Miami Beach mayoral candidates under attack from mystery groups

It’s an election season whodunit: Who is paying for the campaign mailers cluttering Miami Beach mailboxes?

Mayoral candidate Michael Góngora says it’s not him, despite the fact that one of the groups paying for attack ads is connected to his mother and his former campaign manager.

Góngora has also been the target of nasty mailers, but tracing who’s behind those has proven difficult. A Kentucky company is listed in state records as the main funder of those ads, but a lawyer for the company says that’s absolutely not true.

The result of all this shadiness: When voters go to the polls to select a new mayor and three new commissioners on Nov. 5, they can’t be sure which candidates are supported by which businesses, industries, lawyers, lobbyists, developers or factions.

Attack ads are nothing new when it comes to politics. More and more, the groups that pay for these ads are not the candidates themselves, but third-party entities such as electioneering communication organizations, or ECOs. These ECOs provide a way around Miami Beach’s campaign finance laws, which are some of the strictest in the county.

The city prohibits lobbyists, real estate developers and city vendors from contributing “directly or indirectly to a candidate, or to the campaign committee of a candidate.

However, according to state laws regulating ECOs, “an expenditure made for, or in furtherance of, an electioneering communication is not considered a contribution to or on behalf of any candidate.”

Two electioneering organizations have been particularly active in the Miami Beach mayoral race, where Góngora, businessman Philip Levine and entertainer Steve Berke are competing for the seat.

One of the ECOs is called Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility. It has taken aim at Levine.

Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility is registered to Góngora’s former campaign manager, according to state records. The ECO has raised all of its money — $27,160 — from a business in Nevada, according to its finance reports.

The Nevada business, the Women’s Leadership Conference, listed Góngora’s mother as the registered agent, until recently. The president, director, treasurer and secretary of the Nevada company were all listed as Randy Hilliard, Góngora’s former campaign manager.

Because it’s a private company, there’s no telling where the Women’s Leadership Conference came up with all the money it donated to the Florida ECO. Sandra Millard Page, Góngora’s mother, did not return multiple calls for comment. Neither did Hilliard.

Góngora’s opponents say the Nevada corporation is a front to funnel campaign contributions to Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, without having to reveal who the donors are.

“Talk about a shell game and hiding the money,” said election lawyer J.C. Planas, who is working with the Levine campaign.

Góngora says that’s not true and he has no affiliation to the outside entities.

Góngora also has been on the receiving end of negative campaign mailers. The ECO responsible for those ads is called Citizens United For Truth. According to finance reports filed in Florida, $150,000 out of $170,000 raised by Citizens United for Truth was donated by a company called Serpentine Holdings, which is in Kentucky.

A lawyer for Serpentine says there’s no way the company donated money to a Miami Beach race.

“We are dumbfounded,” said H. David Wallace. “I can tell you under no uncertain terms that, that company did not make that donation.”

Furthermore, the address listed in the Florida campaign finance report for Citizens United for Truth shows an address that hasn’t been affiliated with Serpentine since 2009, Wallace said.

Andrew Jones, who is listed in Florida records at the agent for Citizens United for Truth, didn’t return a call for comment.

Levine’s campaign consultant, David Custin, said the ECO isn’t his and wouldn’t say if he knew who is behind it.

Levine, who has refused to speak to the Miami Herald over the phone, wrote in an email: “My campaign is not involved with and does not control any ECO that has produced electioneering in this election.”

Góngora has his own theories about the ECO. He notes that his opponent is wealthy and has mostly self-funded his campaign — to the tune of $1.2 million. Góngora says Levine has got to be the one behind Citizens United for Truth.

“I firmly believe that it is a corporation directly or indirectly tied to Levine, and that it’s ultimately his money being used to fund this. I don’t know why he doesn’t just admit it,” Góngora said.

Berke, the entertainer who is also running for mayor, has managed to stay out of the fray. He says he’s the only candidate not running ECOs.

“I haven’t even put out a mail piece for my own campaign,” Berke said. “If I’m going to attack anybody, I’ll say it to their face and I’ll put my name behind it, like a man. I won’t hide behind any shadowy ECOs.”

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.