Miami Beach

Someone raised $200K from Miami Beach bigwigs, but no one will say why

Michael Grieco was forced to resign from the Miami Beach commission in 2017 after a campaign-finance scandal that saw him cut a plea deal with state prosecutors. Now, he’s running for Florida’s House of Representatives.
Michael Grieco was forced to resign from the Miami Beach commission in 2017 after a campaign-finance scandal that saw him cut a plea deal with state prosecutors. Now, he’s running for Florida’s House of Representatives. cjuste@miamiherald.com

Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco says he doesn’t know a thing about a mysterious South Florida group that raised $200,000 from city bigwigs last year.

But interviews with two of those donors suggest the political action committee is raising money in his name — and that Grieco, who’s running for mayor, solicited at least one contribution.

Miami Beach lobbyists, vendors and real-estate developers all appear on the list of donors to People for Better Leaders — exactly the type of power players whose contributions led to a public outcry during the last Beach election cycle and, ultimately, to stricter campaign-finance laws.

If Grieco or someone acting on his behalf raised money from city vendors and lobbyists to support his campaign, that could violate Beach rules passed in January 2016. A recent Miami-Dade County ordinance also requires candidates to register when they raise cash for political action committees.

Grieco has publicly disavowed Coral Gables-based People for Better Leaders, which hasn’t yet spent money on November’s election.

“I do not have a [political committee],” Grieco told the Miami Herald. “I didn’t set up one. I haven’t solicited for one.”

It’s choreographed, and it’s coming from his foes.

David Custin, consultant for Michael Grieco

Grieco’s campaign consultant, David Custin, said allegations linking Grieco to People for Better Leaders are a “political hatchet attack job” by people who oppose Grieco’s bid for mayor.

“It’s choreographed, and it’s coming from his foes,” Custin said.

And yet there is evidence of a connection.

One donor, real-estate investor David Aronow, says Grieco himself recommended a contribution as a way to support his soon-to-be-announced mayoral bid.

“I think I asked Michael about donating, and he told me there was a PAC that would be helpful,” Aronow said. “I don’t see a big distinction between him and the PAC.”

On the same day in November that a trust controlled by Aronow donated $5,000 to People for Better Leaders, Aronow also gave $1,000 directly to Grieco, campaign finance records show.

His donation was one of three instances in which individuals gave to the committee and to Grieco on the same day.

Grieco, who is locked in a competitive race for mayor with former state senator Dan Gelber, denied speaking to Aronow about donating to the PAC. Aronow is not a city vendor or lobbyist, so soliciting his contribution would not break Beach rules.

People for what?

On paper, People for Better Leaders has no ties to Grieco, a criminal defense attorney who won election to the commission in 2013.

The committee is run by Brian Abraham, scion of a wealthy Coral Gables family. He once managed Miami-Dade’s King of Diamonds strip club. The PAC’s treasurer is Brian George, an accountant who declared bankruptcy in 2009. The duo’s political inexperience shows in the dozens of violations the PAC has racked up with state election authorities in its 20-month existence.

Political action committees are groups that raise money to influence local and state elections.

It’s not clear which candidates or issues People for Better Leaders supports. But Mauricio Paz, another donor to the PAC, says his contribution was made at a Grieco fundraiser held in January at a South Beach bar.

Paz said he gave $250 at the urging of Abraham, an acquaintance his Lauderdale-by-the-Sea insurance firm hoped to cultivate for referrals.

“Brian said it was one of the foundations that belongs to Michael for his campaign,” Paz said.

The donation was made in the name of the company Paz co-owns, One Force Worker’s Comp. The company does not do business with the city.

A Facebook post on Grieco’s mayoral campaign page shows that he held a fundraiser at South Pointe Tavern on the same date as Paz’s donation. Two of the event’s sponsors? Evan Kluge and Rustin Kluge, the principals of Manchester Capital, a Plantation-based medical marijuana firm. That company gave $20,000 to People for Better Leaders last year. Evan Kluge did not return phone calls.

