Most feel smoke, no fire, in convention center deal allegations.
Allegations that a disgraced former city employee and associates somehow tainted the ongoing process for redevelopment of the Miami Beach Convention Center site are largely heresay, are old news and have already been investigated and dismissed by both Miami Beach and Miami-Dade State Attorney authorities.
“There is no evidence to support the idea that this process has been tainted,” said Chief Deputy City Attorney Raul Aguila.
The question was called in the wake of a recent Miami Herald article in which a losing team for the convention center bid led by the owners of the Fontainebleau hotel is cited as claiming that jailed former city procurement director Gus Lopez interfered with the bid process by trying to influence a famed architect to jump ships to one of the teams still in contention for the $1 billion redevelopment deal.
The Fontainebleau allegations were included in an affidavit originally requested from each initial contender for the lucrative development deal by the City in the aftermath of alleged financial improprieties in the part of Lopez, a relatively minor figure in the administration.
“The affidavits asked applicants to swear there had been no improper contact with Lopez in regard the convention center RFQ or with [Lopez associates],” Aguila said.
Both City of Miami Beach authorities and investigators and the State Attorney already looked into the matter and found no evidence the process was tainted by Lopez, who is accused of funneling money to a cohort through a score of relatively minor procurement contacts over which he did have authority. Lopez has been charged with 63 criminal counts related to public corruption and has pleaded not guilty.
However, one paragraph in the Fontainebleau affidavit at least intimated that foul play may have been afoot. It links Lopez with the Portman-CMC team, one of two remaining contenders for the bid, by claiming that Lopez steered famed architect Zaha Hadid to speak to a Lopez associate and ex-con named Walter Garcia to discuss joining the Portman team – with the implication being that Garcia, who investigators say received leak documents related to the bid process, was connected to the Portman team. Hadid eventually joined the Fontainebleau team.
The Fontainebleau statement also claims several meetings between Garcia, Hadid associates and Ugo Colombo, a condo developer on the Portman team.
But the city’s top legal authorities easily dismiss the allegations.
“The affidavit is saying ‘someone told me this happened’,” Aguila said. “There is no evidence to support that.”
Secondly, both Aguila and City Attorney Jose Smith said that even if the allegations of contact were entirely true – the described time frame according to the affiant is prior to bid proposals being submitted to the City.
“That is not illegal,” Aguila said.
In fact, longtime political observers assert that jockeying for positions on bidding teams and for consulting deals is entirely normal in such processes.
Finally, Aguila and Smith say that the matter has been investigated by city and county authorities and that there is no evidence of impropriety.
“When we received the affidavit with the allegations, it was information we were already privy to and we had already turned that information, as well as Gus’s other work-related material, to the State Attorney’s office,” Aguila said. “There was nothing new there and nothing that we didn’t know and hadn’t reported and had investigated.
“We found nothing inconsistent in the Portman affidavit,” he added.
The city’s legal team – arguably the most consistent and functional department over the City’s past couple of tumultuous years – appears to have the confidence of city leaders.
“I am confident that these claims will be investigated by the proper authorities, who will advise us if legitimate wrong-doing is identified,” said Mayor Matti Bower. “This process has been as transparent and open to community involvement as any I have ever seen on Miami Beach. It was our own former city manager who spoke up about possible improper behavior by former employees. We have purged ourselves of the bad apple and asked that those involved confirm they played by the rules.”
Commissioner Michael Gongora, a candidate to supplant Bower as mayor, agreed.
“As a city commissioner, I rely on our City Attorney’s office to investigate these claims and they have concluded that they saw no discrepancies between the Fontainebleau and the Portman affidavits,” Gongora said. “Therefore, I do not feel we should go back and re-examine the process at this time. I do not believe this report/claim has tainted the process. I think that it we should move forward and not backwards.”
Even the commissioner who originally suggested the affidavits following Lopez’s exposure said she feels there is no issue in the allegations – and that there might be a deeper motivation on the part of the Fontainebleau team.
“At the time of requesting the affidavits I was concerned that the opponents to the development of the Convention Center would attempt to halt this important project, implying that the applicants for the development of the Convention Center had engaged in unlawful contact with the former procurement director,” said Commissioner Deede Weithorn. “Based on the affidavits received the City Attorney’s office has concluded that no illegal contact was ever established and therefore I believe that the process has remained transparent and untainted. Furthermore, as an auditor by profession, I am confident that the affidavits and the legal opinion of the City Attorney have put to rest any rumors, hear-say, and the hopes of those who were seeking to derail the development of the Convention Center.”
Off the record, sources close to the process speaking on condition of anonymity, have also suggested the Fontainebleau team might be acting more out of fear of what the new hotel component of the development project could do to the famous beach resort’s business.
Long-time civic activist Frank Del Vecchio believes that if there is evidence of impropriety that it will come out.
“The Fontainebleau has been an active competitor in the process and its claims should be assessed accordingly,” Del Vecchio said. “None of what has been reported rises to the level of requiring a reversal of the process. It had earlier been reported that although the State Attorney had found nothing actionable regarding an allegation about a member of one of the teams, its investigation was ongoing. If that investigation turns up disqualifying actions, then I rely on the agencies of government to follow through.”
However, because the issues cited in the affidavit don’t appear to have the venom to slow or reverse the ongoing selection process, doesn’t mean there isn’t an undercurrent of dissatisfaction brewing. Some residents believe there should be a referendum on the proposed mega-project.
According to the City Attorney’s office, a binding resolution would only be required under city charter if a 10 year-plus land lease or sale is proposed for the surface parking lots on-site – not for the redevelopment of the rest of the site.
“The other site development requires a 4/7th vote of the Planning Board and a 6/7th vote of the city commission,” Aguila said.
That was not how the legal situation was previously characterized in public discussions, Del Vecchio decried.
“One of the unfortunate carryovers from the prior city administration was its repeated representations that the public would have a binding referendum vote on the Convention Center District redevelopment plans,” he said. “On closer examination it is evident that the prior administration misstated the law and that there are ways to avoid a public vote. Unless this is corrected by a city charter amendment making voter approval in a city-wide referendum mandatory, I think public confidence will be shattered, and the public will lose faith in the process, the participants, and our mayor and commissioners.”
As the public has become more aware of the scope of the proposed redevelopment, Del Vecchio’s sentiment is one many political insiders feel could gain steam.
“I imagine if there is a push for a public vote on the entire project, [representatives of the Fontainebleau team] will help fund it,” said one city official close to the project.