Sleazy politics on Miami Beach

ANOTHER CAMPAIGN: Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who took the oath of office in November of 2013, is running for reelection this year.
ANOTHER CAMPAIGN: Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who took the oath of office in November of 2013, is running for reelection this year. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

“Power corrupts, absolute power is fabulous,” a big-time Hollywood producer once told the New York Times. I was reminded of that witty riff on Lord Acton’s famous line after interviewing Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.

He's trying to amass absolute political power in his city — not that there's anything wrong that that. But to do so he’s using a questionable political action committee that appears to be breaking city ordinances — and there is something wrong that that.

The political action committee is called “Relentless for Progress” and it's strong-arming city vendors, developers, large commercial property owners and other businesses into making sizable “donations.” The money — $1 million collected at last count — will help elect a slate of three commission candidates who have reportedly pledged their support to Mayor Levine once elected.

Some RFP PAC money is also being spent on slick TV ads that show the mayor touting his accomplishments during the nearly two years he's been in office. In fact, there have been some good things accomplished during Levine's tenure — like hiring a take-charge police chief, getting big pumps going to drain tidal flooding on South Beach and stopping drinks being served outside after 2 a.m. on Ocean Drive so it doesn't become another honky-tonk strip like Bourbon Street. All to the good.

But consider the bad: Shaking down companies with Miami Beach city contracts and businesses that need city commission approval. to write big checks to Relentless for Progress. And did it escape anyone’s notice that the initials of the PAC are the same as “Request for Proposal,” the term governments use when they solicit bids for goods, services or big capital improvement projects? The RFP PAC’s big project is electing a slate of three new city commissioners who will do the mayor’s bidding.

Putting together a slate of candidates who favor a mayor is nothing new.. Ditto for setting up a political action committee. Nearly every politician has one these days. But what sets the Relentless for Progress apart from other PACs is its high-pressure tactics, the contributors it’s soliciting and the mayor’s admitted involvement. The chairman of RFP is Miami Beach Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, who is term limited. The mayor says he and Wolfson have together and singly called prospective donors asking for money. Levine makes it sound totally benign.

But some on the receiving end have told me they agreed to give only because they feared payback from the mayor, commission and city administration if they didn’t. Mount Sinai Medical Center, for example, may lose a $15 million city grant because it refused to cough up a big contribution to RFP. At a city commission meeting last week, Wolfson called the $15 million grant to Mount Sinai “corporate welfare” and tried to get it cut from the budget. You have to wonder if he’d feel differently if Mount Sinai had written a check to RFP for, say, $100,000.

Here's what is really troubling. The RFP PAC's arm-twisting is going on despite a city ordinance that deems it illegal. Miami Beach has had an ordinance on the books since 2002 that prohibits people who do business with the city from giving money to commission or mayoral candidates. Its language is exceptionally clear: “No vendor shall give a campaign contribution directly or indirectly to a candidate, or to the campaign committee of a candidate, for the offices of mayor or commissioner.” About a year after the ordinance was enacted, real estate developers were added to the list of those forbidden from giving to commission and mayoral candidates.

Levine says the city attorney was asked to opine about the legality of such giving and concluded it's all perfectly legal. And, boy, how those vendors and others have come through. South Beach Tristar Capital, for example, has given $118,000. Lennar CEO Stuart Miller, who’s building a home on Star Island, chipped in $100,000. Same for Saxony Beach LILC. Maybe they're all just good citizens who love the mayor and are happy to give. But I somehow doubt it. Most probably see it as the cost of doing business on Miami Beach.

What Levine and Wolfson are doing with their PAC may be marginally legal, but it's unethical and wrong. It doesn’t pass the smell test.

An attorney experienced in municipal law says the Miami Beach city attorney interpreted the city ordinance on PAC contributions much too narrowly. Two outgoing city commissioners, Deede Weithorn and Ed Tobin, thought so, too, and tried to get their fellow commissioners to send the question to the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust. Their motion failed on a 4-2 vote. Happily, the Ethics Commission took notice and said it will investigate on its own.

But that will take months and the Miami Beach elections will be long over and done with by the time the Ethics Commission issues its findings. In the meantime, the PAC's fund-raising continues at a furious pace. In a flyer sent out to voters, Wolfson makes it sound like a wholesome civic exercise in transparent government. “To get the most for our city,” Wolfson writes, “we have to make sure that the right people are elected here and outside our borders.”

Whoa, “outside our borders”? Today Miami Beach, tomorrow Miami-Dade!

Mayor Levine emphatically defends the RFP PAC as perfectly legal and says that if the Ethics Commission is going to investigate it then it should look at every other PAC hereabouts. OK, but RFP is the only PAC that takes money from people who are prohibited by ordinance from giving. It just stinks.

When he announced his candidacy two years ago Mayor Levine looked like the kind of person we need in elected office.. He's smart, sophisticated, and an extremely successful businessman who ran for mayor using his own money — more than $1 million. He promised to clean up corruption at City Hall and made a good start. He had a bright political future — until he aligned himself with Comm. Wolfson and the sleazy, strong-arm tactics of Relentless for Progress. It's dimming Levine’s luster.