The Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust is an embarrassment. How else to describe an agency that repeatedly turns a blind eye when lobbyists try to manipulate local government in violation of the County Code?
Take the case of Donald Trump, a guy with political aspirations as exaggerated as his pompadour. Trump visited Crandon Park Golf Course in October 2013 to play a round with County Mayor Carlos Gimenez. Talk turned to Trump’s vision of rehabilitating the public facility; in fact, Trump wanted to buy the place.
The mayor’s correct response? First, the course is not for sale, but it might be available for management by Trump. Second, there is an established process for handling such propositions, and if Trump were serious he should put his ideas in writing.
Let’s agree: Chatter between a couple of golfing buddies, one of them the mayor, about a mere concept does not constitute lobbying. Lobbying happens when an individual tries to convince a public official or agency to make a decision that the lobbyist specifically desires.
Consider these subsequent facts, from 2014:
▪ On March 5, Trump signed a letter to Gimenez proposing to renovate, “rebrand” and operate the golf course. Trump asked how “to move this process forward.” Attached was a project summary titled “Initial Offer.”
▪ On April 15, Gimenez wrote Trump that his framework was “intriguing.” He directed Trump’s attention to the county’s Unsolicited Proposals Ordinance, which governs the processing of such projects.
▪ On July 2, following many meetings and emails between Trump’s project representative and county administrators, Trump signed a transmittal letter to the county’s parks director. The subject line: “Unsolicited Offer for Crandon Golf Course.”
Trump’s letter described the project as “a great public-private opportunity,” calling it “a natural fit to our growing golf portfolio.” Trump added: “Thank you for this wonderful opportunity.” As in, serious business opportunity.
Attached to the letter was a comprehensive, 10-page document organized to address the specific requirements of the Unsolicited Proposals Ordinance. The proposal also was signed by Trump. Following were 11 more pages of financial projections and résumés of consultants teed up by Trump for the project.
Trump sent a $25,000 check, dated July 30 and drawn on Trump Golf Acquisitions LLC’s bank account, payable to the Miami-Dade Park and Recreation Department. Trump’s signature was on the check. That’s the amount required by the Unsolicited Proposals Ordinance to process Trump’s formal July 2 submittal.
Trump’s two letters, Trump’s proposal and Trump’s check were not casual chatter. Everything had become very formalized, in writing, and with real money invested. The first letter was serious. The second letter and proposal were way more so, driven by the County Code. Everything was a strategic and ongoing initiative by a consequential person who was beseeching the county’s mayor and senior administrators to make a decision that he, Donald Trump, very much desired.
That’s the textbook definition of lobbying, and hereabouts there is a legal requirement to register with the clerk of the County Commission before any lobbying occurs. Trump failed to do that.
A local blogger, Al Crespo, filed a complaint at the Ethics Commission against Trump for his failure to register. The written evidence strongly supports Crespo’s complaint.
Remarkably, the Ethics Commission recently dismissed the complaint. Even though it had copies of both Trump letters, Trump’s formal proposal and Trump’s big check — all four of them bearing his signature — the commission and its staff put them aside, focusing instead only on Trump’s playtime with the mayor.
Despite the documentation of Trump’s repeated, ongoing lobbying efforts, this was stated during the commission’s closed-to-the-public discussion of Crespo’s complaint: “The conclusion was that Mr. Trump was not required to be registered as a lobbyist because he wasn’t lobbying on the golf course.”
Of course Trump wasn’t lobbying there and then. That was meaningless golf in October 2013. Trump’s lobbying activities began later, in March 2014, and lasted until at least July 2014. Trump the golfer became Trump the lobbyist, in the eyes of the law, as proved by Trump’s own documents.
I don’t much care whether Donald Trump broke our county law. I care a lot whether the agency created to monitor that specific law is doing its job. It most certainly is not. It is badly broken.
Eston "Dusty" Melton is chairman of Global Projects Inc., a Miami-based political consulting and lobbying firm. He had no involvement in Donald Trump’s interactions with Miami-Dade County government.