Miami Beach

Beach commissioner pleads to criminal charge. But he swears he didn’t do it.

Michael Grieco pleads ‘No Contest’ at Miami-Dade County Court

Michael Grieco submitted his resignation Tuesday morning at Miami Beach City Hall. He appeared in court afterward to plead ‘no contest’ to a criminal charge.
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Michael Grieco submitted his resignation Tuesday morning at Miami Beach City Hall. He appeared in court afterward to plead ‘no contest’ to a criminal charge.

Michael Grieco ended his tumultuous term as a Miami Beach commissioner Tuesday, submitting his resignation by email shortly before pleading no contest to a criminal violation of Florida’s campaign-finance laws.

But Grieco, a popular commissioner who ran a competitive campaign for mayor before coming under state investigation, is still refusing to take responsibility for the scandal that ended his political career — and hinted he might eventually seek a return to public office.

After a court appearance in which he did not admit guilt, Grieco told the Miami Herald he had no idea that two of his friends — Coconut Grove real estate broker Tony Rodriguez-Tellaheche and Norwegian millionaire Petter Smedvig Hagland — were planning to worm foreign money into his secretive political fundraising group. Only people with U.S. citizenship or permanent residency can contribute to American elections. Hagland, scion of a wealthy oil family, is a Norwegian citizen.

The $25,000 donation was made in the name of Rodriguez-Tellaheche but the funds came from Hagland, an investor in Miami Beach real estate, according to sources with knowledge of the investigation.

The fact that something was “awry” with the contribution, Grieco said, “did not come to my attention until [the] summer of 2017 … I didn’t know.”

Sworn statements and emails obtained by the Herald tell a different story.

In fact, Grieco advised Hagland on how to structure the transaction and was aware a donation would be made through Rodriguez-Tellaheche, the documents show. In a March 2016 email sent to Hagland and a former business associate, Grieco asked for a contribution to the committee, which he described as a fund for a mayoral run.

“I know that you guys are/were eager to support my mayoral coffers,” he wrote, according to an email subpoenaed by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office.

After further e-mail exchanges, Grieco suggested that the $25,000 donation come in a check drafted from a U.S. bank. Hagland agreed, saying he would wire the money to his Florida company and then Rodriguez-Tellaheche “could write the check.” One month later, Rodriguez-Tellaheche cut a $25,000 check to People for Better Leaders.

In a sworn statement to prosecutors, Hagland said Grieco knew where the money was coming from.

“I spoke to him and said, ‘I’m doing it that way, sending it through Tony,’ ” Hagland told investigators.

In his own sworn statement, Rodriguez-Tellaheche agreed: “[Grieco] knew it wasn’t mine. He knew exactly what was going on. He spoke to [Hagland] about it.”

Still, prosecutors felt they did not have enough evidence to seek a guilty verdict.

In court, they allowed Grieco to plead no contest, meaning he accepts his sentence — one year of probation during which he cannot run for public office — without admitting guilt. He must also pay $6,000 to cover costs of investigations by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office and the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust. Judge Samuel Slom withheld adjudication as part of the deal. That means Grieco will not be convicted of a crime, a measure sometimes taken for first-time criminal offenders.

“It is sad to see a young public servant tumble but there are no special exceptions to Florida’s elections laws,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle, Grieco’s former boss when he worked as a state prosecutor between 2000 and 2006, in a statement. “Masking the source of a campaign donation is not only illegal but denigrates the importance of transparency. Our citizens deserve better from all of those who seek public office.”

The Herald obtained the documents after meeting with Grieco, who did not respond to a request for further comment.

Grieco’s other statements to the Herald about the PAC have been contradicted by public records and interviews. For instance, his long-running assertion that he had nothing to do with the secretive PAC — which raised $200,000 from powerful Beach interests including lobbyists, city vendors and developers — fell apart after experts concluded that his handwriting appeared on its paperwork.

After the hearing, his attorney, Ben Kuehne, spoke to the media on his behalf.

“Michael Grieco has always tried to do the right thing,” Kuehne said. “He never intended to have any unauthorized contributions made to a political committee … When it became apparent that two friends of Mr. Grieco failed to follow the law, Mr. Grieco acted promptly to — even though he had accepted those contributions — set out to right that wrong.”

Bad day

Grieco started the day by emailing his resignation to the city clerk at 8:06 a.m. Two hours later, he appeared in Miami-Dade County criminal court.

The commissioner, a criminal defense attorney and former state prosecutor, is no stranger to the courtroom. But this time, he was in the role of the accused, facing charges of knowingly accepting a campaign contribution made in the name of another person, a first-degree misdemeanor.

After his courtroom appearance, when asked if he one day planned to seek elected office again, Grieco replied: “This is not my obituary.”

He also called the investigation a “fishing expedition” orchestrated by his political enemies. But the commissioner admitted — for the first time — to playing a role in the PAC.

“I was acting as the compliance officer,” Grieco said.

He acknowledged that he should have revealed his role from the beginning.

“It was a mistake,” he said. “There’s no other way to say it.”

Clean slate

Grieco will be able to terminate his probation in six months if he takes a government class on campaign finance regulations and meets the other conditions of his probation.

On Tuesday morning, he sent the following email to city officials announcing his resignation:

“Effective immediately, I tender my resignation as Group 2 Commissioner for the remaining two weeks of my term. Serving our Great City of Miami Beach has been my greatest honor. Thank you for giving me that opportunity. When I began my service as Miami Beach Commissioner in 2013, my paramount goal was to leave Miami Beach in a better condition than when I started. I am confident I have done that, and more. I have always done my best. I hope you will agree, and will find the time to work with me in my private life, as I continue to find creative ways to make Miami Beach the BEST City in the Sunshine State and beyond.”

The Herald first reported details of Grieco’s plans to resign Monday night.

Beach commissioners are planning to hold a special meeting Thursday to appoint a replacement for Grieco. The election for his former seat is Nov. 7.

In his resignation and in a subsequent email to residents, Grieco made no mention of his plea deal.

“Moving forward I worry that there will be too few voices in city hall that are honest and strong, and the few good ones who remain are being silenced by special interests, power players and transactional politics,” he wrote. “I worry that most of those making decisions are so far removed from the street and real life that they do not understand the true heart of our city and the real needs of the collective.”

Grieco might also face sanction from the Florida Bar. A complaint regarding his conduct with People for Better Leaders has been filed to the Bar, a spokeswoman said. According to its rules, the Bar might initiate “disciplinary action” when one of its members is charged with a crime.

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech

Nicholas Nehamas: 305-376-3745, @NickNehamas

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