Government watchdog memo reveals reasons for clearing Dan Gelber of unlawful campaign fundraising

In a seven-page explanation, Miami-Dade ethics commission’s general counsel said Miami Beach mayor did not violate city law

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

In a detailed seven-page memo, the top lawyer for a Miami-Dade government watchdog concluded Miami Beach’s mayor did not solicit unlawful campaign contributions from developers, and revealed her reasoning.

The document, obtained by The Real Deal via a public records request, explains why the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust dismissed two identical complaints against Dan Gelber last week.

Gelber, who was re-elected on Nov. 2, declined comment.

Former mayoral candidate Ronnie Eith and a Miami Beach resident, Dr. Judith Berson, alleged Gelber violated a Miami Beach law that bars elected officials from directly or indirectly soliciting campaign contributions from local developers that have business pending before the city, whether through a development agreement or pending zoning applications.

Gelber participated in a Sept. 13 private Zoom call with Miami Beach City Manager Alina Hudak, former Mayor Philip Levine and a group that included at least 15 prominent developers and real estate investors to discuss the mayor’s push to reimagine and redevelop Ocean Drive. The iconic Miami Beach street is at the heart of a years-long contentious debate about how to abate crime and mayhem in the city’s Art Deco Entertainment District.

In a nearly 10-minute clip of the Zoom call leaked to the media, Levine is heard telling participants that they should form a political action committee and raise money for city commissioners who support Gelber’s vision. Eith and Berson alleged Gelber’s presence during Levine’s comments show he was indirectly involved in hitting up developers for political donations.

Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust General Counsel Martha D. Perez, who authored the memo, concluded otherwise. “Mere presence at a meeting is insufficient for a violation of the ordinance,” Perez said. “This is the opinion of the authors of these complaints, not supported by facts.”

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Perez explained that Levine, as a private citizen, is within his rights to talk about forming a PAC that will raise funds for city commission candidates. At the time Levine made his comments, there was no existing PAC that would receive funds, and Gelber did not make any comments about working with Levine and his potential PAC, Perez said.

“There are no facts contained in the narrative or audio transcript attached indicating that the Mayor coordinated or directed anyone to solicit ‘prohibited’ [developers] for a campaign contribution to himself or an existing PAC during the Zoom/Hybrid meeting,” Perez said.

In fact, as soon as Levine brings up the possibility of creating a PAC, Mayor Gelber immediately stopped him, Perez said. According to the audio, Gelber said, “And we cannot talk about a PAC or things like that. That’s not what Alina is allowed to talk about, and I shouldn’t really be here talking about that with city personnel.”

Perez also determined that the complaints were not legally sufficient because the ethics commission requires people making complaints to have first-hand knowledge of the allegations they are making. In this case, Eith and Berson were not on the Zoom call and based their complaints on the leaked audio recording, Perez said.

“Complainants admitted they did not have personal knowledge of the facts alleged in their
identical complaints,” Perez said.

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In a phone interview, Eith said Perez’s conclusions don’t make sense. “When we have an audio recording and the names of multiple witnesses who were there, it doesn’t make a difference if I was there,” Eith said. “Gelber’s comments just show you how guilty he is. He didn’t stop Levine. He only told him they can’t talk about it. If you are in on the conversation, you are just as guilty, unless you unequivocally denounce what the person is saying.”