A formal lawsuit accusing Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber of violating the city’s campaign funding laws is now pending before the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.
The complaint, obtained by New Times, was filed Wednesday by Ronnie Eith, a former bank director who is running to oust Gelber in the Nov. 2 local election. Now, Ethics Commission officials will review the 13-page complaint and determine if there is a likely reason to investigate the allegations further. All cases are confidential.
Eith’s complaint stems from the release of audio from a private Zoom meeting on Sept. 13, in which Gelber and former mayor Philip Levine urge attendees to donate to a political action committee (PAC) that will support future developer-friendly city commission candidates. Miami Beach City Manager Alina T. Hudak was also present during the call.
“I am ready to do anything we have to do and support any idea, even if it is not very popular,” Gelber can be heard telling the participants on the recording. “I will push to put it on the ballot, or you can put it on the ballot … you know, strongly without the Commission’s approval.”
The complaint now before the Ethics Commission reads in part:
“Mayor Gelber’s participation in this Zoom meeting filled with Miami Beach property developers should be investigated to determine if the Miami Beach City Code was violated and if further ethical violations occurred.”
Technically speaking the city’s election law excludes donations from property developers.
“Candidates for the offices of Miami Beach’s mayor or city commissioner, as well as their campaign committee, may not directly or indirectly request, accept or deposit in such candidate’s campaign account any campaign contribution from a seller, property developer and / or their lobbyists,” the rule states.
But there is a canyon-sized gap in the language that makes the rule relatively easy to exploit because it is not a wholesale ban on developers donating to campaigns and political causes.
Miami Beach city ordinance defines “developer” as those who have a “present or pending” application for a development agreement with the city. As long as a developer is not in the middle of a development agreement (pending or otherwise), they can legally donate $ 1,000 – the same amount as any other person or entity.
New Times provided the city of Miami Beach with a list of 12 known developers who were on the Zoom call to determine if the city has any active or pending developer agreements with any of them.
There were apparently no conflicts.
“Purchasing had no responsive records,” Miami Beach Communications Director Melissa Berthier replied, “and our planning department only had one application pending by the Historic Preservation Board for Starwood, but that’s just signage for an office building.”
Juan-Carlos Planas, a Miami-based election attorney and former Florida lawmaker, says he sees no way forward for the complaint and expects it to be rejected.
The allegations in the complaint, Planas says, do not appear to violate the Election Act or the City Ordinance.
“[In the audio], Gelber is not like, ‘Oh, give me a campaign contribution!’ “Notes Planas.” That said, no one is doing anything that violates Miami Beach law. ”
Planas explains that to justify an ethical violation, “Dan Gelber [would need to be] says: ‘Give me campaign contributions if you want your contracts to continue’. ”
Gelber’s campaign spokesman Christian Ulvert delivered New Times with a statement from Gelber.
“It was filed by someone who ran against me,” Gelber says of the complaint. “It’s a desperate campaign stunt, and it will be summarily dismissed as less valuable than the paper it is printed on.”
Eith, meanwhile, requires further investigation.
“An honorable man would have apologized and withdrawn,” he says New Times in an email. “He violated the law in Miami Beach and must be held accountable.”
Ulvert says the complaint was politically motivated and stems from an attempt to prevent a non-binding referendum on the November 2 vote, asking voters if they support a proposal favored by Gelber and Levine to stop alcohol sales at 6 p.m.
Levine, who says he convened the Zoom meeting on Sept. 13, insisted most of the attendees were “concerned residents” who want to turn the noisy party atmosphere at Ocean Drive in the city’s entertainment district into a cultural hub in art deco.
But New Times obtained a list of those who signed the call and found that the majority were prominent developers and wealthy executives, many of whom live in other areas of South Florida and as far away as New York City and Los Angeles.