From the April 2010 edition of Poder magazine
Where is a billboard a wallscape, an ugly street a glamorous boulevard, and a bribe a nonprofit contribution? Sí. Miami!
By Kirk Nielsen
Why does it seem as though nobody in Miami’s political establishment knows where the gifting ends and the bribery begins? If only Miami commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones had laughed off Armando Codina’s crazy street renaming idea a few years ago as cheekily as she did her recent bribery indictment. Then she might only be facing grand theft charges for turning $50,000 in county grant money into a donation to herself in 2004.
Now she has a bribery count because instead of cracking up at Codina, the former District 5 commissioner took the upstanding real estate mogul’s street name conceit quite seriously. After all, it was March 2006, the peak of high-rise hysteria. Codina was working with MDM Development Group on Met 2, a 47-story high-rise project in dreary old downtown, just across the river from glamorous Brickell Avenue. Why not just pretend Brickell Avenue extends north over the bridge into the drabness?
To change street names and signs, however, one needs city commission approval. So Codina, a seasoned writer of four and five-figure checks, made some rounds. Spence-Jones asked him to donate $25,000 to a Liberty City nonprofit, Friends of MLK. Then, she’d vote to pretend that Brickell Avenue runs north past Met 2. Codina sent a $12,500 check to the organization; Ricardo Glas, an MDM executive, was to pay the other half. This is Miami democracy at work.
But Miami democracy is weird and unpredictable. They didn’t get their Brickell extension. In a compromise, the commission opted for “Avenue of the Americas.”
Last month, after police booked Spence-Jones on bribery charges for soliciting the $25,000, she called it a donation. “As an elected official, you ask everyone to donate. I ask everybody,” she apprised The Miami Herald. The main question was whether she received a “direct benefit” from the money, and the answer was “no,” she added.
Is the suspended commissioner really that clueless? To ask Codina for a check in the context of any vote is to corrupt the democratic process. And to comply with the request is just as corrupt. Codina told the Herald he thought his donation was to help pay for a gala honoring ex-county commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler. Now that’s laughable.
How is buying influence via a party for a shady ex-commissioner any better than buying it with a check to a sleazy nonprofit? Besides, the damage was already done by Codina and Spence-Jones’ quid pro quo. In the archaic language of Florida’s bribery statute, their “evil example” had offended the public’s “peace and dignity” as they sealed the deal.
State prosecutors also made evil example of the previous occupant of the District 5 seat, Arthur Teele. Among other things, they learned that lobbyist Sandy Walker donated $20,000 to Teele’s American Express card account in 2002. At the time of Teele’s suicide in July 2005, investigators were studying whether that gift was the quid for Teele’s pro vote on a bus bench billboard contract for the Sarmiento company. Walker was the firm’s Miami-registered lobbyist.
One can’t know how much bribery and grand theft saturates Miami democracy. But certainly legal donations to politicians are more widespread and, I dare say, cast a greater evil upon the municipality. Indeed, they are the fuel of Miami’s complex political engine. Examples abound. For instance, I’ll never forget when Pennsylvania-based billboard entrepreneur Barry Rush told me of a $10,000 donation he made after meeting with Mayor Manny Diaz in 2004. Rush was seeking a new ordinance to legalize some illegal wallscape billboards he’d already deployed on downtown high-rises. At the mayor’s request, the gift went to the Neighbors Helping Neighbors PAC to promote a bond issue for $7 billion of public works projects. Rush eventually got his law. Coincidentally, he was among Spence-Jones’s most generous campaign donors, along with dozens of other high-minded billboard purveyors, real estate executives, lawyer-lobbyists, and corporate spendthrifts seeking nothing in return, I’m sure.
Grand theft charges aside, Spence-Jones was emulating her political peers when she solicited her “donation” from Codina. The gifting occurs regularly at fundraisers, and lobbyists and executives routinely find ways around the $500 per person limit. (See for yourself in campaign reports on the city clerk’s website.) But unless a donor confesses, the quids pro quos remain secret.
