‘As American as apple pie’: How Miami commissioner’s aunt became a high-priced lobbyist

Commissioner Keon Hardemon, left, shakes hands with David Beckham during a 2018 public hearing on bringing a Major League Soccer stadium to Miami. Hardemon’s aunt was a lobbyist for Beckham’s ownership group.
Commissioner Keon Hardemon, left, shakes hands with David Beckham during a 2018 public hearing on bringing a Major League Soccer stadium to Miami. Hardemon’s aunt was a lobbyist for Beckham’s ownership group. pportal@miamiherald.com

Theme park executives hoping to build a hotel along the causeway to South Beach say they paid around $20,000 last summer to the aunt of a Miami city commissioner to help negotiate a deal with his office in the hours leading up to a crucial vote.

After failing the previous year to convince the city to hold a voter referendum on the project at Jungle Island, real estate investment firm ESJ Capital Partners hired Barbara Hardemon to hurriedly set up meetings during the first week in June with Commissioner Keon Hardemon’s staff. Over a 48-hour stretch, they say she assisted in negotiating a deal that will steer millions into housing and economic development funds during the life of the park’s extended lease on Watson Island and helped nail down her nephew’s support for a voter referendum.

One month later, Barbara Hardemon was hired again, this time by David Beckham’s Major League Soccer franchise as it neared a make-or-break vote on a $1 billion stadium and retail proposal. She registered three days before a scheduled vote and arranged a lunch at a waterfront restaurant between her nephew and the Mas brothers, the Miami businessmen who are part owners of the MLS franchise. Days later, Commissioner Hardemon voted in a close decision to put the proposal on the November ballot.

Some companies and developers have chosen not to hire Barbara Hardemon as a lobbyist due to concerns about the perception of undue influence. But in the years since his November 2013 election, the commissioner’s aunt has emerged as a closer for some of Miami’s biggest businesses.

It’s unclear if Commissioner Hardemon has ever voted against one of her clients. In 2015, he told the Herald that “Barbara has never approached me about voting on anything.”

“My consulting company has been operating for over 20 years, more time than my nephew has been a commissioner,” Barbara Hardemon said in an interview. “I have a legal right to conduct my business in the city of Miami, including lobbying.”

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Billy and Barbara Hardemon of B&B Professional Consultants in 1999. Miami Herald file

As she said, Hardemon’s City Hall lobbying shop is allowed under state and local laws, which prohibit elected officials and their immediate family from profiting personally off the contracts they oversee but say nothing about their extended family. Her husband, local activist and community consultant Billy Hardemon, told the Miami Herald that lobbying “is as American as apple pie.”

But her lucrative rise from occasional City Hall lobbyist to 11th-hour power broker has blurred the lines between negotiations and nepotism. Some businesspeople told the Miami Herald that they hire the commissioner’s aunt for fear that doing otherwise would be political malpractice, but nobody wanted to be identified as saying that.

Since helping her nephew first get elected in November 2013 as his campaign consultant, Barbara Hardemon has helped the Ultra Music Festival stay in Miami after gate-crashers trampled a security guard, and helped a marina operator win a competition to take over a picturesque city boatyard on a barrier island. A developer hoping to build a controversial digital billboard tower hired her as he tried to negotiate a deal with Hardemon’s redevelopment agency in 2015, and communications conglomerate Harris Corp. hired her in 2017 as it tried to land an $11 million emergency radio contract.

And when Jungle Island needed to nail down votes ahead of a special meeting to consider its request to place a hotel project and lease extension on the August ballot, executives turned to Barbara Hardemon. They needed at least four of the city’s five commissioners to support their project and Commissioner Hardemon had already said he planned to be out of town.

“Sometimes your presence is not needed. And sometimes it really is. We shall see,” Hardemon said from the dais as he set a date for a special hearing on Jungle Island’s project.

That was on May 24. On June 7, the day before the vote, Barbara Hardemon registered as a lobbyist for ESJ Capital Partners, which hired her primarily to help them work with her nephew’s office — where some businesses and lobbyists have found it difficult to get face time.

“She helped us set up meetings with Commissioner Hardemon’s staff during the last 48 hours before our Commission vote and helped us communicate our position as it related to the timing and amount of payments to affordable housing in the City,” explained Micha Dubernard, ESJ Capital’s chief of staff.

The firm entered into a non-disclosure agreement with Barbara Hardemon, but Micha said they paid her “in the $20,000 range” — a little less than what Johnson & Johnson was paying David T. Daniel per quarter as the company fought a sunscreen ban on Miami Beach, one of the few South Florida jurisdictions where lobbyist fees are disclosed.

At the time, Jungle Island already had land-use attorney Alex Tachmes and C.J. Gimenez, the son of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, on its lobbying and negotiating team. Dubernard said Jungle Island, which backed off a push to get on the ballot in 2017 amid concerns from a different commissioner about protests from neighbors on the Venetian Causeway, wanted to beef up its lobbying corps in 2018 as it negotiated a public benefits agreement.

A month later, Hardemon voted again in support of one of his aunt’s clients when InterMiami FC needed to get a proposal to build a $1 billion complex at Melreese golf course onto the November ballot.

