By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Donald Trump’s efforts to take over management of a public golf course is at the center of a recently concluded Miami-Dade ethics commission probe that has come under fire for not admonishing the billionaire developer and county Mayor Carlos Gimenez for breaking local lobbying laws.
Critics accuse Michael Muraswski, advocate for the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust, of giving a free pass to rich, powerful, and politically connected individuals who break the rules. Murawski’s role is to prosecute persons who break the county’s conflict of interest and ethics laws.
In Trump’s case, Murawski failed to present evidence to the ethics commission board at a June 17 meeting in which the advocate recommended a finding of no probable cause against the billionaire candidate for president and the mayor, said Eston “Dusty” Melton, a prominent county hall lobbyist.
Murawski also recommended the board dismiss a complaint against Trump’s environmental consultant Edward Russo despite concluding he did not register as a lobbyist for his client until Feb. 24, seven days after the ethics investigation was initiated.
Melton said Murawski similarly let celebrity soccer star David Beckham off the hook in an unrelated 2014 ethics case accusing him of illegally lobbying Gimenez and county commissioners to give him public waterfront land for a Major League Soccer stadium.
“I think it is clear that in certain cases, particularly complaints against high profile individuals, the findings and materials given to board members of the ethics commission are deeply and remarkably flawed,” Melton told Florida Bulldog. “As a consequence, some of the decisions made by the ethics commission are seriously embarrassing for those who care a lot about the rule of law.”
Miami-Dade’s lobbyist registration requirements are designed to allow the public to know who is trying to influence government decision makers. Principals and their representatives – consultants and lobbyists included – who seek to do business with local government must register with the county clerk prior to any interactions with public officials. Failure to do so is punishable by a fine of up to $500 or a temporary ban from county hall, a penalty that is rarely enforced.
BLOGGER’S COMPLAINTS OPEN PROBE
The ethics commission opened a probe on Trump, Gimenez, and Russo based on complaints filed in February by Miami watchdog blogger Al Crespo. Crespo accused the Republican presidential contender and his consultant of not registering as lobbyists, and Gimenez of failing to inform them that they had to register.
Crespo, who operates the Crespogram Report, alleged Murawski has purposely misrepresented portions of ethics complaints he and others have filed against public officials in an attempt to minimize their wrongdoing.
“Murawski has set himself up as the chief manipulator of the facts to reach the conclusion that he wants,” Crespo said.
Trump, who leads the Republican presidential field in some polls, owns the Trump National Doral golf club. He first broached the subject of taking over the county-owned Crandon Park Golf Course while playing there with Gimenez and Russo in October 2013.
In a June 2 interview, Russo told ethics investigators Trump was not keen on letting anyone know he was interested in taking over Crandon. He also stated that Trump and he began their full court press on Gimenez during and immediately following their golf game at the public golf course on Key Biscayne.
“Russo said that they were giving the mayor a gift,” says a summary of the interview. “They are lobbying him when they are the guys who should be lobbied. [Russo] and Trump wanted to do this anonymously.”
According to the investigative file, Gimenez, his then-chief-of-staff Lisa Martinez, and Miami-Dade Parks Department Director Jack Kardys met with Russo on Jan. 28, 2014 to continue discussions on what Trump had to do to submit a proposal.
Using Trump National Doral letterhead, Trump sent a signed pitch letter to Gimenez about a month later. The proposal: Trump would spend $10 million of his own money to renovate Crandon in exchange for allowing his company to lease the golf course for $1 a year.
Over the next two months, emails from Kardys to his subordinates indicate that Gimenez was anxious to send Trump a reply. On March 31, the parks director informed his deputy, George Navarrete, that the “mayor wants Trump letter today – see me first thing.”
But no reply was drafted by April 12, 2014 when Kardys emailed Navarrete again to express his concern. “I hope this is moving because the mayor will be furious if Trump calls him for a lack of response – please advise,” Kardys wrote.
GIMENEZ ADVISES TRUMP
Three days later, Gimenez signed an official letter to Trump explaining how he could submit an unsolicited proposal and that Kardys would be his point of contact.
Trump’s formal proposal arrived in August, along with deposit check for $25,000 from Trump Golf Acquisitions LLC.
Ten months had elapsed since the day Trump and Russo met Gimenez on the golf course, but neither Trump nor Russo registered to lobby the mayor, records show. Nor did Gimenez ever instruct Trump or Russo to register, Crepo’s complaint alleged.
Nevertheless, in his June 5, 2015 memo Murawski recommended the ethics commission find no probable cause against the mayor or Trump. He also recommended Russo be given a letter of instruction because Trump’s consultant insisted he was unaware of the county’s lobbyist registration requirements.
The ethics commission considered the matter at a closed-door session on June 18. Audio of that meeting shows Murawski told commissioners Trump’s only dialogue with the mayor was their informal talk at Crandon in October 2013, and that Gimenez quickly stopped being involved. He also argued that no formal bidding process was ever initiated that would have required Trump to register, or required Gimenez to tell him he had to register.
“The conclusion is that [Trump] wasn’t a lobbyist,” Murawski told the board. “We covered this in the David Beckham case when Mr. Beckham met with the mayor and some commissioners initially to discuss his proposal of having a soccer stadium here in Miami-Dade County. We concluded in that case that there is a certain ‘meet and greet’ period where you can generally discuss ideas but there is nothing concrete in the pipeline; nothing to be voted on.”
Lobbyist Melton, a former Miami Herald reporter, said he was so stunned by Murawski’s actions after hearing the audio that he felt compelled to address the advocate’s “botched analysis” at the July 8 ethics commission meeting.
Melton told commissioners that Murawski had failed to inform them how Trump and Gimenez had exchanged official correspondence in March and April about how to draft an unsolicited proposal, action that Melton said constitutes lobbying.
“Mr. Murawski framed his entire recommendation regarding Trump around the golf game only,” Melton told the board. “Mr. Murawski entirely ignored Trump’s personal, ongoing, formal, written lobbying activities that followed, many months after the golf game.”
In a brief phone interview with the Florida Bulldog, Murawski dismissed Melton’s criticisms. “He cherry-picked one or two lines and took what I said out of context,” he said. “I give very little credit to what he said.”
Murawski declined further comment, saying he will address Melton’s accusations at next month’s ethics commission meeting.
Marcia Narine is a law professor at St. Thomas University who has served on the ethics commission board for about a year. She said she does not believe Murawski hid information, and says the ethics commission did not go easy on Gimenez and Trump.
“It can appear that this was glossed over because the person is a presidential candidate,” Narine said. “That is not the case at all. I think the commission acts in good faith to do the job the public expects us to do.”
Miami attorney and ethics commission chairman Nelson Bellido also denied the board is making bad decisions, noting its members will take a “second look” at the Trump-Gimenez case at its Wednesday, Aug. 12 meeting.
“We are absolutely not a rubber stamp,” Bellido said. “We are there to listen to all sides. I don’t come in with any bias or political bent. I take the job very seriously.”