An enigmatic political committee raising funds from Miami Beach special interests will shut down and return its money to donors after being linked to Commissioner Michael Grieco, the group’s chairman, Brian Abraham, announced late Friday.
Since January, Grieco, a candidate for Beach mayor, has offered shifting stories to explain his connection to People for Better Leaders, a political action committee that raised $200,000 from Beach vendors, lobbyists and developers.
First, Grieco told a blogger he knew nothing about the PAC or Abraham. Then, when two donors interviewed by the Miami Herald linked him to the group, he acknowledged a friendship with Abraham, while maintaining he never engaged in fund-raising or other PAC activities.
But now — after two forensic document experts concluded Grieco’s handwriting appears on People for Better Leaders’ paperwork — there’s a new explanation: Grieco, a criminal defense attorney, was retained by Abraham to fill out forms for the group as it launched in 2015. And the commissioner wasn’t allowed to talk about it, according to an email Abraham sent the Herald just before 8 p.m. Friday night.
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“Until this email now, Michael Grieco was captured under attorney-client privilege and not authorized to breach that,” Abraham wrote in a strongly worded message that criticized the Herald’s reporting on the PAC.
On Saturday, Grieco did not respond to requests for comment on the new twist in the story, allowing Abraham to do the talking.
Abraham said Grieco played no role in the PAC apart from using his expertise in election law to fill out forms. Raising special-interest money for PACs is a controversial — and potentially illegal — campaign tactic on the Beach, which has stricter campaign finance and ethics laws than the rest of Miami-Dade. A law passed in 2016 prevents candidates and elected officials — and those acting on their behalf — from soliciting vendors and lobbyists to donate to PACs.
“I have solely led this political committee, informed people and organizations in the community about it, and solicited contributions for it,” Abraham wrote. “This is my First Amendment right to do so. It is my protected free speech.”
Two donors who spoke to the Herald — Realtor Tony Rodriguez, who gave $25,000, and investor David Aronow, who gave $5,000 — said they did not know Abraham and had never spoken to him. A third, Mauricio Paz, said Abraham asked him to cut a check to the PAC at a Grieco fundraiser in South Beach this year. Paz said he was told the money would support Grieco’s mayoral campaign.
A fourth donor, Roger Thomson, said his donation was solicited by someone other than Abraham, but declined to name that person.
The Herald tried to reach Abraham for a week and first contacted Grieco for comment on Monday, seeking to understand his relationship to People for Better Leaders. The Herald published two stories on the PAC this past week. In his email, Abraham did not explain why he waited this long to lift the attorney-client privilege that revealed Grieco’s role in the group.
Anthony Alfieri, the director of the Center for Ethics and Public Service at the University of Miami School of Law, told the Herald that attorney-client privilege is “absolutely not” applicable because that concept would apply only in the context of judicial proceedings.
Closing June 30
People for Better Leaders raised money almost exclusively from Beach residents and power players. It plans to shut down June 30 and will return its “remaining funds … to the contributors on a pro-rated basis,” Abraham wrote.
The group has spent no money, except for a $490 credit card processing fee, according to its most recent financial reports, and declared no obvious political affiliations. There is no payment for Grieco’s legal services indicated. He is not listed as the registered agent.
The document found to bear Grieco’s handwriting was a request for credentials to use a state website.
Abraham explained his relationship to the commissioner by saying he has “personally known Michael Grieco and utilized his legal services for over seven years.”
Earlier on Friday, the campaign of Grieco’s mayoral opponent, Dan Gelber, released a statement calling for the PAC to shut down.
“My opponent owes the residents of Miami Beach an apology for betraying their trust by creating an improper PAC and repeatedly and dishonestly denying his connections to it,” Gelber said.
Elected officials and candidates on the Beach are not allowed to solicit donations from city vendors and lobbyists, thanks to a law passed in January 2016. It was adopted by unanimous vote, including Grieco’s.
That made the Beach’s political class take note in January when an anonymous email claimed the PAC was raising money with Grieco’s help. The commissioner said he didn’t know a thing about the PAC or Abraham. Then, in May, Grieco again denied a link to the PAC, after Gelber accused the commissioner of being involved.
Even after the Herald interviewed donors who connected Grieco to the PAC, he continued to offer denials.
“It is absolutely untrue,” Grieco told reporters at the time. “You can look right into my soul.”
The Herald instead looked at public records and hired a well-regarded forensic document examiner to compare samples of Grieco’s handwriting from his campaign paperwork with handwriting that appeared on the public document People for Better Leaders filed to the state two years ago.
Thomas Vastrick, a Central Florida-based handwriting expert who sits on the board of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, found the writing to be a match. His conclusion confirmed an earlier analysis by an equally well-regarded expert, Dianne Flores of Miami, who was hired by a Gelber ally.
Thursday, Grieco declined immediate comment on the experts’ reports, saying in an email that it “relates to the same subject matter we’ve already covered ad nauseam.”
Breaking the silence
Abraham comes from a wealthy Coral Gables family respected for its philanthropic activities. For a week, he did not respond to repeated requests for comment made through emails, phone calls, a visit to his family’s office and an inquiry relayed through his uncle, Thomas Abraham.
In his Friday email, Abraham said he had been inspired to start People for Better Leaders by his late grandfather, Anthony Abraham, who instilled in him the “importance of giving back to my community and to those less fortunate.”
