Miami Beach

Mystery PAC shakes up convention center hotel campaign with ads warning ‘mega-traffic’

The proposed Miami Beach Convention Center hotel, which voters will be asked to approve on the Nov. 6 ballot.  Turnberry’s Jackie Soffer is one of the developers of the proposed project, and a mysterious group is funding mailers against it.
The proposed Miami Beach Convention Center hotel, which voters will be asked to approve on the Nov. 6 ballot. Turnberry’s Jackie Soffer is one of the developers of the proposed project, and a mysterious group is funding mailers against it.

A mysterious new opposition group paid for ads urging voters to reject a proposed Miami Beach convention center hotel and then abruptly closed, raising questions about who was behind the effort in a city that has long struggled with issues of transparency in politics.

A political committee called Preserve Miami Beach’s Future sent out mailers last week telling residents to vote against the lease of public land for an 800-room hotel connected to the Miami Beach convention center, a proposal that is on the city’s Nov. 6 ballot. The ads warned that the hotel would cause “mega-traffic” and “risk taxpayer money” if the project fails. (Proponents of the project reject these claims, arguing that having a hotel connected to the convention center would allow attendees to walk to events, alleviating traffic. The hotel would be privately funded and provide rent payments or a percentage of hotel revenue to the city, whichever is greater.)

Then Preserve Miami Beach’s Future suddenly closed on Tuesday after operating for just two weeks. The chairwoman, Sarah Klein, said in a statement that she had decided to dissolve the committee “in an effort to maintain my privacy.” Klein did not respond to questions about whether she had started the committee on her own or had been recruited to serve as chairwoman.

“I care deeply about this community and feel strongly that this convention center hotel, including in its latest iteration, is bad for our city. That is why I am compelled to speak out,” Klein said in an email, citing concerns about possible traffic congestion, the size of the hotel and the potential impact on business at nearby hotels.

Klein, a 26-year-old Miami Beach resident, has no previous experience serving as the chair of a political committee in Florida, according to state records, and no political party affiliation. She works part time for Florida For Care, a pro-medical marijuana group, according to executive director Ben Pollara. Klein listed a residential address for the committee’s office and a cellphone for its office number. A woman who answered the phone on Monday hung up when the caller identified herself as a reporter.

William D. Talbert III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau and a staunch supporter of the hotel, said he suspects that gambling interests are behind the committee. Although gambling is prohibited in Miami Beach, city commissioners included a gambling prohibition in the hotel ballot language. A city spokeswoman said the language was included to ensure that gambling will always be prohibited at the proposed hotel even if the laws change.

Talbert said gambling supporters likely view the ballot question as a referendum on gambling in Miami Beach. “Who else would be upset about it?” he asked.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, who has been one of the leaders of the no-casino movement in Florida, said he wouldn’t be surprised if gambling interests were funding Preserve Miami Beach’s Future. “I know there’s a huge amount of pro-casino money on the streets to preserve the potential casino industry in South Florida and it doesn’t surprise me at all that people are pointing in that direction,” he said.

A mailer paid for by Preserve Miami Beach’s Future, a mysterious political committee that closed after operating for just two weeks. The committee opposes a proposed convention center hotel in Miami Beach.

For the time being, the committee’s donors are a mystery. Preserve Miami Beach’s Future was established on Sept. 12 and the committee filed a waiver with the Florida Division of Elections in lieu of a campaign treasurer’s report for the week of Sept. 8-14, indicating that the committee did not receive or spend any money during that period. The committee’s next financial report is due Sept. 28.

The committee’s treasurer, Gloria Maggiolo, said in a text message that she does not speak to the press “on behalf of any committee I work on” and referred the Miami Herald to Pollara, a political consultant and one of her business partners in BFF Compliance, a firm that helps candidates and committees with their election compliance paperwork.

Pollara told the Herald that he was not involved with the committee and did not know who was behind it. Pollara and BFF Compliance business partner Brian Goldmeier, a well-known fundraiser, became aware of BFF’s work for the committee after receiving complaints and asked Maggiolo to resign as treasurer, Pollara said. Goldmeier confirmed this account in a text message.

“We asked her to fire the committee as a client because people that we know are involved on the yes side,” Pollara said. On Tuesday, Maggiolo resigned as the committee’s treasurer, according to a letter Klein provided to the Herald.

Pollara acknowledged that he knows Klein through her work for Florida For Care, but insisted that Klein’s involvement with both Florida For Care and the political committee was a coincidence. Although Pollara serves as Florida For Care’s executive director, he said he is no longer involved in day-to-day operations.

Despite its short-lived campaign, Preserve Miami Beach’s Future raised concern among supporters of the proposed convention center hotel, which is the city’s third attempt in recent years to get a headquarter hotel project off the ground. Miami Beach needs to secure the approval of 60 percent of voters in order to lease public land in the convention center district, which has proven to be a high bar.

A previous plan to build a headquarter hotel for the Miami Beach Convention Center failed in 2016 with 54 percent of the vote. After the election, then Mayor Philip Levine blamed political ads and robocalls from mysterious political committees for the failure, characterizing their efforts as “secretive.” Before that, a 2013 proposal for a hotel was booted from the ballot following a court case and an opposition campaign.

Until Preserve Miami Beach’s Future appeared, there had been little organized public opposition to the newest hotel proposal, which features a 185-foot tall, 800-room hotel with two wings stretching behind a 53-foot podium containing parking, meeting spaces and ballrooms. The hotel would be connected to the convention center via a pedestrian bridge.

The group behind the latest iteration — Turnberry’s Jackie Soffer, Terra Group’s David Martin, Miami Design District developer Craig Robins and architecture firm Arquitectonica — came up with a proposal that they hope will assuage the concerns about size and traffic congestion that defeated previous efforts. The new hotel would be 100 feet shorter than the previous plan and includes six times more space for cars to queue on the property without spilling onto the street. Through a spokesperson, Miami Beach Connect — the entity Soffer and Martin created for the hotel proposal — declined to comment on the political committee.

The 2013 opposition campaign to a previous hotel proposal was led by then-Miami Beach Commissioner Jonah Wolfson and was partially funded by the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel, owned by Jeffrey and Jackie Soffer. The opposition campaign opposed using public subsidies to fund the convention center hotel.

Jeffrey Soffer, who is not part of his sister’s hotel proposal, said he was not involved in Preserve Miami Beach’s Future or any other political committees.

Supporters of the convention center hotel have also created their own political committee, although it’s clear who is financing the effort. The committee, “Friends of Our Miami Beach Convention Center Hotel,” has raised $500,000 from Turnberry Development and Mixed MB Use Investment Holdings, companies tied to Jackie Soffer and David Martin, according to business records. The committee has so far spent more than $265,000, most of it on ads.

Miami Herald staff writers Douglas Hanks and Joey Flechas contributed to this report.
Contact Kyra Gurney at 305-376-3205 and @KyraGurney.