The third act is opening on Michael Grieco’s career in public service — one that could see the former Miami Beach commissioner go from facing a judge as a criminal defendant to serving in Florida’s statehouse in little more than a year.
Wearing a guayabera and speaking halting Spanish, Grieco on Monday told dozens of elderly residents at Rebecca Towers senior housing facility in South Beach that he was fighting for them.
“I’m here for you. Every day, every year. Yesterday, today and tomorrow. Not just during the campaign,” he said, eliciting cheers of “Bravo!” and applause from the crowd.
Who brought ice to their building when Hurricane Irma knocked out the power? Grieco. Who fought aerial spraying of the insecticide Naled during the Zika crisis? Grieco. Who stood up and said nunca when the idea of opening a Cuban consulate on the Beach was floated? Grieco.
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He doesn’t mention the fact that he pleaded no contest to accepting illegal foreign money in his last bid for public office — earning probation and a temporary ban from politics — or that he’s facing separate inquiries from the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust and the Florida Bar into his honesty and integrity. That doesn’t matter at Rebecca Towers, a 200-unit public housing complex for the elderly that overlooks Government Cut.
“He’s always here checking in on us,” said one resident, José Crespo, 76, speaking in Spanish as he sat at a lunchroom table with an unopened gift bag that he’d won in a free raffle organized by Grieco’s campaign.
Felisa Cardona, 79, agreed.
“Politics is ugly,” she said in Spanish. “If he had a problem, he’d be in prison.”
If Grieco is to win the Democratic primary Aug. 28 for an open seat in Florida’s House of Representatives — in a blue district that stretches across Little Havana, downtown Miami, Fisher Island, Miami Beach and North Bay Village — it will be because of forgiving voters like Crespo and Cardona. In a field of candidates without a clear favorite, Grieco’s base in South Beach, where he’s seen as a neighborhood Batman fighting for residents and (literally) helping police run down suspects, could decide the election.
The race for House District 113 could also be the criminal defense attorney’s last chance at a public-service career.
More than a decade ago, the 42-year-old flamed out as an assistant state attorney after using a high-profile case to advertise his side gig as a South Beach disc jockey (he spun tracks under the name DJ Esquire). And he was forced to resign from the Miami Beach commission and drop a promising run for mayor last year after secretly seeding a political action committee with cash from developers, lobbyists and city vendors — and lying about it repeatedly.
Some voters aren’t willing to see past that. At a campaign event earlier this year at a South Beach restaurant, a former supporter got up to say he felt betrayed by Grieco’s dishonesty.
“When the Miami Herald addressed you and asked if you had anything to do with the [political action committee], your quote was: ‘You can look right into my soul,’ ” said Craig Woodland, who donated $300 to Grieco last year before the scandal burst into public view. “Having been thrown out as a commissioner and forced to drop out of the race for mayor, how do you have the conception of running for higher office? How do you have the chutzpah?”
“Let’s let the voters decide,” Grieco responded.
Now, a populist pitting himself against the establishment, Grieco is using techniques reminiscent of Donald Trump, including media bashing. (Raised a Republican, Grieco said he later became a Democrat because the party was more in line with his “values.”)
He’s even adopted some of the president’s campaign language.
After the ethics commission charged Grieco last month with lying to the public for denying his role in the PAC and breaking a Beach ethics law, opponent Deede Weithorn called him an “abominable” person in an email to supporters.
Grieco responded on Facebook: “Soon they will be calling my base voters a basket of deplorables,” referencing an insult Hillary Clinton used against some Trump supporters during the 2016 presidential race.
Grieco hates talking about People for Better Leaders, the political action committee for which he raised more than $200,000 behind closed doors, although Weithorn and another candidate, Kubs Lalchandani, have brought it up.
“There are many issues that should benefit from a thorough public discussion, but matters of the past are not among them,” Grieco wrote in a recent email in response to questions from the Herald.
Sometimes, he can’t avoid it. On a recent visit to the Herald’s Editorial Board with his opponents, he cast the blame for the scandal on two donors: Petter Hagland, a wealthy Norwegian businessman with property in South Florida, and Tony Rodriguez-Tellaheche, a Miami Realtor.
Rodriguez-Tellaheche cut a $25,000 check to People for Better Leaders in 2016 as Grieco was preparing to declare his run for Beach mayor. But the money came from Hagland, who as a foreign national was forbidden from donating to U.S. political campaigns. Both men told investigators that they made the donation with Grieco’s knowledge.
