By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Two years ago, when she was Miami Shores mayor, Crystal Wagar led the charge in hiring The Southern Group to lobby Tallahassee legislators and the governor’s office on the village’s behalf. Now a council member, Wagar recently landed a gig with the same firm, violating a state law that bars public officials from accepting jobs with companies doing business with their governments.
Wagar did not respond to Florida Bulldog email and voicemail requests for comment. On Dec. 9, she registered as a lobbyist employed by The Southern Group to represent clients before the Florida Legislature, according to the state’s online lobbyist database.
In addition to violating the job ban, Wagar must either resign her elected post or quit her Southern job by the end of this week. A new state law enacted through a 2018 Constitutional Amendment takes effect on Dec. 31 barring all elected officials currently in office from working as lobbyists.
“If she doesn’t have a problem now, she is certainly going to have a problem after Dec. 31 if she doesn’t resign,” Robert Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University ethics law professor, told Florida Bulldog. “She has a lot of explaining to do.”
The existing law banning public officials from working for entities that do business with their government agencies is to prevent obvious conflicts of interest, Jarvis added. “That part of the statute addresses companies attempting to hire people to take advantage of their position,” he said. “It seems unlikely that Southern would have hired her had she not been on the [village council].”
Violating the ban on accepting a job with a village vendor means Wagar faces public censure, a reprimand, a $10,000 civil penalty and forfeiture of her salary during the time she broke the law, Jarvis said.
Nelson Diaz, a Southern managing partner based in the firm’s Miami office and former chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, confirmed that Wagar joined the company this month. “She is an incredible individual,” Diaz said. “Very talented.”
Diaz said he had not spoken to Wagar about whether she will resign her elected position by Dec. 31. Diaz also said he was unaware of the ban on public officials taking jobs with entities that have contracts with their governments. “I’ll have to take a look at that and see,” he said.
WAGAR: “IT IS THE RELATIONSHIPS THAT MATTER”
Wagar, a Democrat, became the village’s first black woman mayor after garnering the most votes in the April 2019 election. Under the village charter, the mayor, vice-mayor and council members are selected based on descending majority votes. The mayor and vice-mayor serve four years, while council members serve two years.
However, after two years, the mayor and the vice-mayor become regular council members. In January of last year, four months before her time as Miami Shores’ top elected official came to an end, Wagar and then-Village Manager Tom Benton met with Diaz, according to a village memo.
The meeting came about after Wagar suggested the administration “investigate the possibility of changing” the village’s then-lobbying firm, Converge Public Strategies, Benton wrote in the Jan. 27 memo. Diaz indicated he would be willing to represent Miami Shores for $2,500 per month, $500 more than what Converge was charging, the memo states. Benton recommended the village council waive bidding requirements should his bosses agree that a change was needed.
At the village council’s Feb. 2, 2021, meeting, Benton explained that Converge had not had any success bringing back state funds to Miami Shores. “It is my understanding that [Diaz] has a lot of ties with the governor’s office,” Benton said at the time. “It seems that is where we have run into problems the last couple of years. Our items have been vetoed through the governor’s pen.”
By hiring Diaz and Southern, “we can hopefully change our luck,” Benton added.
Wagar echoed Benton’s recommendation. “It is worth noting that we should be setting ourselves in a position in 2022 and 2023 going forward that we have the representation that has the relationships,” Wagar said. “And it is the relationships that matter. They do have significant relationships with the cabinet, the governor and beyond with our state legislators. In order to give ourselves a fighting chance, I think this is an option we should consider.”
The council voted 5-0 to replace Converge with Southern.
Wagar’s background is in government affairs. An attorney, she spent the 1990s and early 2000s working as an aide and chief of staff to then-Miami-Dade Commissioner Jimmy Morales, and served a stint as interim manager for the Village of El Portal. Her husband, Kirk Wagar, is a former U.S. ambassador to Singapore during the Obama administration. In 2020, she went to work for Miami Beach-based governmental affairs law firm LSN Partners as a senior advisor.
Wagar’s and Benton’s gambit switching to Southern and Diaz appears to have paid off for the village. During the most recent legislative session, a $155,000 allocation for street improvements survived Gov. Ron DeSantis’s hatchet.
In April, Miami Shores voters elected the village’s second black woman mayor, Sandra Harris, and the council’s first Haitian-American member, Katia Saint Fleur. Wagar remains as a council member until her term ends in April of next year.
Had Wagar been hired by or was in negotiations with Southern when the firm landed the Miami Shores lobbying contract, she would have been required to recuse herself from voting to make the switch, NSU’s Jarvis said.
However, it makes no sense for Southern to hire Wagar now unless she plans on quitting her council seat, Jarvis said. “It seems very odd that she gets this new job with three weeks to go before the new ban takes effect, during the holidays and when the legislature is not in session,” he said. “Once she registered as a lobbyist, that makes it very public and puts her in the crosshairs.”
WAGAR IN CONTRAST
The onus is also on Diaz and Southern for hiring an elected official who represents the government that hired his lobbying firm, Jarvis said. “Southern dropped the ball,” he said. “Whether it was through ignorance or the firm didn’t do its due diligence about the state law, it is such a bad look for Southern.”
Wagar’s silence about her new job with Southern stands in stark contrast with her former colleague Saint Fleur. In May, Saint Fleur took a job as a government affairs advisor with Converge, the village’s former lobbying firm, according to Florida Politics.
During the village’s regular Dec. 14 meeting, Saint Fleur submitted her resignation for the following day as a result of the new law banning elected officials from being lobbyists taking effect. She told the other council members that she did not want to sacrifice her ability to earn a living.
While the council members discussed holding a special meeting to select a replacement for Saint Fleur, Wagar did not say anything about the new law also applying to her, and she stayed mum about now being employed by the lobbying firm getting paid by Miami Shores.
“If you want to be highly cynical, the law requires the governor to implement the sanctions,” Jarvis said. “Maybe she thinks he won’t do it. But it is blatantly obvious that she is trading on her position to make money.”