Want to draw a crowd of Miami-Dade commissioners? Don’t convene a public meeting on requiring them to disclose fund-raising for political action committees.
It was lonely on the commission dais Monday afternoon when 11 of the 13 commissioners skipped a workshop scheduled to address a flurry of questions and objections many of them raised over proposed legislation to require disclosure when elected officials raise money for political committees. Sponsor Daniella Levine Cava convened the workshop, and only one other commissioner, Xavier Suarez, joined her. The two listened to comments from members of the public, who all supported the ordinance and outnumbered elected officials by a 4-1 ratio.
“I want to thank everybody who has taken the time out of your business lives to be present for this important workshop,” Levine Cava said at the end of the 90-minute meeting that featured an elections-law expert who flew in from Tallahassee. “I want to especially thank my colleague, Xavier Suarez, for being with us the whole time.”
At issue is a proposed Miami-Dade law that would require county and city officials to disclose when they raise money for political committees, including those that serve as auxiliary election war chests in local races.
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I want to thank everybody who has taken the time out of your business lives to be present for this important workshop
Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava
The commitees have names like Good Government Now, Imagine Miami, and Miami-Dade Residents First, and elected officials raise money for them without being required to disclose their connections to the entities. That leaves the media and the public to discover which committee is backing which candidate — information sometimes offered by the candidates, but not always.
Levine Cava used a state PAC in her 2014 race, and the Miami Herald’s campaign database shows that cash for political committees backing six commissioners seeking reelection that year totaled nearly $1 million. In 2016, with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez up for reelection, known committee contributions have topped $2.8 million — with about $2.3 million going to Gimenez’s Miami-Dade Residents First committee. Florida law already requires state officials to make similar disclosures.
The eight speakers at the workshop included Michael Kesti, the lobbyist who was an FBI informant in the corruption investigation of Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, who was later acquitted of all charges. “That was the tip of the iceberg,” he said of the case, which was part of a larger probe of influence peddling and bribery. “There are many companies that I deal with that will not do business in Miami-Dade County. Because of this air of you’ve got to pay to play.”
Marisabel Lavastida, an organizer with Engage Miami, said the non-profit sees a lack of transparency in the money fueling local campaigns as sapping the public’s interest in getting involved with politics.
“I would like this ordinance to pass just to clarify and remove this mysticism from PACs,” she said. “I don’t think this ordinance is asking candidates to wear a NASCAR suit with logos of who is sponsoring them. Even though I would love that.”
There are many companies that I deal with that will not do business in Miami-Dade County. Because of this air of you’ve got to pay to play
Lobbyist Michael Kesti
Suarez, who sat next to Levine Cava on the dais that was otherwise empty save for clerks and county lawyers, bore into some of the hypothetical scenarios that might become complications under the proposed ordinance. Would he have to disclose raising money for a presidential campaign? What if I am raising money for a fellow commissioner’s reelection?
“Why do I get involved in having to report just because I used my First Amendment right to solicit for someone else’s campaign or PAC? Just because I’m a county commissioner, and I come under this legislation?”
Miami-Dade lawyer Oren Rosenthal said the new rules only cover committees, not campaigns. But, yes, Suarez would need to fill out disclosure forms when raising money for any committee, even one supporting someone else. “You would be required, by virtue of being a county officer,” Rosenthal said.
The proposed law from Levine Cava, the most junior member of the commission following her 2014 ouster of incumbent Lynda Bell, was set for a final vote in February. But fellow commissioners raised a string of questions about how the ordinance might unfairly put them on the wrong side of the local law. Levine Cava agreed to withdraw the item in order to hold a workshop to explore the legislation in more detail.
“It was not my idea,” she said of the workshop. Because workshops do not require a minimum number of commissioners in attendance, it was held as planned and now Levine Cava’s legislation is expected to return to the full board for a final vote next month.
Asked about her colleagues’ absence, she said she hoped they would watch a video recording of the proceedings. “I’m comfortable they will do their homework,” she said, “so they can inform themselves before the final vote. Because they were all so interested in having a workshop.”