He said he waded into politics to counter the power of former Commissioner Jonah Wolfson’s Relentless for Progress PAC. Wolfson and Mayor Philip Levine caused a public outcry after raising money for the PAC from special interests in summer 2015. The Beach’s new campaign finance law was passed in response to their activities.
Relentless for Progress, the PAC Abraham said he wanted to counter, officially closed in September 2015 after months of controversy. It was a little more than two weeks later that Abraham created People for Better Leaders.
Like the previous PAC, People for Better Leaders received donations from those who did business with the city, including a vendor and a prominent lobbying firm that also donated to Wolfson’s PAC.
In his email, Abraham said he was angered by the Herald’s reporting on People for Better Leaders.
“Me, my family, and my donors have been subjected to a barrage of calls and accusations, simply for excercising [sic] our right to free speech and participation in the political process,” Abraham wrote. “The Miami Herald, by your actions, has degraded itself to act like a political attack arm of the Dan Gelber for Mayor campaign.”
And he criticized Levine and commissioners Ricky Arriola and Joy Malakoff for questioning a PAC donor who appeared before the city Wednesday.
Their behavior, Abraham said, was “a clear-cut example of abuse of power by politicians for political purposes.”
Letter from the chairman
Dear Miami Herald:
My family has been a part of the South Florida community since 1952. My grandfather, Anthony Abraham, was a pillar of our community and devout philanthropist and active in our nation’s politics. He instilled in me the importance of giving back to my community and to those less fortunate. It has been my longtime goal to follow in my grandfather's footsteps and be more active in how the public selects our state, county, and local leaders. Another example I've observed is Norman Braman, who has long led, spearheaded, and contributed to candidates and political committees at all levels of government.
So in 2015, I decided to become proactively involved in our state and community's political process. I sought legal counsel, did my homework, and started People for Better Leaders, a political committee registered with the Florida Division of Elections. One motivating factor was providing a counterbalance against the abuse and excessive power by Mayor Levine and his Relentless for Progress Committee.
I have personally known Michael Grieco and utilized his legal services for over seven years. Because he is in public office with sound knowledge of election law, I utilized his legal services to help me complete the forms for my political committee. At that moment, and until this email now, Michael Grieco was captured under attorney-client privilege and not authorized to breach that.
I have solely led this political committee, informed people and organizations in the community about it, and solicited contributions for it. This is my first amendment right to do so. It is my protected free speech.
However, Miami Beach politics seems to be very dirty, as about a year ago, when Commissioner Arriola was considering to run for Mayor of Miami Beach in 2017, he began his smear campaign to attribute my political committee to Commissioner Grieco. Then early this year, when Dan Gelber decided to run against Commissioner Grieco for Mayor of Miami Beach, the attacks and slander have increased with the use of his consultant Christian Ulvert (who he shares with Mayor Levine and a high-profile controversial developer). Me, my family, and my donors have been subjected to a barrage of calls and accusations, simply for excercising our right to free speech and participation in the political process.
Recently, in what I can only characterize as a closely coordinated effort, Mayor Levine, Commissioner Arriola, and Commissioner Malakoff have all abused their positions of power at City Hall to attack and degrade legitimate individuals and businesses in Miami Beach, solely because they've donated to my political committee. That is a clear cut example of abuse of power by politicians for political purposes.
But worse yet, is your conduct, tactics, and recent “news” articles. The Miami Herald, by your actions, has degraded itself to act like a political attack arm of the Dan Gelber for Mayor campaign. This week you published an editorial attacking Grieco and calling him a racist simply because of his efforts to try and clean up his city’s Memorial Day holiday weekend problem. You have been a tool and large part of his effort to smear, falsely attack, and basically slander Michael Grieco and the service he’s provided to the public since his election in 2013. Evidence of this are attached, as Nehamas has tweeted unprofessionally, repeatedly, and outrageously against Commissioner Grieco. I’ve done my own investigations, and your conduct has been an abuse of your role of what should be an unbiased and independent newspaper for the public. Yet ironically and hypocritically, you've served as an accomplice to the Gelber campaign in harassing, attacking, and belittling my donors and me simply because we have chosen to participate in our first amendment right to political free speech.
For your paper to first accept the Gelber campaign's handwriting expert and have the intent to publish yesterday's article, only to have Grieco’s campaign discredit your tactic as clear cut and gross bias, then spend your newspaper’s money to justify your line of attack is evidence that you're in complete coordination with Gelber’s campaign against Commissioner Grieco.
What is most despicable and outrageous is that you conducted yourself in this manner only to “reveal” that Michael Grieco was telling you the truth all along (that this is not his political committee), and that he was legally prohibited from answering your questions about his handwriting because he was captured under attorney-client privilege.
As a result of your newspapers attacks and smear campaign, and also due to the political attacks against my donors by the Mayor and Commissioners Arriola and Malakoff, I have decided today to close my political committee (see attached letter to the Florida Division of Elections). However, now, more than ever, I will remain active in our political process in other capacities and encourage my donors to not allow you or other political bullies to silence their right to free speech.
Since I have no faith in your ability to report the truth about our local politics, I have copied for the public record the City of Miami Beach Clerk, who is that city’s chief elections officer and custodian of the public record.
I compel you to cease further harassment or slander against me or my donors.
Chairman, People for Better Leaders