Miami Beach mayor facing ethics complaint for Ocean Drive meeting

Gelber accused of role in illegal solicitation of campaign money from real estate players

Dan Gelber, mayor of Miami Beach (Getty Images)
Dan Gelber, mayor of Miami Beach (Getty Images)

UPDATED, Oct. 27, 10:10 p.m.: A recently filed ethics complaint accuses Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber of breaking a city law that prohibits elected officials from soliciting campaign contributions from real estate developers.

On Wednesday afternoon, Ronnie Eith, one of four candidates running against Gelber in the Nov. 2 city election, filed a complaint against Gelber with the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.

The complaint centers on a Sept. 13 Zoom conference call attended by Gelber, City Manager Alina Hudak, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and a group that included at least 12 developers with projects in the city. The topic of discussion was Ocean Drive, a signature street that’s been plagued by crime and mayhem in recent years.

According to the Gelber ethics complaint, attendees included Turnberry Associates CEO Jackie Soffer, Fryd Properties President Jonathan Fryd, Comras Company President and CEO Michael Comras, Fontainebleau Development President and COO Philip Goldfarb, Nakash Holdings Vice President Ariel Nakash, and developers Michael Shvo and Robert Finvarb.

Earlier this month, TRD obtained a nearly 10-minute snippet of the one-hour Zoom call, leaked by former city commission candidate Fabian Basabe, who attended and recorded the meeting. Some participants attended virtually and others in person at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel.

Basabe’s clip is the portion of the meeting in which Gelber and Levine are courting developers to come up with proposals to redevelop Ocean Drive.

Eith, media director for RoundPoint Mortgage Service Corporation, said it’s illegal for Miami Beach elected officials to solicit and receive funds from developers.

“The amount of corruption, graft and quid pro quos has gone on forever,” Eith told The Real Deal. “People think what’s going on is normal. They don’t understand it is breaking the law. I am raising awareness to stop it from happening again.”

In an email response, Gelber said the complaint had no merit.

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“It was filed by somebody running against me,” Gelber said. “It is a desperate campaign stunt and It will be summarily dismissed as worth less than the paper it’s printed on.”

Gelber is the main proponent of a Nov. 2 ballot measure that would roll back last call for alcohol by three hours — to 2 a.m. from 5 a.m. — in nightclubs and bars in the Art Deco Entertainment District. Longtime Ocean Drive businesses such as Mango’s Cafe and the Clevelander South Beach oppose the referendum.

Basabe, who was disqualified from a city commission race after a judge ruled he was registered to vote in nearby Bay Harbor Islands, told TRD that the Zoom call has shaken Miami Beach residents’ trust in the city’s elected leaders. “Now, you have heard [Gelber’s] plan and you know the only driven action he will take is for self-serving results.”

According to Eith’s complaint, Levine appeared to lead the meeting and “exhorted the attendees on the call to create and donate to a [political action committee].”

In the leaked audio, Levine said, “We realize that in politics money plays a big part, and there are folks that agree with us and there are folks that don’t agree with us, and the idea would be that we would put together a PAC, this organization, this group that would raise money, and we would utilize that money to help elect folks that want to move the city in a positive, safe direction.”

The former mayor also said, “We need to utilize whatever influence we have to push those six commissioners to follow the vision and the agenda of the mayor and the manager to
make the city safer. In other words, nothing can happen unless we exercise our power with those elected officials to have them move forward.”

Although he didn’t talk about campaign contributions, Gelber’s presence at the meeting violated a city law prohibiting Miami Beach elected officials from directly or indirectly seeking campaign contributions from a real estate developer, the ethics complaint alleges.

Eith also attached a city list that specifically identifies the developers who are not allowed to make campaign contributions in the Nov. 2 election. The only attendees on the list are Soffer and Fryd.

“At no time did Mayor Gelber indicate that he was barred by local ordinance from soliciting donations from developers, nor did he leave the call when political contributions or activity was mentioned,” Eith alleged. “By attending this call, where discussions of political activity were held, Mayor Gelber is in violation of the Miami Beach City Code-Prohibited campaign contributions by real estate developers.”