Bal Harbour Shops seeks access to official’s private email accounts

Rendering of expanded Bal Harbour Shops
Rendering of expanded Bal Harbour Shops

The Whitman family, owners of Bal Harbour Shops, want a judge to order the confiscation of all electronic devices used by an elected official who is allegedly trying to block expansion plans for the luxury shopping center.

In an emergency motion filed Thursday in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court, Bal Harbour Shops LLLP is asking for a court order directing the Bal Harbour village clerk to take possession of any computers, tablets and cell phones, including personal ones, used by Bal Harbour Assistant Mayor Patricia Cohen. The motion also seeks to prohibit Cohen from deleting or destroying any records on her electronic devices.

A week ago, Bal Harbour Shops sued Cohen and the village, alleging she is violating Florida’s public records law by refusing to let the shopping center’s attorney John Shubin and his legal team examine three personal email accounts she maintains for any messages concerning official business, specifically ones in which she discusses the mall’s desire for a land swap with the village for its expansion project.

“[Cohen] has stubbornly opposed considering our applications for the expansion of Bal Harbour Shops,” Shubin told The Real Deal. “She has been consistently opposed to the project before she has even heard the first fact or piece of evidence. We are extremely curious as to what is motivating her behavior and we hope to find answers to our questions through her emails and texts.”

Cohen, whom Bal Harbour Shops accuses of trying to stop the land swap, did not return a phone messages and two electronic messages sent to her village email account, as well as two of her private email accounts listed in the lawsuit. The suit also accuses village staff of not properly “safeguarding” official business conducted on the assistant mayor’s private accounts.

Village Manager Jorge Gonzalez said Bal Harbour has complied with state law in turning over documents requested by the shopping center. “We believe the village has behaved in a diligent manner in providing the records responsive to their extensive request,” Gonzalez said.

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In order to follow through on a planned $400 million-plus renovation and expansion of Bal Harbour Shops, the Whitman family is seeking to cut a deal with Bal Harbour to secure the property where the village hall is currently located. In exchange, the Whitmans would design and build at their own cost a new village hall on the site of a current Fairfield Manor north of the Shops. The family is also offering the city another property they own: the SunTrust building at 9600 Collins Avenue. “When you add it all up, it comes out to an excess of $130 million to $150 million in direct and indirect benefits to the village,” Shubin said.

The Whitmans need the village council to authorize a voter referendum for the land swap.

According to the lawsuit, the Shops’ lawyers submitted a public records request to the village clerk on February 22 asking for all of Cohen’s e-mails, text messages, voice mail messages, Blackberry messages, and iMessages related to the mall, Whitman Family Development, Lazenby, Stanley Whitman and Randall Whitman since January 1, 2010.

The lawsuit claims Cohen conducts official business and maintains public records on private email accounts and electronic devices that are not maintained by Bal Harbour. Cohen ignored the February 22 request for her emails and text messages, as well as three subsequent demands that she produce the public documents, the lawsuit alleges.

During a March 4 emergency meeting, Cohen and Mayor Martin Packer led the council in voting to delay any decision on the land swap by moving the first reading of the Bal Harbour items March 17 to April 13. The council also voted not to schedule a second hearing date.

“She has made it absolutely clear that no matter what the facts are, she is not going to allow the issue to move forward,” Shubin told TRD. “She won’t allow it to go before the voters.”

The Shops’ upgrades will include an expansion of the Neiman Marcus store from 90,000 square feet to 140,000 square feet, as well as relocating Saks Fifth Avenue from its current 130,000-square-foot location to a new 180,000-square foot space on the west side of the mall. A 50,000-square-foot Barney’s would replace the existing Saks site. The project also calls for a new entrance, wider sidewalks, a new canopy, landscaping and some new exterior walls. Bernard Zyscovich of Zyscovich Architects is the lead designer on the project.