Mayor Suarez praised Ken Griffin’s controversial plan. Billionaire’s aide wrote the quote

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When a reporter asked Miami Mayor Francis Suarez to comment on billionaire Ken Griffin’s controversial plan to relocate a historic home from his $106 million bayfront estate and turn it into a tourist attraction, the mayor gushed in full-throated support.

“The idea that the public could visit this historic house for the first time and for generations to come is incredible,” Suarez said through a spokeswoman. “The citizens of Miami, South Florida and visitors from all over the world would be able to appreciate firsthand its significance and beauty so we hope this project moves forward.”

Only the mayor didn’t actually say that. The sentiments were scripted, word for word, by Griffin’s spokesman, who gave them to the city, emails indicate.

The mayor’s office then presented the statement as Suarez’s own words to the Miami Herald. Suarez was at the World Cup in Qatar at the time.

The striking level of access and political influence enjoyed by Florida’s wealthiest man was revealed in a cache of emails obtained by the Herald through a public records request, seeking interactions referencing Griffin or his investment firm Citadel. The emails reveal months of chummy communications and coordinated media messaging between the mayor’s office and the firm that was moving its headquarters to Miami.

Griffin’s staffers pitched scholarship and grant programs. They grabbed coffees with city staffers and told Suarez’s aides to “reach out 24/7 if you ever need anything.”

Griffin’s courting of the mayor — including a $1 million contribution to a Suarez-affiliated political committee in March — has occurred as Suarez faces criticism for blurring the lines between his public office and his private business relationships. Federal authorities are investigating the mayor’s $10,000-a-month side job working for a developer who, as reported by the Herald, was seeking permitting help from the mayor’s office.

Separately, the Florida Ethics Commission launched an investigation last month into whether Suarez broke state laws when he accepted a VIP invitation from Griffin to the Miami Formula One Grand Prix. Both Suarez and Griffin have told the Herald the mayor later paid $14,000 to cover the cost of the passes but neither provided receipts.

State law prohibits elected officials from accepting gifts valued over $100 from anyone lobbying the city, but allows a 90-day grace period for repayment..

Griffin has maintained he has never expected special treatment as he seeks approvals for various projects around the city, including the plan to relocate the historic villa.

Anthony Alfieri, founding director of the Center for Ethics and Public Service at the University of Miami School of Law, said taking cues from a businessman actively lobbying the city suggests Suarez “lacks the independence and reasoned judgment” to serve in public office.

“The damaging disclosure that Mayor Suarez and his office acted as a direct, unmediated mouthpiece for an architectural proposal that our leading preservationists derided as ‘ludicrous’ and ‘appalling’ once again creates an appearance of impropriety by suggesting that the mayor is subservient to the interests of the rich and powerful,” Alfieri said.

The mayor’s office did not respond to the Herald’s request for comment on the newly released emails.

In a statement, Citadel spokesman Zia Ahmed, who authored the mayor’s quote, said Griffin “is proud to work with local leaders to support our great city, and the draft quote we sent the Mayor’s office exemplifies his commitment to safely relocating Villa Serena to a location where the public can visit this beautiful house.”

“He has a long history of providing access to some of our nation’s most important cultural treasures, including displaying his copy of the U.S. Constitution and many significant works of art in museums across the country,” Ahmed said of Griffin.

Villa Serena, on Biscayne Bay, was the winter home of William Jennings Bryan, a lawyer, orator and prohibitionist politician who was three times the Democratic nominee for president, losing each time.

Griffin bought the property in September 2022 from banker and philanthropist Adrienne Arsht, who had built a much larger mansion on the estate while restoring Jennings Bryan’s original structure for use as a guest house. In the months that followed the sale, an architect working for Griffin reached out to the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency, a quasi-autonomous fund headed by members of the City Commission, which Griffin hoped would help move the mansion off his estate and put it to public use.

The plan would need approval both from Miami’s Historic Preservation Board and the City Commission. As mayor, Suarez has no vote on the commission but often lobbies voting members and can veto measures.

The Herald reached out to the mayor’s office for comment about Griffin’s relocation plan on Dec. 15, following a loud outcry from preservationists concerned that the proposed move could damage the meticulously restored but fragile Villa Serena — which is a legally protected historic structure.

Just 40 minutes later, Ahmed, Griffin’s spokesperson, had the response prepared.

“Here’s a draft quote in case it’s helpful,” Ahmed wrote in an email to Soledad Cedro, the mayor’s then-communications director. Cedro passed along his 51-word statement to the Herald without changes, attributing it to Suarez.

Cedro, who resigned from her city position in September, this week acknowledged receiving a reporter’s text about her coordination with Ahmed but otherwise did not comment.

Ahmed did not answer the Herald’s questions about why he had written the mayor’s response.

Cedro and Ahmed first met the month before, emails show, during an event at Miami Dade College during which Suarez interviewed Griffin in front of an audience. The aides seemed to hit it off.

“Let me know if I can ever be of any help or if we can partner on anything,” Ahmed wrote to Cedro the next day.

“Would love to partner with you! I’m sure we can do great things joining forces!” Cedro responded, suggesting they should get coffee the next time Ahmed was in Miami.

Ahmed was thankful when Cedro authored a series of articles for the Spanish-language publication InfoBae that celebrated Griffin’s move to Miami. Cedro told the Daily Beast, which first reported on the articles, that the mayor had not been involved in her decision to write them. The articles did not identify her as the mayor’s spokeswoman.

Billionaire financier Ken Griffin bought Adrienne Arsht’s former estate, which consists of the historic Villa Serena, at left, and Arsht’s mansion, at far right.
Billionaire financier Ken Griffin bought Adrienne Arsht’s former estate, which consists of the historic Villa Serena, at left, and Arsht’s mansion, at far right.

Griffin’s proposal to relocate the historic villa from his property first became public when it was an item listed for “discussion” at a Dec. 6 meeting of the Historic Preservation Board. The discussion never took place because the Omni CRA, the item’s sponsor, asked to postpone to a later meeting. The future discussion was never scheduled.

Kenia Fallat, spokeswoman for Miami City Manager Art Noriega’s administration, said there have been no permit applications filed at the city for the Villa Serena property.

Fallat said “nothing has happened since” the discussion item was removed from the preservation board agenda.

Miami Herald staff writers Joey Flechas and Andres Viglucci contributed to this report.