How to re-enfranchise the non-donating masses? A simple ban on bribery won’t do. Miami Beach forbids campaign contributions by vendors and lobbyists with city business. Such a law could help restore real democracy on the other side of the causeway. But Miamians are a hard case, and need a bolder remedy. How about banning all political donations and instituting public campaign financing? For the peace and dignity of non-donors everywhere.
- Trump's Cuban Conundrum | The Progressive | September 2016
- Trump Woos Evangelicals | The Progressive | August 2016
- Florida's Big Oil National Preserve | Sierra | June 2016
- Libertarians Goin' Wild in Orlando | The Progressive | May 2016
- Marco Rubio's Florida Problem | The Progressive | February 2016
- Four Truths the Zimmerman Jury Ignored | The Progressive | July 2013
- Chiquita in the Dock | The Progressive | October 2011
- Rand Paul's Picnic | The Progressive | October 2010
- An Evening with Alan Grayson | The Progressive | April 2010
- Autumn of the Republic? | Pacific Standard | January 2010
- The Peacemaker and the Pragmatist | Pacific Standard | October 2009
- Canard d'Etat: Honduras and the U.S. Press | Pacific Standard | September 2009
- Why Spy for Cuba? | Pacific Standard | June 2009
- Trading with the Enemy Update | Pacific Standard | April 2009
- Organizing the Fields | The Progressive | December 2008
- The Winter Reading of Our Discontents | Pacific Standard | December 2008
- Socialist, Hell - Make Him A Full-Bore Commie | Pacific Standard | November 2008
- Immigration Pathway Still Looks Uphill | Pacific Standard | November 2008
- Path to a Pathway | Pacific Standard | October 2008
- Cuba Libre? | Pacific Standard | June-July 2008
- Can a Cuban Democrat win in South Florida? | Salon | February 2008
- Hillary's Infidelity, The Village Voice, Oct. 9, 2007
- The Army Goes on Spring Break, The Progressive, June 2007
- Worse than Hanging Chads | The Progressive | November 2006
- The Silence of Warren Anderson | The Progressive | May 2006
Old Swamp Tales
Cuba Archive (Partial)
- The coddled "terrorists" of South Florida
- Cuban Missive Crisis
- Inside the Wasp's Nest
- What Spies Beneath
- Bird of Paradox
- Spies in Miami, Commandos in Cuba
- Fidel Made Them Do It
- Waiting for Otto
- Mother Knows Best
- Terrorists, But Our Terrorists
- Live From Havana, It's Mesa Redonda!
- Politics, Parties, & Power
- Righteous Bombers
- The Will Adams Embargo
- Dialogue: The Final Frontier
- Politics and Policy (Bush Cuba regulations)
- Our Man Back in Havana
- Cows to Cuba
- Exile on Main Street
Miami Archive 1999-2007
- The Calvo Case
- Denise Calvo: Murder Suspect
- The Denise Calvo Mystery
- The Thomas Kramer Affair
- Super Booze Me
- Fables of the Reconstruction
- It's a Mad Mad Mad Loft World
- If Signs Are Outlawed...Then Only Outlaws Will Have Signs
- Where Did All the People Go?
- Floored Genius (interview with writer M.M. Pascal-Paul)
- Wet Foot/Wet Foot
- Fake Art, Real Money
- Run-On Sentence (lawyer imprisoned for money-laundering)
- Headbanger's Ball (FTAA protests)
- Just Because You're Paranoid Doesn't Mean They're Not Out to Get You
- The Teele Conspiracy
- Grand Theft, Church
- Teele's (Or)Deal
- Britto's Republic
- High and Mighty: What do you do when some morons criticize you in a news report? Blackball the reporter
- Anatomy of a Quarantine
- Less for Moore
- The Wall