By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
As his father rose to power from county commissioner to strong mayor, Carlos Gimenez Jr. has climbed his way to the upper echelon of South Florida’s lobbying corps representing prominent clients like Donald Trump, the PGA Tour and American Traffic Solutions, the nation’s largest red-light camera operator.
Along the way, junior has been investigated three times for violating county ethics rules by concealing his lobbying activities involving Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez as well as other county and municipal elected officials. While the probes ultimately found no wrongdoing by junior, critics insist he exploits his family name on behalf of his clients.
Alfred Santamaria, one of six candidates running against Gimenez in the Aug. 30 primary, told FloridaBulldog.org that the mayor’s son provides a clear-cut reason why Miami-Dade should adopt a rule that bans companies and individuals doing business with county hall from hiring the relatives of elected officials.
“Carlos Gimenez Jr. has worked at firms that represented companies getting contracts worth tens of millions of dollars for airport work, roads and red-light cameras,” Santamaria said. “I think it is unethical, not moral and clearly a conflict of interest.”
Gimenez Jr. did not return two messages on his cell phone seeking comment. Michael Hernandez, the mayor’s spokesman, said his boss is not concerned about allegations made against his son because Gimenez “prides himself on operating in a very transparent manner.”
Hernandez added: “Mayor Gimenez is very proud of his son’s professional success which has come due to his hard work, education, dedication and talent and is in no way related to his father being elected as the county commissioner representing District 7, or as Miami-Dade County mayor.”
According to his LinkedIn page, Gimenez Jr.’s career began in 2000 as an associate for the now-defunct law firm Steel Hector & Davis, where his father also briefly worked. When Gimenez was elected county commissioner in 2004, his son went to work for Bilzin Sumberg, a Miami law firm specializing in government relations, land use and zoning. Four years later, Gimenez Jr. moved to his third law firm, Becker & Poliakoff, where he was a senior attorney until February 2013. Since then, he’s been vice president and general counsel for Balsera Communications, a Hispanic-focused public relations firm founded by Alfredo Balsera, a prominent Democratic fundraiser for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Balsera Communications President David Duckenfield did not address the allegations against Gimenez Jr., but told Florida Bulldog in an email statement that the mayor’ s son was hired based on his qualifications.
‘Well known and respected’
“Carlos brings to our firm top notch experience in real estate development and crisis communications, having worked for the some of the best law firms in Miami,” Duckenfield said. “He is well known and respected among his professional peers.”
Recently, however, Gimenez Jr. stirred up controversy when he and a Balsera colleague tried to convince three candidates running in a Miami-Dade School Board race against his aunt, Maria Theresa Rojas, to drop out.
Documents from the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust show that Mayor Gimenez has sought several legal opinions about how he should conduct county business involving firms employing junior, 39, and his other son Julio, 37, who has worked for two construction firms that are frequent county vendors.
Gimenez Jr. is currently registered as a lobbyist In Doral, where he represents Trump and the PGA Tour, and in Miami, where he represents more than a dozen firms. He is not a registered lobbyist with county government.
For instance, on March 27, 2007, then-Ethics Commission Executive Director Robert Meyers advised Gimenez, at the time a county commissioner, to abstain from voting on a rezoning application because junior was part of the team representing the developer.
Four years later, shortly after Gimenez was elected mayor, he asked for another ethics opinion. This time, Meyers advised him to delegate the power to award contracts involving Munilla Construction Management to one of his deputies or get a county commissioner to sponsor an item awarding those contracts because the firm employed Julio Gimenez. Meyers also advised the mayor to recuse himself from making any recommendations or decisions when Gimenez Jr. lobbied any arm of county government.
During the five years Gimenez has been mayor, the ethics commission has delved into allegations Gimenez Jr. cloaks his lobbying work by not filing required paperwork identifying him as a representative for vendors and developers seeking to influence the decisions of government officials, including his father.
According to a 2012 ethics commission report, investigators received a confidential tip in October of the previous year that Gimenez and his son held discussions about initiating a red-light camera program in Miami-Dade with executives from Horsepower Electric, a subcontractor to Gimenez Jr.’s client American Traffic Solutions. The report states Gimenez and Horsepower Vice President Humberto Ortiz were interviewed, but not Gimenez Jr.