Grieco fundraiser
A Facebook post from Michael Grieco’s mayoral campaign. Facebook

In an interview at his Brickell law office, Grieco said he knows Abraham but refused to discuss details of their relationship, saying it was no different than his relationship with leaders of several other political committees not affiliated with his campaign.

“I’m not going down that rabbit hole,” he said.

He does not remember if Abraham was at the South Beach event, which he said was attended by more than a hundred people, and said they had never discussed the PAC.

Grieco also said that he plans to form his own PAC in the coming weeks, which would be legal as long as it doesn’t solicit vendors and lobbyists for money.

The commissioner has raised $500,000 in contributions made directly to his campaign, compared with opponent Gelber’s haul of $360,000.

Out of thin air

People for Better Leaders was founded in October 2015, according to state records.

The PAC lists its address as an office used by the Abraham Group, a family-owned real-estate company. Abraham and George did not respond to messages. They have not led political committees before, according to a search of state records.

The extent of Abraham and Grieco’s relationship is unclear.

grieco abraham
Michael Grieco (far left) is shown attending an event with Brian Abraham (far right). Standing between them are Christine Klingspor (center left) and Jelena Lovric (center right).

Facebook photos show Grieco and Abraham posing together at parties and charity events. Abraham’s uncle Thomas told the Herald he knows little about his nephew’s connection with Grieco.

“He said he was involved with a politician in South Beach,” Thomas Abraham said. “I told him, ‘Great. Have a good time.’ 

George is a managing partner at Coral Gables accounting firm Calas Group. He filed for bankruptcy in 2009, according to federal court records.

State records show that Florida’s Division of Elections has sanctioned People for Better Leaders more than 40 times, usually for failing to file required reports on time. In January, the PAC paid a $250 fine.

Tony Rodriguez, a Beach Realtor who donated $25,000, said he didn’t know either Abraham or George and declined to say whether the committee was affiliated with Grieco.

“I don’t like to talk about two things,” Rodriguez said. “Religion and politics.”

Cracking down

In January 2016, Miami Beach passed an ordinance that bans elected officials and candidates from directly or indirectly soliciting city vendors, lobbyists and certain real-estate developers for contributions to political committees that are involved in city elections. An “indirect” solicitation would involve a candidate or commissioner having someone ask for contributions on their behalf.

Grieco voted in favor.

Two of the donations to People for Better Leaders could violate that law if they were solicited by Grieco or someone acting in concert with him to support his campaign.

One came from Boucher Brothers, which has a city contract to rent out umbrellas and chairs on the beach. The company gave $25,000 to the PAC in two increments in 2016. The first donation came on the same day the city passed the new rules. The second came in March.

Boucher Brothers appears on a list of vendors banned from contributing to political candidates and their committees. The company did not respond to messages.

$200,259.85Amount raised by People for Better Leaders

A second donation that could violate the rules came from Alexander Tachmes, an attorney and registered Beach lobbyist who gave $1,000. His law firm, Shutts & Bowen, also contributed $1,000.

Tachmes represents Orange Barrel Media, an Ohio-based media company seeking a contract to install informational kiosks around the beach. The company itself gave $3,500 to People for Better Leaders.

Tachmes declined to say who solicited the donation. But he argued that donations to outside groups are considered free speech. No one has challenged the Beach’s new rules in court.

“Anybody can give money to a PAC,” said City Attorney Raul Aguila. “But an elected official or a candidate for city office cannot solicit directly or indirectly.”

PACs can accept unlimited contributions, making them a powerful tool for wealthy donors. (Contributions directly to candidates are capped at $1,000 per election cycle.)

So far, the PAC hasn’t spent a dime, with the exception of a $490 credit card processing fee. Outside groups often spend big on mailers, television advertisements and polls.

