“My predecessor was arrested on corruption charges because of that property”: Miami commissioner seeks to kill controversial deal with Centners 

Resolution would terminate contract with private school owners to build recreational center at Biscayne Park

Commissioner Miguel Gabela Seeks End To Centners’ City Deal
From left: former Miami Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla, Miami Commissioner Miguel Gabela, David and Leila Centner (Getty, Facebook)

Miami Commissioner Miguel Gabela wants to put the kibosh on the no-bid city park deal with David and Leila Centner that led to criminal charges against his predecessor, Alex Diaz de la Portilla. 

Gabela placed a resolution on the agenda for Thursday’s city commission meeting that would terminate the city’s licensing agreement with Perpetual Love Trust, an entity managed by the Centners, to build a $10 million recreation center at Biscayne Park, a 7.3-acre site at 150 Northeast 19th Street. The Centners, a Miami Beach power couple who operate the private school Centner Academy, own an educational building adjacent to the city-owned park. 

“How can you ignore the way this whole deal was put forward and let it go on?” Gabela told The Real Deal. “Especially in light of everything else that is going on in the city of Miami.” 

David Centner, a Miami native, told TRD that he is trying to meet with Gabela and plans to attend Thursday’s meeting to explain why terminating Perpetual Love Trust’s contract is not justified.

“I think that the less-than-truthful media reporting centering around allegations of unproven wrongdoings have blurred the inherent vision of this philanthropic proposal,” Centner said via email. “I invite everyone to read the license agreement. It accepts a financial pledge from my wife and myself of at least $10 million to create a state-of-the-art climate-controlled park, the likes of which currently does not exist in South Florida.”

Perpetual Love Trust’s contract is at the center of one of the scandals dogging elected officials and bureaucrats representing the Magic City. The latest black eye involves an unrelated WLRN investigation that uncovered that the wife of Miami City Manager Art Noriega and her company have been awarded over $440,000 in city contracts for new office furniture and furniture assembly since he was appointed in 2020. 

In a November runoff, Gabela beat Diaz de la Portilla, who’s facing a slate of felony charges stemming from his spearheading the effort to award use of Biscayne Park to the Centners in late 2022. Gabela and another newcomer, Miami commissioner Damian Pardo, ran on promises to clean up city hall. 

But Gabela will need two of the other three commissioners, Joe Carollo, Christine King and Manolo Reyes, to also vote in favor of killing the Centners’ deal. The city charter requires four out of five commissioners to rescind a city contract. 

“My predecessor was arrested on corruption charges because of that property and the illegal activity as to how [the Centners] acquired the property,” Gabela said. “I want to put a stop to it.” 

All the facts in the Diaz de la Portilla case have not come out, and the ex-commissioner has not been found guilty, David Centner said in his email. “The only thing that has been presented is innuendo and unsubstantiated allegations,” Centner said. “Secondarily, my wife and I have not been [accused] of any wrongdoing whatsoever, and any negative insinuation to the contrary would be terribly unfair. As such, it is unclear why the commissioner would want to reject our donation proposal.”

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Between 2020 and November 2022, Diaz de la Portilla led the charge to award Perpetual Love Trust a no-bid licensing agreement to build the recreational facility at Biscayne Park, which would primarily serve Centner Academy students. During that time period, the Centners allegedly funneled $245,000 in illegal campaign contributions to a pair of political action committees controlled by Diaz de la Portilla, according to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement arrest affidavit.

The Centners’ Perpetual Love Trust deposited the funds into an entity purportedly solely owned by their then-lawyer and lobbyist, William “Bill” Riley Jr., the affidavit states. The entity subsequently provided the donations to the Diaz de la Portilla PACs.

In September, Diaz de la Portilla and Riley were charged with bribery, money laundering, campaign violations and other felony counts. Both have pleaded not guilty. 

David and Leila Centner, who have garnered national headlines for their controversial anti-vaccine stances, cooperated with investigators and provided sworn statements, the affidavit states. Both have denied any wrongdoing. In recent years, the couple has ramped up their real estate game in Miami, selling and buying properties in the city’s Edgewater neighborhood. 

In striking a deal with the Centners, Diaz de la Portilla sabotaged negotiations between the city and Miami-Dade County Public Schools to develop a $500 million mixed-use project with workforce housing for teachers at Biscayne Park, the affidavit alleges. 

Diaz de la Portilla did not disclose receiving the contributions from the Centners when he voted on the no-bid park deal, the affidavit states. He also failed to abstain from voting on it, despite the apparent conflict of interest, prosecutors allege. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended Diaz de la Portilla from office shortly after his arrest, but the longtime Miami politician still ran for re-election. He lost by 279 votes to Gabela.

Biscayne Park was an empty lot that was converted into a temporary park by the city long before Centner and his wife got involved, Centner said. No developers or philanthropists have shown any interest in building on the site, and the couple initiated talks with the city with another former commissioner, Ken Russell, before Diaz de la Portilla got involved, he added. 

“At this moment, Biscayne ‘Park’ is an empty rutted and rocky field with a [boarded] up building, and is locked up every evening and weekends,” Centner said. “My wife and I stepped to the plate to bring forth positive change to the community that would have no liabilities for taxpayers.”     

He noted that Perpetual Love Trust was in the process of substantial engineering work last week when they learned about Gabela’s resolution. “All construction improvements, furniture, fixtures, and equipment are to be wholly donated to the city of Miami for the use and benefit of its residents,” Centner said. “With our donation the city will operate a destination park…Enormous time and effort has been expended for this project.”