Miami Beach

‘Look right into my soul’: How a popular Beach politician self-destructed

Michael Grieco spoke on behalf of hundreds of anti-Naled protestors outside Miami Beach City Hall during the Zika crisis. Some residents were concerned the insecticide could harm their health, although the EPA says it is safe when used appropriately.
Michael Grieco spoke on behalf of hundreds of anti-Naled protestors outside Miami Beach City Hall during the Zika crisis. Some residents were concerned the insecticide could harm their health, although the EPA says it is safe when used appropriately.

As hundreds of protesters gathered outside Miami Beach City Hall last fall, then-Commissioner Michael Grieco stepped forward to defend a crowd wearing gas masks and carrying signs that pleaded “Stop poisoning my playground.”

Mosquitoes were spreading the Zika virus — and government planes would soon spray the Beach with 37 gallons of the controversial insecticide Naled. Already a strong incumbent raising money for re-election to his commission seat and still four months away from plunging into an energetic bid for mayor, Grieco demanded respect for residents terrified that Naled could harm their health.

“These are not some lunatics that are out here screaming from the rooftop,” Grieco told the media. “These are educated folks. These are people that have done their research on this … I’m just here standing up for them so they can have their voices heard.”

Time after time in the run-up to this November’s election, the first-term commissioner and former state prosecutor hit the soap box to showcase his Beach-first credentials: on the Zika crisis, on bringing a train to South Beach, on the city hosting a Cuban consulate, on the crime wave he said accompanied an annual Memorial Day party weekend popular with African-American tourists.

But that September morning last year may have been the highest Grieco and his brash, populist message will soar: Prosecutors on Tuesday said Grieco knowingly accepted an illegal donation from a foreign national to his secretive political committee. He resigned and pleaded no contest to the criminal charge, meaning he accepts the sentence — one year of probation during which he cannot run for elected office — without admitting guilt.

Like Icarus, the man who would be mayor has come crashing down to earth, the glue melted from his wings.

Despite the scandal, residents adored his live-wire approach to retail politics. A constant presence on Twitter and Facebook — “I think I need to relax,” Grieco said at a September campaign event — he was quick to alert constituents to traffic jams and answer complaints about slow trash pick-up. “Everybody has a pothole,” he liked to say.

Most appreciative of all: His powerful political base in the Beach’s South of Fifth neighborhood, where Grieco lives with longtime partner Christine Klingspor and their young son. The Beach has 46,000 registered voters — and only the most dedicated, roughly 20 percent, turn out for its off-year elections. Any candidate able to combine voters’ zeal with the war chests of developers and lobbyists has the power to stomp rivals to dust.

“Grieco singlehandedly changed the expectations for a Miami Beach commissioner,” said Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán. “He was the Energizer bunny.”

But others who know the Long Island native describe a man of overwhelming ambition crippled again and again by arrogance and bad judgment.

“He’s a guy who but for his own misdeeds and web of lies … would have been the mayor of Miami Beach,” said developer Bradley Colmer, who clashed with Grieco over the proposed upzoning of Sunset Harbor. “People were afraid of him. He looked at the city like his personal kingdom … He’s a destructive personality.”

Commissioner Ricky Arriola said his former colleague was a vengeful “bully” seeking absolute control of city hall.

“We’ve seen Michael with a little bit of power and how he abused it,” Arriola said. “He thought he was above the law, he was willing to lie. The unbridled ambition he had to become mayor was his downfall.”

In June, when the Miami Herald asked Grieco about his connection to the political committee that spelled his ruin, he claimed none existed. Any rumors to the contrary, he insisted, were the machinations of political rivals, even though the group, People for Better Leaders, was chaired by a good friend — and donors said Grieco and his allies solicited some of the $200,000 it raised from Beach residents and special interests.

During a June interview at his Brickell criminal defense practice, the commissioner put his denial in the starkest terms of heaven and earth: “You can look right into my soul.”

His soul couldn’t be reached for comment, but public records showed Grieco himself had filled out state paperwork for the PAC. His statements to the public about the group and its purpose have been repeatedly contradicted by interviews and documents.

“He sold others a perception that wasn’t accurate and people drank the Kool-Aid with him,” said Larry Colin, a South Beach resident who supported Grieco’s re-election to the commission but chose to support rival Dan Gelber for mayor.

