Miami Beach

Mayor: Miami Beach hotel vote defeated by shady political committees

Several political committees mailed advertisements including these before the March 15 ballot question on a lease for a proposed convention center hotel in Miami Beach.
Several political committees mailed advertisements including these before the March 15 ballot question on a lease for a proposed convention center hotel in Miami Beach. jflechas@miamiherald.com

Another vote in Miami Beach, another campaign fraught with expensive political shenanigans.

Several mysterious political action committees thrust themselves into the bitter debate surrounding the recent referendum on the public land lease for a proposed hotel adjacent to the Miami Beach Convention Center — a plan that died March 15 when 54 percent of voters approved, falling short of the required 60 percent and creating uncertainty over of the future of the greater Miami area’s convention economy.

Hotel proponents blamed the referendum’s failure on the political ads and robocalls sent by these groups, whose leaders and financial contributors are hidden behind loopholes in election laws or skirting financial disclosure requirements.

“There is little doubt that the secretive efforts by the opponents of the measure resulted in the referendum failing to reach the near super-majority requirement,” Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine said hours after the vote.

On both sides, some ads spouted false or misleading information, while others simply expressed different viewpoints on the hotel’s size and traffic impact. In particular, one opposition group fired off ads that accused the hotel of costing taxpayers $400 million, even though it was to be privately financed by a developer.

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Since the opposition PACs formed a few months before the vote, they haven’t been legally required to detail financial contributions or have simply failed to report that information.

The first group to jump into the fray was Governmental Values Coalition. The political committee is chaired by Ed Abramovitz, director of operations and finance at Links Residential, a real estate company based in Teaneck, New Jersey.

According to state records, Governmental Values lists no one as its registered agent. State law requires such committees to continuously maintain a registered agent, and without one, the group is not supposed to accept contributions or spend money.

This committee sent out mailers that misstated the financing for the proposed hotel, saying the $400 million bill would be paid by taxpayers. According to the terms of the lease before voters, developer Portman Holdings would have privately financed the development of the hotel with no public subsidy.

And it is still unclear who is a member of this coalition because the committee failed to file any financial reports at all.

They definitely hurt our credibility.

Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, on the mystery PACs’ effect on her campaign against the hotel that focused on traffic impact, size and location

Five days before the presidential primary day vote, the Florida Department of Elections sent Abramovitz a letter notifying him he’d missed the March 10 deadline to file his committee’s financial reports. According to the letter, the fines could be $500 a day because the report’s due date was immediately before the primary.

As of now, the committee had not submitted the overdue report — but it had sent a letter stating its intent to disband.

Abramovitz did not return multiple requests for comment from the Miami Herald.

“You don’t see that every day,” said longtime elections attorney Mark Herron of Tallahassee, who has worked in elections law since the early 1990s. He said it’s more common to see groups simply not register than to formally open a committee and then blow off due dates.

Another committee called People for Responsible Development funded mailers that featured images of Republican presidential candidate and real estate magnate Donald Trump alongside a doctored picture of the convention center with a marquee reading, “Trump Miami Beach and Convention Center Hotel and Casino.”

The proposed lease stated that no gaming would have been allowed in the hotel by Portman or any future operator, and that no one could directly or indirectly own, operate or manage a gaming operation in Miami-Dade County.

Herald requests for comment from leaders at People for Responsible Development also received no response.

State records show that People for Responsible Development formed Feb. 25. Getting involved so late in the game is likely no accident — if a political committee forms late enough during an off-cycle election, it wouldn’t have to file financial reports — revealing its donors — until after the vote. In this case, the PAC’s financial reports won’t be public record until April.

“They are using a loophole that’s in the law,” Herron said. “There’s gamesmanship there.”

We played by the rules. They didn’t.

Jack Portman of Portman Holdings, the developer who would’ve built convention center hotel

Other groups were more aboveboard. A locally formed PAC called Save Our Lincoln Road Neighborhood was led by Miami-Dade political consultant Charles Safdie, a former Beach resident who believed the hotel would create more traffic snarls. He also didn’t want his strolls down Lincoln Road ruined by seeing a 288-foot tall hotel in the background.

“It would cause me not to go to Lincoln Road right away,” he said.

He received $4,700 from the Miami-Dade Preservation Planning Action Group, a nonprofit active in local preservation efforts. The attorney representing the group is Kent Harrison Robbins, a Miami Beach land-use attorney.

“Traffic, historic preservation and the character of the neighborhood. Those are the things that our group was concerned with,” Robbins said.

The pro-hotel side had a PAC, mostly backed by developer Portman Holdings. The PAC filed its paperwork on time, showing $1 million in expenditures on trying to convince voters to say yes. The Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau contributed $100,00 to the effort.

Some of those mailed advertisements and TV commercials talked of an average $24 million benefit to the city per year, but it didn’t explain the nuance behind the figure. The $24 million was an average taken over the course of the 99-year lease, with the revenues starting smaller and increasing over the years. Some voters considered this disingenuous.

Portman’s PAC did file paperwork on time and clearly identified its officers as Portman employees. Minutes after it became clear the referendum would not pass on the night of March 15, Jack Portman told a reporter he was thankful to voters who let him make his case, but felt the other side had played dirty.

“We played by the rules,” he said. “They didn’t.”

All this PAC activity came about in a city mired in controversy last summer over a political action committee chaired by then-Commissioner Jonah Wolfson who, along with Levine, solicited developers and city vendors for contributions. The PAC eventually closed, and the city commission revised the Beach’s campaign finance laws to make a them a little bit stronger.

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Wolfson, a longtime convention center hotel opponent, funded his own flier against the hotel for $7,000. He said he’d learned from his experience with last year’s PAC, Relentless for Progress, that Miami Beach voters did not like the role of “soft money” in local politics.

From a voter’s perspective, all the noise may or may not influence what happens in the ballot box. But for those interested in following the money before they cast a ballot, loopholes and scofflaws can make that impossible.

“If in fact, you’re playing by the rules, of course people can find this information out eventually,” Herron said. “If you’re not playing by the rules, the voters are subject to being manipulated by emotional and/or false arguments without knowing the sources of that argument.”

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech

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