Miami Lakes

Big bucks pour into tiny Miami Lakes council race

Miami Lakes Councilman Ceasar Mestre.
Miami Lakes Councilman Ceasar Mestre. Miami Herald File

Ceasar Mestre is a virtual shoo-in for re-election to his Miami Lakes Town Council seat Tuesday.

Yet the one-time Hialeah cop has collected hefty contributions from dozens of Hialeah real-estate interests and other outsiders totaling nearly $60,000 — 15 times that of his little-known opponent.

Mestre, in a interview with the Miami Herald, insisted the campaign donations won’t buy influence and contended there were no upcoming new developments in Miami Lakes, anyway.

“The reality is that Miami Lakes is built out and there are no new projects,” said Mestre, a lawyer who was first elected to the council in 2010. “These [contributors] are people I’ve known for many, many years.”

Many of them are also backers of a sprawling project that apparently didn’t meet Mestre’s definition of “new.” In the fall, he and other town council members publicly expressed support for a residential and commercial development planned for 154 acres east of I-75 by one of the country’s largest builders, Miami-based Lennar Corp.

Some residents wonder if there’s an “agenda” behind the big bucks pouring into a tiny town council race, mainly from a neighboring Hialeah, a city that is seven times larger than Miami Lakes.

“It doesn’t smell right,” said Paul Peña, who was raised in Hialeah and has lived in Miami Lakes for the past 15 years. “They’re trying to bring that Hialeah political system over to Miami Lakes and most people here don’t like that.”

The project has cleared some initial hurdles. The land owner, Lowell Dunn II, has already made road improvements in the so-called Dunnwoody Lake area, bound by Northwest 87th Avenue and Northwest 154th and 162nd Streets. Now, he is in the middle of negotiations to sell the property for more than $60 million.

But whatever Lennar plans on the vast parcel would still require eventual town council approval. The town, so far, hasn’t put up any roadblocks.

In emails to Town Manager Alex Rey, Dunn has expressed frustration over the pending land sale while claiming the town manager would rather have him talk with Lennar’s representatives than directly answer his questions.

To shepherd the land deal, Lennar has retained Mestre’s friend and colleague, former Hialeah mayor Julio Robaina, as well as a local real estate broker, Wayne Rinehart, both contributors to Mestre’s re-election campaign. If the land sale goes through, Robaina and Rinehart would stand to make a substantial commission. Neither is registered as a lobbyist in Miami Lakes, according to the town clerk’s office, despite discussing Lennar’s project with local officials.

Most of the parties involved in the land sale — Dunn, Lennar, Robaina, Rinehart and Mestre — did not return calls for comment.

Robaina has been a rainmaker for Mestre’s campaign treasury, bringing in donations from his wife, political benefactor and developer Maurice Cayon, and former real estate partner Martin Caparros, among others.

The contributions to Mestre’s 2014 campaign have been between $500 and $1,000 from both individuals and corporations, the result of a substantial change in the town’s election laws last year. While there is nothing illegal about people doing business with the city making contributions to politicians, some residents question why all this outside money is coming into the campaign of Mestre, a key supporter of Lennar’s project.

Charles Evans, a 26-year resident of Miami Lakes, said the large difference in campaign donations between Mestre and his opponent, Xiomara Pazos, struck him as strange.

“I wondered where it was coming from and what’s it being used for,” Evans said. “Who needs $40,000 to run for council against an unknown opponent?”

Mestre is the only one of three council members facing re-election who has drawn an opponent. But his challenger, Pazos, is a political neophyte who has raised only $4,600 for her campaign.

That pales next to Mestre’s war chest. He has collected $58,415 in donations through Oct. 17 — double the total he raised in 2010 when he faced one opponent, Nancy Simon.

Back then, most of the contributions were for $250 or less and came from a variety of people, including some high-profile Hialeah real estate and business contributors.

After two-term mayor Michael Pizzi was indicted on bribery charges in August 2013, but before his acquittal at trial, Pizzi’s longtime foe Wayne Slaton won a special election to replace him. Last November, the town council approved raising the general contribution limit to $1,000 and also allowed corporations to make donations.

According to Mestre’s campaign finance reports, at least 10 companies owned by the Cayon family’s Hialeah-based real estate enterprise contributed a total of $5,000 to Mestre. Robaina’s former business partner, Caparros, donated $4,000 through his real estate companies.

Robaina also contributed $500 — but through his wife, Raiza. Julio Robaina and Mestre are close, personally and professionally. Mestre represented Robaina as his lawyer when he divorced his previous wife.

Back in 2007, Robaina received an unreported broker’s fee of $800,000 from Roberto Cayon, the late family patriarch, after the then-Hialeah Council president helped persuade the neighboring city of Hialeah Gardens to double the density of a Cayon-planned residential and commercial development on a large tract of land. Cayon then sold a chunk of the Hialeah Gardens property, for which he had paid $14 million, for more than twice that price to the Miami-Dade School Board.

Cayon’s secret brokerage payment came to light during this year’s tax-evasion trial of Robaina and his wife, Raiza, who did not report that income in 2007. A federal jury acquitted the couple.

The other Lennar representative in the Dunn land sale, Wayne Rinehart, contributed $500 to Mestre through his company, Costa Realtors Corp.

Robaina’s successor as Hialeah’s mayor, Carlos Hernandez, donated $1,000 to Mestre. The mayor and Mestre have been close friends since their time together as Hialeah police officers.

Among his other big contributors are the Navarro family, which owns businesses that rent controversial video gaming machines, and Waste Pro, which collects garbage and recyclable materials for Miami Lakes.

Peña said Mestre’s campaign finance report reads like a who’s who of Hialeah movers and shakers, and questioned what a major developer such as the Cayon family wants in exchange.

Peña and other residents said they fear that, one day, the closed I-75 bridge overpass at Northwest 154th Street, which connects Miami Lakes and Hialeah, would be opened and pave the way for more development and traffic on the west side of the highway. The vacant land, annexed by Hialeah, is ripe for new projects.

“People don’t donate money like that for the hell of it. You know there’s an agenda,” Peña, the Miami Lakes resident, said. “It’s so much money for such a small town council race.”

Mestre has spent nearly $40,000 of his campaign funds on signs, direct mailings and other election expenses with Sasha Tirador’s company, G&R Strategies. Tirador has been investigated, but never charged, in connection with alleged absentee ballot fraud in Hialeah.

“It’s like a warning: be careful because it’s the same person who did this in Hialeah,” said Mestre’s challenger, Pazos. “We don’t want that problem in Miami Lakes.”

Miami Herald writer Paradise Afshar contributed to this story.