Last October, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office charged Grieco with knowingly accepting a donation made in another person’s name, a misdemeanor crime. He was allowed to plead no contest — thus not admitting guilt — and received probation. The plea deal saw him agree not to run for public office for six months.
Days after the ban expired, he declared for the state House seat held by David Richardson, who is running in a Democratic primary for Congress.
At the meeting with the Editorial Board this month, Grieco said Hagland and Rodriguez-Tellaheche threw him “under the bus” with prosecutors.
“I had no knowledge of what they were doing and it’s disappointing that honesty does not rear its head,” he said. “It all ended up with this infraction that to date I will never admit guilt of and I’ve never been found guilty of and I will protest my innocence to the day I die.”
But emails between the men from 2016 contradict his account. The messages were obtained by the Herald through a confidential source.
At the time, the Miami-Dade County commission was preparing to pass an ordinance requiring all local candidates to reveal their fundraising efforts for political committees. That would mean Grieco could no longer collect checks from wealthy insiders — at least not without disclosing his name to the public. Such an admission could tarnish his reputation as a for-the-people commissioner.
“So it looks like in the very near future local laws could change, making it much more challenging for me to fund-raise the way I can now,” Grieco wrote in one message to Hagland. “I know that you guys are/were eager to support my mayoral coffers, so I just wanted to let you in on my timetable.”
“Sure. I can wire [the money] to the Florida LLC, then Tony can write [a] cheque,” Hagland replied. “What’s the agreed amount?”
“$25k,” wrote Grieco.
Soon after, Rodriguez-Tellaheche donated $25,000 to People for Better Leaders — in his own name.
Grieco didn’t respond when asked if it was truly possible — given his detailed email conversations — that he did not understand the money in fact came from Hagland.
Daniel Mazanec, an attorney for Hagland, called Grieco’s protestations “baseless.”
Hagland “provided truthful and accurate information about what happened, which ... is consistent with the written communications that exist,” Mazanec said.
Rodriguez-Tellaheche and his attorney did not return phone calls.
Pointing the finger
A prolific fundraiser, Grieco has raised $117,000, slightly more than Lalchandani and $20,000 less than Weithorn, even though he entered the race months later. He has also reached out across party lines, encouraging Republicans and independents who support him to register as Democrats for the primary. (A Republican, Jonathan Parker, launched a long-shot campaign last month.)
During the campaign, Grieco has also attacked the media.
When Herald reporters emailed him questions about the scandal this week, he replied that the newspaper was engaged in a “blatant effort to affect an election.” He had previously accused reporters of being “on the payroll” of his political opponents.
And his campaign tactics suggest to opponents that he’s happy to skirt ethical lines. Grieco has gone after both of his opponents: Weithorn for falsely saying she had earned a degree from MIT and Lalchandani for his work as an attorney representing plastic surgery centers where patients have been maimed and killed.
For instance, in a negative mailer about his opponent Kubs Lalchandani, Grieco used Lalchandani’s full name, Kabir Arjan Lalchandani.
The candidate refers to himself using the nickname “Kubs” in his own literature and is listed as Kubs Lalchandani on the ballot. In a statement, Lalchandani called the mailer “racist.”
Grieco said the mailer was not an attack on Lalchandani’s heritage, although conservative operatives often drew attention to Barack Obama’s foreign heritage by using his middle name, Hussein.
According to Grieco, the mailer identified both Lalchandani and Weithorn “as they are listed in the Miami-Dade Elections roll to ensure accuracy and legal compliance.”
Grieco also courted trouble when a campaign email positioned a graphic from South Florida LGBTQ rights group SAVE below the logos of organizations that have endorsed him. SAVE is not backing a candidate in the race. Contacted by the Herald about the email, the group’s executive director, Tony Lima, said he called Grieco about the email because the placement of the SAVE logo could be “misleading” to voters. Lima emphasized, however, that Grieco “did lead from the dais in a very equality-friendly way” as a Miami Beach commissioner.
Grieco said his campaign had not intended to mislead anyone.
“Our campaign email blast listed our work with SAVE on the Safe Place program and the Competitive Workforce Act,” he said, “and in no way directly or indirectly claimed a formal endorsement from them nor was that the intent.”