Thursday, April 15, 2010

From the April 2010 edition of Poder magazine
Donation Conflagration
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.

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