An InterMiami FC spokeswoman declined to say how much Barbara Hardemon was paid when she registered to lobby three days before a scheduled vote. The spokeswoman said that Hardemon was hired primarily to conduct “community outreach.”

But it was Barbara Hardemon’s role in scheduling a meeting between her nephew and the Mas brothers at a Casablanca restaurant between July 9 and July 12 that caught attention when it was mentioned in a report by the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics this month as part of an investigation into lobbying disclosures around the soccer group’s efforts to get the stadium plan on the ballot. Hardemon told an investigator that she set up the meeting and had lunch with Jorge Mas, Jose Mas and her nephew.

“And I sat there and had lunch,” she said.

Hardemon told investigators that her primary role on Beckham’s team was to help with the campaign for the voter referendum that passed in November. She said Steve Marin, one of Miami’s most prolific campaign strategists and lobbyists, contacted her about joining the Beckham group’s lobbying team. In a separate ethics interview, Jorge Mas said he relied on Marin as his main lobbyist and didn’t know if Barbara Hardemon was on the lobbying team.

Barbara Hardemon described the July lunch as a “meet-and-greet,” although Mas said he’d met with Keon Hardemon and his chief of staff at City Hall on another occasion before the vote. It was not clear when this meeting occurred.

It’s unclear what Commissioner Hardemon knows of his aunt’s contracts, or to what extent he discusses his votes with her, if at all. He was traveling and unable to comment for this story, according to his chief of staff, James McQueen. The Miami Herald submitted questions in writing to McQueen Monday afternoon but did not receive a response by a Tuesday afternoon deadline.

Lobbying isn’t the only service that Barbara Hardemon and her husband, Billy Hardemon, provide.

Some businesses seeking city contracts and special approvals hire the Hardemons, or B&B Professional Consultants, to engage in “community outreach” by helping to broker meetings with local activists and establishing relationships with neighborhood groups. The couple are longtime activists themselves.

When developer Moishe Mana needed special zoning approvals in order to pursue a massive Wynwood development project, the couple helped his team of consultants reach out to organizations and activists in Overtown. Michael Simkins, a developer who wanted to build a flashing LED tower and innovation district within the boundaries of a redevelopment district overseen by Hardemon, told the Miami Herald around the same time that he hired the commissioner’s aunt to help him establish trust in the community as he was negotiating a public benefits agreement with the Overtown Community Redevelopment Agency.

The Beckham group explained in a statement that Barbara Hardemon “provided counsel on reaching voters in the Overtown area —sharing where canvassers should focus their outreach to educate the most voters in the area and providing insight on what materials to share with them, for example.” The soccer group stated she also provided insight on the Overtown community’s reaction to the plans and advised the team on which pastors to contact to reach voters.

In some cases, businesses told the Miami Herald that they pay the couple to go out into Miami’s black communities because they feel more comfortable with the Hardemons working in the sunshine rather than behind closed doors. Some companies and consultants that have either hired or declined to hire the Hardemons said they didn’t fear the couple working behind the scenes to kill their project, and that there was no suggestion that would happen.

Still, the allegation is made from time to time.

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Miami Commissioner Miami Keon Hardemon takes part in a 2014 commission meeting. Hector Gabino El Nuevo Herald file

Alex Karakhanian recently faced that accusation from a neighbor who filed a lawsuit last month pointing out that Karakhanian was spared from new and restrictive billboard laws around the Design District in 2017 after hiring Billy Hardemon. The property owner who filed the suit, Michael Siegel, says he lost the right to erect a billboard on his property after he refused to hire the commissioner’s uncle.

Karakhanian said he didn’t hire Billy Hardemon as a lobbyist on the mural legislation. But he said he did discuss the legislation with the commissioner’s uncle and has hired Hardemon to help him with community issues in the past related to other properties he owns around Miami. He specifically mentioned a property near Liberty City, where Billy Hardemon is chairman of the city-sponsored Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp.

“I own a property in a district where Billy has a community center on [Northwest] Seventh Avenue. We just kind of talked and met to see if there’s anything I could do with the community,” said Karakhanian, who was specifically looking for tenants. “Nothing ended up happening.”

Like others who spoke to the Herald about paying the Hardemons to conduct community outreach or help them in cities outside City Hall, he said lobbying wasn’t part of the deal. And he said paying the Hardemons doesn’t mean you get Keon Hardemon’s vote.

“I’m pretty sure if you pull up 100 cases where Billy lobbied, it’s not a one-for-one. Using that logic it would mean he’s never not gotten what he wanted,” Karakhanian said. “I’m sure that’s not the case.”

Billy Hardemon last registered as a City Hall lobbyist in 2007 and says he isn’t a lobbyist. City registration records published since Keon Hardemon became a commissioner list about a dozen clients that have contracted Barbara Hardemon, five of which hired her before her nephew was elected.

Barbara Hardemon declined to speak to the Herald about specific clients, but said her consulting business can involve work as simple as setting up a breakfast or as detailed as running an entire political campaign. She said she has spoken directly with Keon Hardemon about her client’s issues in the past, and defended her right to do so.

“I have,” she said. “And I have the legal right to lobby anyone that is currently on the city of Miami commission.”