By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
As Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez gears up for a tough 2016 re-election battle against Miami-Dade School Board Member Raquel Regalado, the political organizations supporting the two candidates are taking money from donors with scandalous histories.
Miami-Dade Residents First, the political action committee backing Gimenez, received $20,000 from a New York company owned by two brothers convicted in the 1980s of ripping off and terrorizing low-income renters. The PAC also took in $10,000 from a Miami Beach real estate developer who presided over a local nursing home chain that allegedly submitted $130 million in false claims to Medicaid and Medicare.
Not to be outdone, Serving Miamians — the electioneering communications organization supporting Regalado — collected $20,000 from family members of two fugitives from Ecuador accused of stealing nearly half-a-billion dollars from that country’s government.
Contributions from questionable sources show how the campaign finance system has become corrupted as candidates race to out raise opponents, according to government watchdogs interviewed by the Florida Bulldog.
The pro-Gimenez group Miami Dade Residents First has raised $1.2 million since it was formed in January. Serving Miamians has raised $710,185 since it was established in 2013 to further the political careers of Regaldo and her father, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado.
‘WHAT YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH’
“Andy Warhol once said, ‘art is what you can get away with,’” noted Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center in Washington D.C. “Political contributions are the same.”
Ben Wilcox, executive director of Integrity Florida, said committees end up doing the dirty work on behalf of the candidates.
“What we want is accountability for how candidates raise and spend money,” Wilcox said. “In this case, the candidates can use the committees to distance themselves from questionable contributions.”
According to its most recent monthly report, pro-Gimenez Miami-Dade First received $20,000 on June 29 from Amsterdam Hospitality, a Manhattan-based real estate firm owned by Jay and Stuart Podolsky. In 1986, the siblings, along with their father Zenek, pleaded guilty to 37 felonies, including grand larceny and coercion, in connection to dilapidated flophouses they operated in New York City.
Jay and Stuart Podolsky, who received probation for their alleged crimes, did not return two phone messages from the Florida Bulldog.
According to reports in multiple New York media outlets, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office accused the Podolskys of engaging “in a routine of terror to drive tenants out of a single-room-occupancy hotel” by moving “in thieves, drug addicts and prostitutes, who would then rob tenants, start floods and fires, and do drug and sex deals in the hallway.”
By 2010, the Podolskys began converting many of their flophouses into homeless shelters subsidized by New York City taxpayers, according to a 2013 investigative story by New York Magazine.
Housing Solutions USA, a non-profit company the Podolskys control, leases 40 facilities in New York City that are owned by family members and business associates through various holding companies. Those shelters generated rents in the range of $90 million between 2010 and 2013, according to city records analyzed by New York Magazine.
The Podolskys are not the only land barons with baggage giving to help Gimenez via Miami-Dade Residents First.
Russell Galbut, managing principal of Crescent Heights, a national real estate company that owns several prominent Miami Beach hotels, and six corporations he controls gave a combined $10,000 to Miami-Dade Residents First between January and April. From the mid-Nineties until last November Galbut was chairman of the board of directors for Plaza Health Network, a chain of nursing homes founded by his family in 1950 formerly known as Hebrew Homes for the Aged.
PLAZA HEALTH NETWORK’S BIG SETTLEMENT
A 2012 federal whistleblower lawsuit filed by Plaza’s ex-chief financial officer, Steven Beaujon alleged the non-profit scammed Medicaid and Medicare for $130 million during a 10-year period through the submission of false claims for physical therapy provided to patients referred by dozens of doctors who were paid kickbacks. Beaujon’s complaint, which alleges Galbut encouraged staff to implement the kickback scheme and ignored attempts to stop the illegal practice, spawned an investigation into Plaza by the FBI, the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office and attorneys with the civil division the Department of Justice.
Last month, seven months after Galbut resigned from the board, Plaza agreed to pay the U.S. government $17 million and Beaujon $4.5 million to settle the lawsuit and the civil investigation. According to the settlement agreement, the feds could still bring criminal charges against current and former Plaza Health officials allegedly involved in the scam.
In an emailed response to questions, Galbut denied any wrongdoing during his time on Plaza’s board. He said the nonprofit’s executive staff kept the board of directors in the dark about the Medicaid and Medicare issues.
“I absolutely would not approve or participate in any improper behavior,” Galbut said. “As voluntary chairman of the unpaid board of directors, I did the best I could do.”
Galbut said he gave money to Miami-Dade Residents First to promote good government. “I expect Mayor Gimenez to give his 100 percent effort and commitment to promoting a better quality of life for all of Miami-Dade County’s residents,” he added.
A Gimenez spokesman forwarded requests for comment to Jesse Manzano-Plaza, a spokesman for Miami-Dade Residents First, which returned $15,000 from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump following his recent controversial remarks about Mexican immigrants.
Manzano-Plaza said there is nothing illegal or improper about the donations given by the Podolskys and Galbut. “We have received over 300 contributions from groups that believe in and support the good government policies and experienced leadership of Mayor Carlos Gimenez,” Manzano-Plaza said.
Likewise, Regalado told Florida Bulldog that there was nothing wrong with Serving Miamians accepting a combined $20,000 from relatives of Roberto and William Isaias, who have showered hundreds of thousands of dollars on Barack Obama and other national Democratic candidates as part of their efforts to fight the brothers’ extradition to Ecuador.
In 2012, the two were sentenced in Ecuador in absentia to eight years in prison. The Ecuadorian government accuses the Isaias brothers of running a bank into the ground by making loans to businesses they controlled and then presenting false balance sheets to get bailout funds. Ecuador claims it lost more than $400 million, and Interpol issued a “red notice,” or international alert, for the Isaias brothers.
Amid their legal troubles, Roberto’s wife, children, daughter-in-law, nephews and employees have donated at least $320,000 to American political campaigns since 2010, according to a New York Times analysis of campaign finance records.
“There are a lot of people who have had issues with the law,” Regalado said. “It is what it is. But what is going on with them is not something that would be an issue for the county mayor.”
Regalado also claimed that only $5,000 of the $20,000 from the Isaias family is helping her mayoral campaign. The remaining $15,000 was given to Serving Miamians when her father, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, was running for reelection in 2013.
The National Legal Center’s Boehm said political committees should decline or return contributions from donors whose funds may come from tainted sources like the Isaias case.
“In our view, the ethical thing to do is not to keep the money if it was stolen or swindled,” Boehm said. “We can sit here all day and exchange notes on people involved in outright fraud who give to political campaigns.”