The PAC’s stated purpose is to promote “better leaders and good government,” according to a document filed with the state. It hasn’t raised any money since rumors of its connection to Grieco surfaced in late January.

One Beach developer claims that People for Better Leaders answers to Grieco.

Bradley Colmer has clashed repeatedly with Grieco over a plan to redevelop a portion of Sunset Harbour, which the commissioner opposed. Colmer says he met Grieco for dinner at Cecconi’s, an Italian restaurant, last October.

The implication was that he controlled the PAC

Bradley Colmer, developer

“[Grieco] was bragging about his ability to raise money and then make the PAC disappear and simply form a new one if that’s what he needed to do,” Colmer said. “The implication was that he controlled the PAC.”

Grieco said he did not discuss any fundraising issues with Colmer and accused him of conspiring with the Gelber campaign.

He pointed out that Gelber’s campaign consultant, Christian Ulvert, handled public relations for Colmer’s company last year.

Ulvert dismissed any talk of conspiracy.

It’s not the last time Beach voters will hear about People for Better Leaders. Five hours after this story appeared online, the Gelber campaign sent an e-mail blast highlighting Grieco’s connections to the PAC and his previous denials. Then, the Grieco campaign sent out its own email touting the candidate’s “platform of independent leadership” and warning that the campaign could get negative fast.

“We’ll have to thank Dan and his henchman for that,” Grieco wrote.

The A-list

The list of donors to People for Better Leaders includes high-profile individuals and companies on the Beach.

Among them:

▪ Angler’s Resort, a Miami Beach hotel group seeking an upzoning on Washington Avenue, gave $15,000.

▪ Sean Yazbeck, a Beach tech entrepreneur who once won Donald Trump’s Apprentice TV show, gave $13,509.85.

▪ A company affiliated with Infinity Real Estate, a New York developer with plans to open a CVS on Ocean Drive, gave $10,000.

▪ Ytech International, a developer that owns properties in North Beach, gave $10,000.

▪ Companies affiliated with Finvarb Group, a Miami Beach development firm, gave $10,000.

▪ Bercow Radell & Fernandez, a prominent zoning and land-use law firm that lobbies for clients on the Beach, gave $3,000.

All of them declined to comment or did not return messages. Because they are not city vendors, soliciting their contributions is not illegal.

People for Better Leaders received a total of 24 donations.

The few donors who did speak to the Herald were unaware of the controversy surrounding the PAC.

In January, Grieco was the subject of an anonymous email blast accusing him of setting up a “secret political action committee.”

Grieco told political blogger Elaine de Valle the attack was “fake news”and said he did not know who was running the PAC.

The new campaign finance law was passed in Miami Beach after public anger over former Commissioner Jonah Wolfson’s Relentless for Progress PAC. Wolfson and Mayor Philip Levine raised money from city vendors, developers and lobbyists, stoking fears that special interests were being asked to pay for political access.

In January 2017, a separate Miami-Dade ordinance went into effect requiring municipal and county candidates to disclose attempts to raise money on behalf of a PAC.

Only the donation from One Force Worker’s Comp took place after the new county regulation went into effect.

Despite taking donations almost exclusively from Beach residents and special interests, the PAC has not registered with the city. Outside groups supporting or opposing Beach candidates are supposed to register.

Nicholas Nehamas: 305-376-3745, @NickNehamas

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech

Michael Grieco statement

After this article appeared online, Michael Grieco contacted the Herald and asked that the following statement be published:

“I know the chairmen of many political committees, such as John Morgan, Ben Pollara, Brian Abraham, Stephen Bittel, Adonis Garcia and others through my political, personal and professional relationships over the years, so the premise of your question and this article itself merely makes this publication an accomplice to a dishonest attack on me by my political opponent, his consultant, and developer backers. As I have demonstrated, this is a textbook case of character assassination, and in any other arena this would constitute an act of slander/libel.”

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