Palmetto Bay

Ethics officials say it’s a conflict of interest; vice mayor calls it a ‘witch hunt’

The Palmetto Bay Council repealed the approval to build 485 condos on the site of the old Burger King headquarters.
The Palmetto Bay Council repealed the approval to build 485 condos on the site of the old Burger King headquarters. Miami-Dade County

County ethics investigators have released a close-out memo that says Palmetto Bay’s vice mayor has a conflict of interest that precludes him from voting on anything involving the Palmetto Bay Village Center on Old Cutler Road — a development that has polarized the small city for months.

The report was released by the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics just days before the village council is set to cast its final vote on reversing an earlier action approving the development. And despite the commission’s finding, Vice Mayor John Dubois said he’s “voting anyway” at a special meeting on Saturday.

“This is a witch hunt. To come out with a non-binding opinion three days before the vote is the typical political game — especially when there’s lot of money at stake here,” Dubois told the Miami Herald, adding that the ethics report is “simply false.”

In the memo, ethics investigator Sylvia Batista says Dubois has a conflict of interest because he is indirectly subsidizing a lawsuit against the city challenging the earlier vote.

This is a witch hunt.

John Dubois, Palmetto Bay vice mayor

In May of 2016, the council voted to allow a developer to build a maximum of 485 condos on land that once housed Burger King’s corporate offices. The deal was that the developer would also give the village 40 acres of green space, 22 of which would be for a passive park.

Then in April, the village council voted tentatively to reverse that decision and revert to the zoning in effect before the 2016 vote that allowed 100 condos and 300 housing units for senior citizens.

Repealing the council’s decision to allow a developer to build almost 500 units was pushed by Dubois, who lives in a waterfront estate next to the future development on Old Cutler Road and 184th Street. Dubois has also been the project’s most vocal opponent, saying traffic would flood the historic road and increase density.

John Dubois, vice mayor of Palmetto Bay. Village of Palmetto Bay

Palmetto Bay officials say the administration cannot keep Dubois from voting when it comes up for final action on Saturday, but that repealing the decision could open the door to lawsuits by the developer.

“If someone were to try to take that away, we would have to bring an action against the village, which is the last thing I would want to do, that could produce damages in the range of $40 million,” said the project’s developer, Scott Silver, in an October email to residents and council members.

“This would be a direct consequence of their threatened actions. Just to be clear, I truly do not want to do that by any stretch of the imagination, but if they were to try to follow through … that would be the result,” Silver continued.

If Dubois is subsidizing Burch’s lawsuit, even indirectly … his personal stake in the outcome creates a conflict between his private interests and his public duties.

Ethics Commission memo

Last year, Palmetto Bay city attorney Dexter Lehtinen accused Dubois of having a conflict of interest, pointing out that Dubois’ lawyer and employee, Jeffrey Leary, is also the attorney for Bette April Burch, a Palmetto Bay property owner who sued the village for approving the development.

It didn’t take long for the ethics commission to look into it.

According to the ethics memo, a year before Dubois was elected in 2013, he created a nonprofit organization called Miami-Dade Citizens for Property Rights, where Leary is his sole employee. The corporation’s mission: “to educate Miami-Dade citizens on their property rights and how to stop the government from infringing on such rights.”

The nonprofit “is entirely funded by Dubois. Dubois pays Leary’s salary,” Batista said. “Leary is also the registered agent for three of Dubois’ limited liability corporations.” Her memo also lists numerous lawsuits in which Leary represents Dubois, including one against the ethics commission.

“It is undisputed that Dubois opposes the development,” she wrote, and that he introduced legislation to repeal the council’s earlier approval.

Leary provided investigators with Burch’s legal billing records, which revealed that Burch has paid only $760 toward her $27,391 legal bill.

“If Dubois is subsidizing Burch’s lawsuit, even indirectly, through [his nonprofit], even if Dubois is not a party of the lawsuit, his personal stake in the outcome creates a conflict between his private interests and his public duties,” the report said.

A Palmetto Bay special council meeting will be held at 9 a.m. Saturday at Palmetto Bay Village Hall, 9705 Hibiscus St.

In an earlier version of this article, readers may have inferred that the Palmetto Bay council’s vote in May was final. The vote was preliminary. Final action is to be taken on Saturday.

Monique O. Madan: 305-376-2108, @MoniqueOMadan