Greico had reined in his political ambitions even before the criminal charge: He quit the mayoral race in July after the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office began investigating him, filing to run instead for his commission seat. In September, as the investigation heated up, he dropped that bid, too.

“Everybody is upset he messed up,” said June Savage, a Grieco supporter now running for mayor.

She likened the commissioner to a vanquished comic-book hero.

“Now we can’t put out the ‘Bat-signal,’ ” she lamented.

Same old song

In an interview with the Herald on Tuesday, Grieco described his resignation as an “out-of-body experience.”

“To go from a circumstance where I … should have been mayor to being in a situation where I’m sitting here eating a burger and not being in office anymore, it’s kind of surreal,” he said over lunch at Meat Market, a Lincoln Road steakhouse.

But even with his political career in shambles, Grieco will not admit he made a mistake.

“You can take any political committee that’s affiliated with an elected official,” he said, “and you could connect dots and make hay and drag people in and subpoena them.”

“I’m not a wallflower,” he said. “I say what’s on my mind. It makes me a target.”

And he’s determined to stay a player on the Beach. “You’re not writing my obituary,” he told reporters.

Grieco has risen from the coffin before.

In the state attorney’s office, where he worked two stints between 2000 and 2006, he sometimes shot himself in the foot like his shoelaces were targets.

There was the time in 2006 he used a high-profile case to advertise his side business spinning tracks under the nom de club DJ Esquire. The time he admitted to intervening when a friend was charged with assault. The time he blasted a sitting judge in an office-wide email.

“He was a cowboy,” one former prosecutor said. “He tried to play fast and loose with the rules.”

“I can’t regret any of this stuff,” Grieco said of his missteps. “I wouldn’t be who I am if I hadn’t been through that.”

But Grieco, a registered Democract who once said he carried a gun in an ankle holster at City Hall, seemed to have found redemption when he won election to the Beach commission in 2013.

He quickly mastered the hardest part of the job: constituent service.

“He was an excellent assistant for people who couldn’t find their way through the morass of the bureaucracy,” said Frank Del Vecchio, a longtime civic activist from Grieco’s South of Fifth neighborhood who encouraged him to get into politics.

During the campaign, when Grieco asked debate audiences if anyone had asked him or his office for help, nearly half those present raised a hand.

“It’s very important that commissioners realize this is local government,” Grieco said last month during a residents’ breakfast at a South Beach café. “All these 30,000-foot, pie-in-the-sky ideas … it doesn’t mean anything if you’re not delivering constituent casework.”

He even got his hands dirty.

Grieco once helped chase down a suspected drug dealer while out for a shirtless morning jog in South Beach.

Police arrested the man.

“I’ve been there for every one of you for the last four years,” he told voters on the campaign trail.

In the trenches

Grieco had so many people on his side.

The bloc of South Beach voters who believed him the only leader capable of keeping their city livable. The influential lobbyists who relied on him to pass tricky legislation. The deep-pocketed donors who helped make his campaign for mayor the best-funded in the race.

The widespread support served him well as he sponsored popular initiatives such as a city-wide ban on Styrofoam products and restrictions that ended beach-trashing events like Floatopia. Among his most lauded accomplishments: Expanded pre-kindergarten and a ranger program that employs many former veterans as watchdogs in the city’s public parks.

He also announced his opposition to a proposed light-rail train in South Beach, which he’d previously supported, as the plan grew increasingly unpopular with residents. The train issue marked one of several instances when Grieco broke from Mayor Philip Levine, a former ally who supported his 2013 election to the commission.

Their honeymoon was brief. Within a year of the election, Grieco cast the single “no” vote against higher fees on residents to pay for anti-flooding pumps and raised streets — a centerpiece of Levine’s campaign. The mayor blasted Grieco for “playing politics.”

Both men had higher ambitions. When the mayor said he wouldn’t seek a third term in January — eyeing the governor’s seat in Tallahassee — Grieco saw an opening. Their conflict, heated and personal, often burst into public view. At a city meeting, Levine called Grieco “Mr. Mango,” referring to an influential Ocean Drive nightclub that supported his campaign. Grieco responded by calling the mayor “Governor.”