The mayor and Ortiz vehemently denied they discussed red-light cameras during their meeting, which took place at Horsepower’s main office in Hialeah. They said the mayor was there to collect a campaign check for his political action committee.
Gimenez could not recall if his son, who represents American Traffic in the City of Miami, attended the meeting, but the mayor was adamant that he was not involved in implementing a red-light program in unincorporated Miami-Dade, according to the report.
“He said that, dating back to his tenure as a county commissioner, he has recused himself from any deliberations on the matter as a result of his son’s representation of ATS,” the report states.
In 2014, Joe Centorino, the ethics commission’s current executive director, sent an investigator in mid-May to meet with Susan Fried and Armando Gutierrez, two well-known lobbyists who had pulled him aside during a county commission meeting to complain that Gimenez Jr. and four other individuals who worked on his dad’s campaign “were lobbying on the big Water and Sewer bond issue and had not registered as lobbyists,” according to another investigative report.
Fried alleged that Gimenez Jr. and the four others told potential clients, “I’ll charge you $150,000, and avoid the lobbying registration, but they lobby anyway under the name of public relations,” wrote ethics investigator and former Miami Herald columnist Robert Steinback. Fried could not provide specific details, but said Gimenez Jr. and crew “have infiltrated everywhere, including the mayor’s office,” Steinback wrote.
No ‘hard evidence’
Gutierrez was unable to provide names or any firsthand knowledge, Steinback added. Steinback closed the probe shortly after checking the sign-in logs for the 13 county commissioners and finding none of the names of the alleged shadow lobbyists, including Gimenez Jr. “Given the lack of specificity of the original complaint, this investigator could not turn up hard evidence of lobbying on the part of the subjects,” Steinback wrote.
When contacted by Florida Bulldog, Fried and Gutierrez declined comment.
Steinback opened another investigation into Gimenez Jr. on Aug. 27 2014 after an anonymous female called in a tip that the county mayor’s son had bragged to her that he had lobbied six of seven council members in North Miami Beach about a proposal to build luxury floating homes off the city’s coastline by his client, Dutch Docklands. Steinback reviewed the city’s lobbyist log the following day and determined Gimenez Jr. was not registered to represent Dutch Docklands.
In late September, Steinback interviewed three council members, who denied meeting with Gimenez Jr., as well as Frank Behrens, Dutch Dockland’s vice president, who claimed junior’s role was to “address residents of Eastern Shore,” a residential neighborhood in North Miami Beach.
“[Behrens] said that the company has endeavored to be very careful about lobbyist registration,” Steinback wrote in his report, adding that he subsequently spoke to Gimenez Jr.
“It turns out Gimenez Jr. registered with the city as a lobbyist on September 15, 2014,” Steinback wrote. “He stated that he then sent letters to two city commissioners, which he acknowledged would qualify as lobbying contacts, on Sept. 17.”
Nevertheless, Steinback concluded there was no evidence suggesting Gimenez was improperly lobbying city officials.
Gimenez Jr.’s name would pop up again in a fourth ethics investigation that was completed in June of last year. This time, it was junior’s most famous client, Donald Trump, and his dad who were being accused of breaking the county’s lobbying rules when the Republican presidential nominee made an unsolicited offer to take over management of the Crandon Park Golf Course in early 2014. Gimenez told ethics investigators he stopped being involved once Trump submitted a formal proposal because junior represents the billionaire developer in Doral, an independently run city not under the county’s control.
“Gimenez said he immediately recused himself from involvement in the Trump proposal out of an abundance of caution,” the investigative report states. “But not because he is required to since his son does no lobbying work for Trump in the county.”
Three lobbyists, who spoke to FloridaBulldog.org on the condition of anonymity because they fear being blacklisted, said the only way to catch Gimenez Jr. breaking the rules is with good old-fashioned surveillance and wiretaps. “It’s amazing that Carlos Jr. is able to get away with this scam of not being a lobbyist while trading on the name he shares with his dad to do exactly that,” one lobbyist said. “But since we’re in Miami, people just kind of shrug and accept it.”
“Of course, it’s still going on,” another lobbyist said. “Unless you are dishonest with him and his clique, you can’t beat them. It’s not endemic to the county. I believe it happens in most of the municipalities too.”
Santamaria, Gimenez’s opponent, agreed. “The mayor and his inner circle are very sophisticated,” Santamaria said. “”They know how to work the system very well.”