Political real estate scandals mark “latest generation” of alleged South Florida corruption
Breaking down recent elected officials’ alleged shenanigans
Is there something in the drinking water?
Elected officials’ alleged shenanigans are stacking up across South Florida, with most involving real estate developers and a handful of mayors.
For Miami, it’s nothing new, according to Peter Zalewski, a condo market consultant and former journalist. Zalewski said the magic in “Magic City” — Miami’s nickname — is developer dollars filling the coffers of city officials.
“In my 30 years of being in Miami, corruption is part of the process,” Zalewski said. “The reason corruption occurs is government officials make a fraction of what developers and people in the industry make.”
The “latest generation” of alleged corruption, as Zalewski refers to it, spans from Hollywood to Coral Gables.
That includes the bombshell that Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, an attorney, has allegedly earned at least $170,000 over the last two years as a consultant for developer Rishi Kapoor’s Location Ventures, which has a project in the city’s Coconut Grove neighborhood, according to the Miami Herald. That has prompted ethics and state attorney investigations.
Suarez, an attorney, earns a $97,000 annual salary as mayor and receives a $33,000 expense stipend from the city.
It turned out last week that Suarez wasn’t the only South Florida mayor Kapoor allegedly paid.
- Coral Gables Mayor Vince Lago has indirectly benefited from Kapoor’s company, Location Ventures. Lago is an investor in a retail building where Kapoor’s Location Ventures leases space, across the street from Location Ventures’ proposed luxury condo on Ponce de Leon Boulevard. Location Ventures has been paying more than $12,000 a month for the space, which has sat empty since the lease was inked last year, according to the Herald. Location Ventures said it planned to use the space as a sales gallery.
Lago, a real estate agent who hangs his license with Rosa Commercial Real Estate, has abstained from voting on issues related to Kapoor’s project, but his investment in the building was not previously known. Lago was also tangled up in a separate legal drama The Real Deal reported on last month, which he settled earlier this year. His salary as mayor is about $45,000.
The Herald reported that Coral Gables-based Rosa Commercial Real Estate brokered Kapoor’s $35.5 million purchase of the Ponce de Leon property that closed late last year, months after Lago joined the brokerage. The brokerage is led by Oscar de la Rosa, a former Hialeah councilman whose stepfather is current Hialeah Mayor Esteban “Steve” Bovo. Bovo is also a licensed real estate agent with his son’s firm.
In an unrelated saga in the city of Miami, the yearslong legal battle between real estate investors Bill Fuller and Martin Pinilla and Miami commissioner Joe Carollo ended with a Fort Lauderdale jury siding with the Little Havana developers.
- Fuller and Pinilla were awarded more than $63 million in damages against Carollo, who they alleged had waged a vengeful campaign of harassment against them and their businesses. The jury found that Carollo, a former mayor, violated Fuller and Pinilla’s first amendment rights. The city of Miami had previously agreed to pay Carollo’s now nearly $2 million legal tab.
It’s unclear how much Fuller and Pinilla will be able to collect. Over the weekend, Fuller and Pinilla hosted a party at Ball & Chain to celebrate the ruling. Their decorations included paper printouts of cockroaches with Carollo’s face on them that guests stomped on. Outside the courthouse last week, Fuller said it felt great to “finally smush that cucaracha!” A separate lawsuit that Fuller and Pinilla’s Mad Room Hospitality filed against the city of Miami is still pending.
Also, another ex-mayor and one current mayor are facing charges in unrelated cases.
- Former Plantation Mayor Vera-Lynn Stoner turned herself in and was charged with one count each of official misconduct and falsification of records, as well as two counts of influencing a building official. Stoner illegally tried to help Invesca Development Group advance its project, the Broward County State Attorney’s Office alleges. While mayor, Stoner issued a letter from the mayor’s office falsely claiming that an Invesca affiliate had fixed code violations in an alleged attempt to help the company secure a loan. Stoner, who plans to plead not guilty at her arraignment, is also accused of persuading a Plantation building official to allow the developer to build its project without proper permits.
- North Miami Beach Mayor Anthony DeFillipo, who is a real estate agent and property manager, was charged with three counts of voter fraud for allegedly using a North Miami Beach address where he no longer lived to vote in his old precinct. DeFillipo, a key vote for the Dezer family’s planned megadevelopment in the city, is also under investigation by the county’s ethics commission. He allegedly violated the North Miami Beach charter that mandates elected officials live in the city. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office used cell phone data to make their case, showing that DeFillipo spent many, many nights in 2022 in Davie, where he and his wife purchased a new home.
Zalewski rattled off a list of former commissioners and other elected officials who have faced charges or been found guilty of crimes in past decades. Those include former Miami Beach Mayor Alex Daoud, who was convicted on bribery charges in the early 1990s, as well as former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruce Kaplan, who resigned in 1998 as part of a plea bargain related to a mortgage fraud investigation.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Is the planning and zoning department in every city set up to contribute to the need for alleged corruption?” he said. “This stuff has been going on and on. Are any of these politicians ever going to be held responsible?”