Over the past two years, Grieco sought high-profile issues to champion, including the Naled controversy. He also stridently opposed the possibility of a Cuban consulate in Miami Beach. In a tense public hearing, he squared off with Arriola, a Cuban American who is open to the idea, cementing a rift between the two that never healed.

“He was clearly thinking about making a run for mayor and he saw me as a threat,” Arriola said in a recent interview. “[H]e used that as a make-believe wedge issue to try and hurt me within the Cuban community … He creates these populist items to self-promote.”

Some city officials who worked with Grieco describe a temperamental boss who roughhoused his way around City Hall, barking orders at municipal staffers and always looking for the limelight. Behind closed doors, rivals called him “Fredo,” after the son from the “Godfather” films whose ambition was outstripped only by his incompetence.

Grieco said he simply wanted city staff to work as hard as he does and that his political views come from deep-held convictions.

“[I’m] somewhere between a populist and a maverick,” he said.

DJ Esquire

Grieco’s political scandal isn’t the first time he flamed out of a career in public service.

His tenure as an assistant state attorney also ended in disaster: He resigned from the state attorney’s office in 2006 following a scandal that grew from one of his most high-profile cases — an assault charge against then-NFL star Sean Taylor.

As the Taylor case gained national media attention, defense attorneys discovered Grieco was posting news stories about the prosecution on a personal website for DJ Esquire — his side gig.

A lawyer for Taylor said Grieco was trying to profit off the case’s notoriety, calling his conduct “inappropriate and unethical.”

In his resignation letter, Grieco didn’t reference the Taylor scandal, just as when he quit the Beach commission — under pressure from prosecutors — he made no mention of the plea deal.

“I am exiting with a heavy heart with hopes of one day returning to public service,” Grieco wrote to State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle, who more than a decade later would charge him with a crime. “I dread the day that waking up for the sole purpose of making money is acceptable to me, but for now, my priorities need to be focused on my family and self-preservation.”

Before his resignation, Grieco was a Fernández Rundle favorite, according to several people who worked in the office. It was his first job as a lawyer after graduating from the University of Miami law school.

He quickly learned to build big cases, eventually becoming chief of one of the office’s felony divisions. (Although Grieco describes himself in his resume as “felony division chief,” a spokesman for the state attorney said he actually held one of several subordinate positions.)

Those for whom he sought justice were grateful.

Family members of a teenager killed by a drunk driver wrote letters praising him and a colleague for winning a two-year sentence for the driver. A supervisor called him “an outstanding trial lawyer” in an evaluation, noting his motto: “State’s always ready.” But the evaluation, obtained through a public records request, also pointed out a quick temper.

“There are times where Mr. Grieco becomes frustrated with people and perhaps speaks his mind without regard to who may be around,” the supervisor wrote. “[These] conversations are better held behind closed doors.”

Taylor wasn’t the only time Grieco’s better judgment seemed to fail him — only the most egregious.

In 2002, Grieco sent an email “denigrating” Miami-Dade Judge Daryl Trawick to every assistant state attorney in the office, according to a formal warning he received. Grieco said Trawick was allowing a man defending himself on charges of aggravated battery with a machete to “turn the courtroom into a 3-ring circus.”

“We are not getting anything close to a fair trial,” he complained.

Three days later, Grieco sent another office-wide email, this time in contrition.

“My actions are a perfect example of what not to do,” he confessed.

He also apologized to the judge. But in a memo to a superior, Grieco protested his official reprimand, saying he had been treated “unjustly and inequitably.”

Then, in 2004, Grieco tried to intervene when a friend was arrested for assault, according to an admission of guilt he entered several years later with the Florida Bar.

Grieco admitted that he “misled” Miami Beach police detectives into thinking he was involved in the case. He also tried to influence the prosecutors who were working the case, asking them to give it “special attention.”

(After a complaint was filed about Grieco’s conduct, the Bar issued a formal reprimand in 2008.)

Following the Taylor fiasco, Grieco began representing the accused.

With his public service career over — for now — he plans to move his defense practice from Brickell back to Miami Beach.

Early in his career, defending accused criminals didn’t seem to be in the cards. When he interviewed with the state attorney’s office out of law school, he said he could never work as a defense counsel.

He was wrong — but so were the superiors who oversaw him. In one early evaluation, a prosecutor wrote: “He learns from his mistakes.”

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech

Nicholas Nehamas: 305-376-3745, @NickNehamas