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They’re in it for themselves.
That is the only conclusion we can reach when half of Miami’s elected politicians are either under investigation or facing legal challenges for allegedly using their office for personal benefit.
Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla was arrested on Sept. 14 — and suspended by the governor — on charges that include money laundering and bribery.
A federal jury in June found Commissioner Joe Carollo liable for violating the free-speech rights of two businessmen — a ruling he vowed to reverse on appeal. They accused him in a lawsuit of using the city’s code enforcement rules to retaliate against them for supporting his opponent.
Mayor Francis Suarez received $170,000 in consulting payments from a developer who received help from his office to overcome a permitting hurdle. It’s unclear if what Suarez did was illegal, but the FBI began investigating the issue in June, the Herald reported. He also faces a state ethics investigation over expensive tickets he accepted to sporting events, including the 2022 World Cup.
All three deny any wrongdoing.
Political scandals, corruption and arrests of elected officials are part of Miami history. In the 1990s, a massive FBI investigation resulted in the conviction of a commissioner and city manager.
That was almost 30 years ago.
Why hasn’t Miami shed its reputation for dysfunction? Because there are no consequences at the polls for bad behavior.
Suarez was reelected two years ago, before Herald reporters revealed his lucrative outside employment. But Carollo and Diaz de la Portilla have decades-long records that range from Carollo’s “Crazy Joe” days to Diaz de la Portilla’s “bad boy” reputation during his years in the Florida Legislature.
Yet, in the past five years, Miami voters have put them back in office — twice, in Carollo’s case.
A self-serving alliance
The two commissioners have dominated City Hall — often through intimidation and political payback — since their elections two years apart. Diaz de la Portilla and Carollo benefit from a small City Commission of only five members. The Herald Editorial Board’s series Miami Dysfunction has proposed adding more commission seats so that no two politicians can come so close to controlling it.
Carollo denies doing anything wrong and accused the Editorial Board of painting him as a “bad person” because he refused to attend a candidate interview with the Board during his 2021 reelection.
“This is the image that you and the Editorial Board have been trying to put out for a long time,” he told Board member Isadora Rangel.
For the record, our criticism of Carollo has nothing to do with his interview two years ago, and everything to do with wanting Miami to have elected officials of integrity.
It’s an open secret that those who cross the duo often pay the price, whether they are the wealthy entrepreneurs who sued Carollo, or regular citizens who speak at public hearings and are berated from the dais. In 2021, Carollo infamously orchestrated a two-day political circus that led to the firing of former Police Chief Art Acevedo that included bizarre footage of Acevedo’s crotch area in a tight Elvis Presley costume.
“The day Alex got elected, everything changed,” former Miami Commissioner Ken Russell told the Editorial Board. ”Joe knew he had a partner in revenge.”
Shortly after Diaz de la Portilla’s 2019 election, the two commissioners led a political power shift in city agencies in charge of millions of dollars.
A 3-2 vote gave Diaz de la Portilla chairmanship of the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency, ousting Russell from the post. Diaz de la Portilla’s arrest affidavit accuses him of using that position to champion an athletic facility in exchange for $245,000 in political contributions. He calls the charges politically motivated.
Last year, Miami-Dade’s ethics commission found probable cause that Díaz de la Portilla abused his power in using the Omni CRA to hire a friend for a no-show job and who then used a city-issued car to pick up alcohol for him and drop off his dry cleaning. The other commissioners, including Carollo, stripped him of his chairmanship, but later reinstated him.
Diaz de la Portilla asked for a meeting with the Editorial Board, to which we agreed, but then didn’t show up, saying afterward that his attorney had advised him not to discuss his case.
Chairmanship of another agency, the Downtown Development Authority, went to Commissioner Manolo Reyes, who provides the third deciding vote on the commission.
Meanwhile, Carollo maintained control of the Bayfront Park Trust Management, which he used to push a no-bid giveaway of nearly $1 million for a pet project of his: the installation of metal dog and cat statues at Maurice A. Ferré Park in downtown.
Carollo also pushed the commission in 2020 to pass restrictions on outdoor music that were widely believed to target the Little Havana night club Ball & Chain, co-owned by one of the businessmen who were suing him. Carollo has always contended that his efforts to crack down on Bill Fuller’s establishments were meant to protect Little Havana residents, but Russell said, “We all knew what it was all about.”
And then there was the redistricting process this year, subject of a federal racial gerrymandering lawsuit. Carollo’s longtime house was added to his district, allowing him to officially reside in it, and Diaz de la Portilla’s main opponent in the November election was drawn out of his, though a judge ruled on Wednesday he could still be on the ballot.
Carollo said the city’s paid consultant, not him, drew district lines to account for population growth. Yet it’s hard to believe it was a coincidence how the two commissioners personally benefited in the process, as seems to be the motto of many Miami politicians.
Where’s the mayor?
On paper, the mayor should have been the relief that Miami needed from its bad reputation. Instead, Suarez seems to have cashed in on his high-profile position.
Aside from the payments he received from a developer with business before City Hall, in the past 20 months Suarez had 15 consulting arrangements or jobs that contributed to an income between $2.1 million to $12.9 million, the Herald reported. Some of those arrangements were in industries he promoted, such as cryptocurrency, as he branded himself Miami’s next-generation leader and presidential candidate. He dropped out of the race within a few months of his speech announcing his run.
As a part-time mayor, Suarez is allowed to hold outside employment. But Miamians should ask how his net worth grew 400% in his first term as mayor, as the Herald reported. Unfortunately, accountability is not his forte. Suarez even tried to grab a Herald reporter’s cell phone when she asked him questions.
Ironically, perhaps a sensible solution to Suarez’s potential conflict of interest comes from no one other than Carollo: making the mayor position full-time.
Miami residents should demand that their elected officials work for them, not to protect their self interest.