Miami Dolphins spent big bucks on campaign for canceled election

The Miami Dolphins and their owner, Stephen Ross, spent a staggering $10 million over the past six weeks on a special election that never happened.

Leading up to a planned May 14 referendum asking voters to help pay for renovations of Sun Life Stadium, the Dolphins’ political action committee, Friends of Miami First, raised $4.97 million and spent $4.49 million since April 1, according to a campaign finance report filed Friday. All contributions came from the Dolphins and Ross, through South Florida Stadium LLC, the corporate entity that owns the stadium.

Taken together with the nonrefundable $4.8 million payment the Dolphins made to Miami-Dade County last month to cover election costs, the team spent nearly $10 million in publicly reported funds on its failed push for state and county tax dollars to pay for some of the $350 million in stadium upgrades.

That total does not include expenses that do not have to be reported because they were not part of the election campaign, including lobbyist and public-relations consultant fees incurred before county commissioners agreed to hold the referendum.

Even without the cost to cover the election, the Dolphins’ sprint of a campaign ranks among the most expensive waged in Miami-Dade. A successful, months-long effort to approve Las Vegas-style slots in 2008 spent more than $6.6 million.

“We were committed to making sure voters had all the information necessary before they cast their votes, and that costs money,” campaign spokesman Eric Jotkoff said in an email Monday.

The Dolphins had insisted on getting a decision on the Miami Gardens stadium improvements before National Football League owners meet next Tuesday and Wednesday to award the 50th and 51st Super Bowls. South Florida is bidding to host either championship, though the likelihood of landing one of the games appears unlikely without a makeover to the 1987 stadium.

Commissioners scheduled the May 14 referendum after Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez brokered an agreement with the Dolphins that among other things required an election paid for by the team. But the referendum was contingent on Florida lawmakers approving Dolphins-backed legislation that would have allowed the county to raise the mainland hotel-tax rate to 7 percent from 6 percent. The county would have paid the Dolphins $289 million over 30 years from that money.

The team was also seeking $90 million over 30 years from a Florida sales-tax subsidy. The Dolphins would have been required to refund some of the money to the state and county, to hold a certain number of major sporting events and to stay in South Florida for the next three decades.

The referendum was called off May 3 after the Legislature concluded its annual lawmaking session without the Florida House of Representatives taking up the legislation. The Dolphins blamed House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who has denied the team’s claim that he promised to give the bill a hearing.

“Like a lot of people in Miami-Dade, we were disappointed that one person decided his vote counted more than anyone else’s vote,” Jotkoff’s statement said. “But at least it didn’t cost county property taxpayers anything — just like the modernization wouldn’t have cost them anything.”

By the time session ended and the election was canceled, voters had been casting ballots by mail for weeks and at early-voting sites for seven days.

The Dolphins targeted reliable voters who were more likely to participate in a special election with calls from phone banks and numerous large, glossy fliers in the mail. Radio and television advertisements played in English, Spanish and Creole — including a likely expensive endorsement in Spanish from star soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese striker who plays for Real Madrid.

Campaign workers also fanned out across 20 early-voting polling places.

Ronaldo’s fee is not listed in the latest finance report. The campaign still has time to file additional reports. One of the two Dolphins campaign chairmen, attorney H.T. Smith, was paid $6,000, according to the report.

Campaign checks went to a slew of consultants, including more than $850,000 to Mercury Public Affairs, the New York-based firm that managed the effort. Ross, a billionaire real-estate developer, works in Manhattan.

More than $1.6 million went to Multimedia Services Corp. in Alexandria, Va., for radio and television advertising, and $250,000 to New Partners Consulting, in Washington D.C., for a campaign expense listed as “phones.”

Locally, the campaign paid more than $528,000 to Marin & Sons, the firm run by Miami consultant Steven Marin, to print and mail fliers. North Miami firm Image Plus Graphics received more than $246,000 for printing, postage and advertising supplies.