‘Look right into my soul,’ Florida politician said. But he was lying, ethics board alleges

Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor violation of Florida’s campaign finance laws in October.
Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor violation of Florida’s campaign finance laws in October. cmguerrero@miamiherald.com

Michael Grieco, a former Miami Beach commissioner and current candidate for Florida’s House of Representatives, was lying to the public when he denied involvement in a campaign fundraising operation last year and beseeched Miami Herald reporters to “look right into [his] soul” for the truth, the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust alleged Wednesday.

In a closed-door meeting, the ethics commission found probable cause to charge Grieco with two counts of violating a Miami-Dade County charter provision that prohibits officials from “knowingly furnish[ing] false information on any public matter.” The commission also said Grieco broke a Miami Beach ethics ordinance against soliciting city vendors for campaign funds.

Grieco, who faces voters in a late August Democratic primary, has 21 days to dispute the charges and ask for a hearing, or settle the matter with an admission of guilt. Last year, he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor violation of Florida’s campaign finance laws over the scandal. He was forced to drop a well-supported campaign for Beach mayor and resign from the commission. As part of his plea deal with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, he was also banned from running for public office for six months.

In an emailed statement Wednesday, Grieco said he would not be “distracted by old news from the past.”

“The circumstances involved in today’s decision by the Commission on Ethics happened well before this campaign and have no bearing on my positive message of change that is being embraced by my thousands of supporters,” Grieco wrote. “This is a mere civil allegation, and there has never been any finding or admission of intentional wrongdoing.”

The ethics charges are bound to provide ammunition for Grieco’s opponents in a competitive Democratic primary for House District 113, which covers Miami Beach and parts of downtown Miami and Little Havana. Grieco, a criminal defense attorney, announced his campaign in May, days after his public office ban expired. The primary for the heavily Democratic district is set for Aug. 28.

The ethics commission is an independent agency that enforces the Miami-Dade Citizens’ Bill of Rights and imposes civil penalties on county and municipal elected officials and employees. In 2015, it fined Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez $4,000 for lying to the public about his business dealings. Hernandez stuck his tongue out to the commission by paying the fine in pennies and nickels.

Grieco’s troubles began last summer when Miami Herald reporters got a tip that the commissioner had set up a political action committee in a friend’s name to secretly raise money for his mayoral campaign. Such committees are unpopular with Beach voters because they appear to allow candidates to fall under the sway of wealthy developers and business owners.

The committee, called People for Better Leaders, raised more than $200,000 from Beach developers, lobbyists, city vendors and residents in the run-up to the 2017 election. Donors to the PAC said Grieco had asked them for cash.

Grieco 01 EKM
Michael Grieco, then a Miami Beach commissioner, at a news conference on July 31, 2017, to announce that he was dropping his bid for mayor. He would later resign his commission seat, too, after pleading no-contest to a campaign-finance violation. He is now running for Florida’s House of Representatives in a competitive Democratic primary. Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

Last summer, Grieco strongly denied that he had anything to do with People for Better Leaders.

“I do not have a political committee,” he said in a recorded interview with Herald reporters. “I didn’t set one up. I haven’t solicited for one.”

“You can look right into my soul,” he added.

But the Herald showed through handwriting analysis that Grieco himself had filled out state paperwork for the PAC. And investigators for the state attorney’s office and the ethics commission also dug up evidence that he wasn’t telling the truth. Donor after donor told investigators that Grieco had asked them for money, often personally accepting their checks.

“The evidence shows that Grieco was actively involved creating, operating, actively coordinating and funding the political action committee ... directly contradicting his statement to the Miami Herald reported to the public,” ethics commission attorney Michael Murawski wrote in a probable cause memorandum.

The ethics commission used those statements, which were printed in Herald articles on June 7 and June 9, to charge Grieco with two counts of violating the county charter’s “truth in government” provision.

Ben Kuehne, an attorney who represented Grieco at the hearing, said he disagreed with the commission’s conclusion that there was probable cause to charge his client. Kuehne said the commission was wrong to use Grieco’s statements to the Herald as evidence that he had lied.

“The Herald, as reliable as it is, does not constitute trustworthy evidence for purposes of making a legal determination,” Kuehne said after the hearing. “Simply attaching a newspaper article is not enough.”

Investigators also discovered that Grieco had solicited $25,000 for the PAC from Boucher Brothers, a firm that contracts with the Beach to provide rental beach chairs and umbrellas. Boucher Brothers appears on a list of vendors that are banned from contributing to political campaigns. Candidates for Beach office are not allowed to solicit those firms for funds. One of the firm’s owners, Steve Boucher, told investigators that Grieco asked him to contribute. He said he had no comment Wednesday.

Michael Grieco submitted his resignation Tuesday morning at Miami Beach City Hall. He appeared in court afterward to plead ‘no contest’ to a criminal charge.

Violations of the Beach’s campaign finance ordinance are punishable by fines of up to $1,000, according to the ethics commission.

Grieco has raised $114,000 for his state House run, campaign finance filings show — and he has gone back to some of the same donors who gave to People for Better Leaders.

Rustin and Evan Kluge, medical marijuana entrepreneurs who gave $20,000 to the PAC through a corporation, each gave $1,000 to Grieco’s new campaign. Two Beach residents and PAC donors, Dana Berkowitz and Roger Thomson, also gave $1,000.

Grieco’s opponents in the primary, former Miami Beach Commissioner Deede Weithorn and attorney Kubs Lalchandani, both criticized him Wednesday.

“Michael Grieco’s ethical and legal problems are not going away,” said Brendan Olsen, Weithorn’s campaign spokesman. “They are becoming a distraction in this race in the same way they were in his last two races. ... Grieco is the only Democrat running in this district who would hand it to the Republicans in November.”

Lalchandani’s campaign released a statement attributable to the candidate: “It should not be lost on voters that as my opponent campaigns for state representative and asks for their trust, the County’s Ethic Boards has now confirmed that he lied all along.”

The scandal over People for Better Leaders led to Grieco being criminally charged in October. Prosecutors alleged that he knowingly accepted a $25,000 donation from a Norwegian millionaire that had been made in the name of a Miami Realtor. Foreigners are not allowed to contribute to U.S. elections, and knowingly accepting campaign funds from a “straw” donor is a crime.

Grieco was allowed to plead no contest.

Despite not contesting the charge, Grieco has continued to deny he did anything wrong in his dealing with the PAC, blaming others for the implosion of his political career on the Beach.

“To address the elephant in the room,” Grieco said in an online video announcing his campaign for state representative, “let’s just say that by trusting the wrong people and failing to properly scrutinize their actions, we left ourselves open to attack by well-connected political enemies.”

His opponents in the Democratic primary have problems of their own that Grieco may look to exploit: Weithorn inflated her education credentials, and Lalchandani has represented cosmetic surgery centers where patients have been maimed and killed.

Nicholas Nehamas: 305-376-3745, @NickNehamas

Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.