paper trail. Zapata said someone could falsely accuse him of raising money for a PAC.

“How do I prove that there was no verbal solication?” he asked.

“You would refute that allegation,” assistant county attorney Oren Rosenthal flatly responded, prompting scattered chuckles in the room.

Zapata wasn’t satisfied. He said news reporters would still publish that phony allegation, and “you’re already basically prosecuted by public opinion.”

One by one on Tuesday, commissioners took turns ripping into Levine Cava’s proposal. The one commissioner who spoke in favor of her item, Bruno Barreiro, did so halfheartedly, saying it would be of limited use.

“If bad people want to do bad things, they will either break the law or they’ll find a way around it, unfortunately,” he said.

It soon became clear Levine Cava’s idea had no chance of passing on Tuesday, and the item was postponed so it could be discussed at a workshop in March.

If bad people want to do bad things, they will either break the law or they’ll find a way around it.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro

“At the end of the day, we don’t want secrecy. Secrecy is the enemy of public trust,” Levine Cava told her fellow commissioners.

Miami-Dade’s ethics commission unanimously supports the beefed-up disclosure requirements. Ethics commission Executive Director Joseph Centorino addressed commissioners when discussion of the issue started, telling them “overall it is a good step in ensuring public trust in our campaign system.”

But commissioners were repeatedly concerned with hypothetical possibilities of what could go wrong — a commissioner potentially misunderstanding the intricacies of how the new rules work, for example, or donors being pressured to write more checks because their generosity to a certain commissioner’s PAC was now being made public.

None of the commissioners provided any examples of these problems happening with state lawmakers, who are already subject to similar disclosure rules. Those state disclosures can sometimes reveal sizable sums of cash, such as $672,987 that developer Sandor Scher gave to a committee controlled by Miami Republican state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz. The lawmaker’s connection to the committee was disclosed in a “Statement of Solicitation” he filed in September.

Juan Cuba, a co-founder of Engage Miami — a nonprofit that represents young voters — said he was worried that county commissioners’ decision to send the disclosure proposal to a March workshop was a way to “let it die in its bureaucratic process” without commissioners paying the political price of formally voting against it.

Cuba said his group will be attending the March workshop to make sure the proposal isn’t killed off quietly.

“We’re not going to let that happen,” he said.