David and Leila Centner allegedly at crux of Alex Diaz de la Portilla scandal

FDLE affidavit details how Centner Academy founders funneled $245K to Miami commissioner’s PACs through their lawyer William Riley Jr.

Centners Play Leading Role In Miami Commissioner Scandal

From left: Leila and David Centner; Alex Diaz de la Portilla; William Riley Jr. (Photo Illustration by Steven Dilakian for The Real Deal with Getty, Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department)

Miami city commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla torpedoed a $500 million mixed-use project on city-owned land so that power couple David and Leila Centner could instead build a $10 million recreational facility. The site is the 7.3-acre Biscayne Park at 150 Northeast 19th Street in Miami’s Arts & Entertainment District.

Between 2020 and last year, Diaz de la Portilla orchestrated a no-bid deal for the Centners, as they funneled $245,000 to two of his political action committees disguised as contributions from an entity purportedly solely owned by the Centners’ lawyer and lobbyist, William “Bill” Riley Jr., according to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement arrest affidavit. 

The license agreement between the city of Miami and the Centners is the crux of FDLE’s public corruption probe into Diaz de la Portilla and Riley. On Thursday, both men turned themselves into law enforcement authorities, and were charged with a laundry list of felonies, including bribery, money laundering and campaign violations. 

The FDLE arrest affidavit confirmed The Real Deal’s previous reporting that the charges were possibly linked to the Centner’s project at Biscayne Park. The husband-and-wife team founded Centner Academy, which operates two private schools in the Miami Design District and adjacent to Biscayne Park.

In 2021, the Centners cemented their status as a beacon for anti-vaxxers, threatening to fire teachers who received the Covid-19 vaccine, and asking students to quarantine if they received the vaccine. The private school moguls relied on debunked information, but eventually reversed their controversial policies.

Through a spokesperson, David Centner provided an emailed statement asserting that prosecutors asked him and his wife not to discuss the case. 

“We wish to assure everybody that we are not being accused of any wrongful acts, nor have we done anything wrong,” the statement said. “We wish we could share more freely, [and] we imagine matters will clarify in the coming weeks.”

Diaz de la Portilla: “Work of fiction” 

Following his release from jail on bond Thursday night, Diaz de la Portilla denounced the case against Riley and him as a political witch hunt. Broward State Attorney Harold Pryor, who is a Democrat, is handling the prosecution after Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, also a Democrat, recused herself due to a personal relationship with Riley. 

“This is a work of fiction by a Democrat state attorney targeting a Republican city commissioner,” Diaz de la Portilla told reporters. “There’s no truth to any of this.” 

Late Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended Diaz de la Portilla from office.

Miami’s latest corruption saga began In mid-2020, when Diaz de la Portilla took over as chairman of the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency, or CRA, which hammers out developer agreements, and sometimes doles out millions of dollars in grants to builders in Miami’s Arts & Entertainment District. 

Biscayne Park is within the Omni CRA’s boundaries. At the time, the park was going to be included with land owned by Miami-Dade Public Schools to secure a developer through a request for proposals to build a project with affordable housing, office space and a new home for the public school district’s iPrep Academy, the FDLE affidavit states. The potential development would have “represented $500 million to the city’s tax rolls,” according to the charging document. 

Jason Walker, who at the time was the Omni CRA’s executive director, allegedly told FDLE agents that Diaz de la Portilla wasn’t interested in the mixed-use project, and that the commissioner “largely ignored professional staff.” 

The affidavit alleges Diaz de la Portilla was instead heavily invested in helping the Centners, who have expanded aggressively in Miami since they opened their first private school in the Miami Design District in 2019. Their real estate portfolio includes an assemblage acquired for $6.1 million in April near their middle and high school that the Centners plan to develop into teacher housing. 

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In October 2020, Diaz de la Portilla presented the first of two CRA resolutions supporting their recreation center proposal, Walker recalled. That move essentially “set back the pre-existing plans involving Miami-Dade Public Schools,” the affidavit states. 

Riley allegedly serves as Centners’ conduit

Riley, a land use attorney who earned $500,000 a year as the Centner’s in-house counsel and lobbyist, was instrumental in securing Diaz de la Portilla’s interference at Biscayne Park, the affidavit states. Investigators pored over invoices he submitted to the Centner’s company, DLC Capital, seeking reimbursements totaling thousands of dollars for wining and dining Diaz de la Portilla and city staff, including $1,528 for a celebratory dinner in October 2020. The affidavit does not state where Riley treated the commissioner and staff. 

Riley referred questions to his defense lawyer, Kendall Coffey, who said his client has committed no criminal wrongdoing.

“These charges reflect an unfortunate attempt to criminalize entirely legal lobbying and fundraising activities,” Coffey said via email. “The arrest affidavit is fraught with error and we are looking forward to the opportunity to correct the record through the judicial process.”

DLC Capital also reimbursed Riley for $7,938 he spent on catering, a penthouse suite and five guest rooms at East Miami, the luxury hotel at Brickell City Centre, on Aug. 18. 2020, the affidavit states. The rooms were used by friends and family members of Diaz de la Portilla for an election night watch party. That evening, younger brother Renier Diaz de la Portilla forced a runoff in a race for Miami-Dade County commissioner. 

Riley allegedly lied to investigators, denying that the Centners covered the hotel expenses, and asserted that he believed the $7,938 would be reported as “soft money” contributions, the affidavit states. 

The largest chunk of money flowing from the Centners ended up in two political action committees formed by Alex Diaz de la Portilla to support his family’s political activities. Both PACs are still active, fundraising from developers and companies doing business with the city. Alex Diaz de la Portilla is running for reelection this November. 

Perpetual Love Trust, the Centner entity that negotiated the Biscayne Park deal with the city, wired $245,000 to Pristine DE, an LLC formed by Riley, between 2020 and 2022. Riley presented himself as the sole owner of Pristine DE, the affidavit states. Riley then cut various checks in amounts ranging from $20,000 to $50,000 to the political action committees, which backed Renier Diaz de La Portilla’s 2020 county commission race and his failed bid for a county judgeship last year. 

The alleged quid pro quo

In April of last year, Diaz de la Portilla championed the final resolution approving the no-bid license agreement with the Centners, but never disclosed his conflict of interest. He also allegedly violated state law by not abstaining from the vote.  

The city commission unanimously passed the measure, a video recording of the meeting shows. “I don’t want any deferrals,” Diaz de la Portilla said at the time. “I want it done today.” 

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Eights months later, on Nov. 8, Diaz de la Portilla allegedly summoned and sequestered “high level officials for the city” in his district office, the affidavit states. The commissioner allegedly “expressed his displeasure with delays in finalizing the Centner agreement,” and the affidavit states that “city staff did not leave until the agreement was completed at around 11 p.m.”

City Manager Arthur “Art” Noriega allegedly told investigators that he felt Diaz de la Portilla’s treatment of his staff was inappropriate, and that he apologized to them for the commissioner’s conduct, the affidavit states. 

Katherine Kallergis contributed to this report