Miami Beach

Miami Beach commission bickers over $1 million in donations to new political committee

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, Commissioner Jonah Wolfson and Vice Mayor Ed Tobin discuss campaign finance issues at Wednesday’s meeting.
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, Commissioner Jonah Wolfson and Vice Mayor Ed Tobin discuss campaign finance issues at Wednesday’s meeting. Miami Herald Staff

The scene begins with a taxi passing Mango’s Tropical Cafe during a sunny day in South Beach. With salsa music in the background, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine walks toward the camera.

“Here in Miami Beach we have a new saying,” he says, grinning. “Just get it done.”

Scenes of flooded streets, road construction and police cars flash over Levine’s narration, as he talks about recent local projects including installation of stormwater pumps, expedited roadwork and the naming of a new police chief. As the commercial comes to an end, just before Levine says “Welcome to a new Miami Beach,” a banner appears at the bottom of the frame: “Sponsored by Relentless for Progress.”

Even though the millionaire mayor currently running for reelection has repeatedly said he doesn’t need PAC money, the new political action committee — which has raised nearly $1 million since May from a small group of Miami Beach vendors and real estate developers — paid for the 30-second TV spot, which cost $30,000 to produce and nearly $127,000 for the media buy.

“It’s not a commercial for me,” he told the Miami Herald on Thursday. “It’s not telling you ‘Elect Philip Levine.’”

The committee’s fundraising blitz — including $5,000 from Levine himself — has spurred a conversation about the increasing role that so-called “soft money” has in Miami Beach politics. Even Relentless for Progress’s initials mirror the acronym for “request for proposal,” or the solicitation made to bidders for city contracts.

The cash keeps coming in.

According to financial reports released Friday, RFP raised a half-million dollars in May and another $465,000 in June from contractors doing sea-level rise projects in the Beach, developers, hotel owners and a gambling entity. The committee has now raised $999,000 thus far.

Commissioner Jonah Wolfson chairs the committee and has been soliciting contributions from monied interests on the Beach. On Thursday, he said he asked Levine to appear in the commercial to promote Miami Beach. The term-limited commissioner has made it clear he backs Levine this election and will support other candidates, and he’s spent some time both in the community and on the dais defending his committee’s fundraising efforts.

“The process is appropriate, it is legal and it is something that our own city attorney upheld as protected speech,” he said Thursday.

At Wednesday’s Beach commission meeting, City Attorney Raul Aguila explained, at length, how contributions made to political committees do not violate the city’s campaign finance laws unless the contributor wants the money directed to a candidate.

The Beach’s code prevents vendors, developers and lobbyists from contributing directly or indirectly to candidates’ campaigns. Aguila said the PAC donations do not constitute indirect donations.

“There is nothing in the city code right now, including these city ordinances, that would prohibit vendors, real estate developers and their lobbyists from making contributions to PACs, provided that these contributions are not earmarked by the donor so that they’re supposed to be funneled by the PAC directly to a candidate,” he said Wednesday.

An uncharacteristically bitter debate raged on the dais as the commission grappled with the appropriateness of sitting elected officials soliciting vendors and whether that should be disclosed by the vendor, the politician or both.

Commissioner Ed Tobin, who will be term limited in November, said vendors told him they feel pressured by phone calls from Levine and Wolfson.

“Are you calling people on the phone and asking them for money with Jonah on the phone?” he said to the mayor.

Wolfson said he’s made calls, and Levine didn’t answer directly.

On Thursday, Levine told the Herald he has contributed to Wolfson’s committee and has encouraged others to do the same.

“When people have asked me whether they should contribute I tell them 100 percent yes,” he said. “I’m going to continue to encourage people to contribute to a PAC that I believe is doing the right thing.”

Wolfson and Levine responded to Tobin’s questions by attacking his ethics, saying he shouldn’t cause a stir after he failed an important ethics question during his oral interview when applying to be a Beach cop.

Levine and Deede Weithorn, who had first proposed having all vendors and developers disclose their contributions before the commission, also traded personal jabs during the tense meeting. Levine took a shot at Weithorn’s husband, Mark, who is running for commission.

“I’m sorry your husband is running, and you’re upset that you can’t raise money,” Levine said.

“You know what,” Weithorn responded. “That’s why you’re not married, because you think that that’s how it works.”

Levine at one point ignored Weithorn’s motion to ask Joseph Centorino, executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, for an opinion whether or not vendor contributions to PACs are indirect campaign donations, according to Beach laws.

After Aguila clarified that Levine couldn’t dismiss the motions and a vote was needed, it failed four to three, with Wolfson, Levine and Commissioners Michael Grieco, Joy Malakoff voting no. Tobin, Weithorn and Micky Steinberg voted in favor.

In September, commissioners will consider making elected officials disclose their relationships with political committees. Aguila reminded Weithorn that changing the city’s rules on PAC donations is not out of the question. It could happen if the city could make a case that these contributions have a harmful effect on November’s election.

“My recommendation is to wait and see if the election results in deleterious effect,” he said.

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More big money

Relentless for Progress, a political committee chaired by Miami Beach Commissioner Jonah Wolfson for statewide and local interests, raised $465,000 in June. The PAC has almost hit the million-dollar mark — a hefty war chest for a group that has said it will support candidates in this year’s Beach election, in which voters will select three new city commissioners.

▪ $100,000; RFR Holding LLC: New York-based real estate firm co-founded by Aby Rosen, co-owner of the W South Beach Hotel.

▪ $50,000; South Beach Group Hotels: Owner of a string of boutique hotels along Ocean Drive.

▪ $50,000; Corona Storage, LLC: Owned by Mark Festa and located at Beach Towing, one of two firms that hold towing permits in Miami Beach.

▪ $10,000; Seminole Hard Rock Entertainment: South Florida-based hotel and casino operator and sponsor of the city’s centennial concert.

▪ $12,500; Bergeron Land Development: Contractor working on flood mitigation projects in the Beach.

▪ $10,000; David Mancini & Sons: Contractor working on flood mitigation projects in the Beach

▪ $5,000; Philip Levine: Mayor of Miami Beach who is running for re-election

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