Miami-Dade County

SEC closes Miami Marlins stadium investigation; charges unlikely

Marlins Park as it was undergoing construction
Marlins Park as it was undergoing construction

A four-year federal investigation into the financing of the Miami Marlins’ Little Havana ballpark is over, and it’s unlikely the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission will bring any charges against the team, the city of Miami or Miami-Dade County.

A senior official from the SEC’s Miami Regional Office informed the city and county last week that the agency had concluded its probe, launched in 2011 while the $634 million stadium was still under construction. In a letter also sent to the Marlins, and obtained by the Miami Herald, Assistant Regional Director Elisha L. Frank said charges weren’t expected.

“Based on the information we have as of this date, we do not intend to recommend an enforcement action,” she stated.

Frank’s Feb. 10 letter isn’t quite an exoneration. But the SEC’s announcement — which comes as the Marlins report for spring training in Jupiter — likely means the franchise can exhale as it prepares for its fifth season at its new ballpark just north of Northwest Seventh Avenue.

“At this point it’s our understanding there is no longer any investigation of the Miami Marlins or anyone associated with it,” said Mitchell Herr, a Holland & Knight attorney who represented the Marlins before the SEC. “We’re happy that this is closed.”

The team’s 37,000-seat, retractable roof ballpark has proved controversial since its inception. It was financed mostly by the city of Miami and particularly by Miami-Dade County, which took on more than $2 billion in debt to finance the stadium’s construction.

The Marlins said throughout negotiations that they needed public assistance to stay in South Florida, although county and city officials say the team never opened up its books. Then, in 2010, Deadspin published financial documents that revealed the Marlins were in fact financially healthy thanks largely to Major League Baseball revenue sharing. The following year, angry voters recalled Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez.

A few months later, federal investigators subpoenaed a wide range of documents from the city and county related to campaign contributions, team finances and financial information underpinning nearly $500 million in bond sales.

The SEC doesn’t comment on pending cases, and Miami Regional Office Director Eric Bustillo declined Friday to even confirm the existence of the Marlins investigation. But the subpoenas sent in 2011 and questions asked of elected officials during interviews suggest the agency was probing whether bond investors were misled during the financing of the stadium and four municipal parking garages, and whether elected officials had been unduly influenced by campaign contributions.

“They were fishing and fishing,” said Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who as a then-city commissioner among the loudest critics of the stadium financing agreement at the time it was approved. “They deposed me several times but they didn't find anything.”

For the city, the closing of the case comes at an interesting time. Miami is still fighting the SEC on a separate case in which the city has been accused of playing shell games with its crumbling finances in the late 2000s and committing securities fraud by making material omissions during bond offerings. That case — in which former Miami budget director Michael Boudreaux is also a defendant — is in federal court and is scheduled for trial this summer.