Judge tosses marina shakedown lawsuit against Alex Diaz de la Portilla

Former city commissioner was accused of seeking quid pro quo from a Virginia Key boat dock operator 

<p>A photo illustration of Alex Diaz de la Portilla along with the Rickenbacker Marina (Getty, Rickenbacker Marina)</p>

A photo illustration of Alex Diaz de la Portilla along with the Rickenbacker Marina (Getty, Rickenbacker Marina)

Alex Diaz de la Portilla can’t be held liable for allegedly shaking down a lobbyist and his client for a piece of a city of Miami marina deal.

Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Mavel Ruiz on Thursday tossed a lawsuit filed last year by Manuel Prieguez, a lobbyist and ex-state legislator, against the former Miami city commissioner and two Diaz de la Portilla associates, Humberto Hernandez and Anibal Duarte-Viera. 

Ruiz ruled that Diaz de la Portilla had “legislative immunity” for his actions when he was still a Miami elected official in 2020. 

Prieguez alleged Diaz de la Portilla, who is facing criminal charges in a separate matter involving city-owned real estate, sought to pressure him and Aabad Melwani, president of Rickenbacker Marina, into making Duarte-Viera a partner in a bid to build a new boat dock facility in Virginia Key. The lawsuit alleged civil counts of racketeering, conspiracy and attempted bribery against Diaz de la Portilla, Hernandez and Duarte-Viera. 

In September, Diaz de la Portilla was removed from office after he was charged on felony counts of bribery, money laundering and official misconduct. State prosecutors allege Diaz de la Portilla steered a no-bid deal allowing Miami Beach power couple David and Leila Centner to take over a city park in exchange for illegal campaign contributions to political action committees he controlled. In November, Diaz de la Portilla lost a run-off to reclaim his city commission seat. 

Ruiz’s ruling upheld Florida law that provides public officials with immunity “for “who act in furtherance of their official duties,” said Diaz de la Portilla’s attorney Ben Kuehne in a statement.

“This case, from the outset of the baseless and defamatory lawsuit, was politically inspired by a lobbyist who was intent on claiming to have insider access to Miami City Hall, something that was impossible so long as Alex Diaz de la Portilla served as city commissioner,” Kuehne said.

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Through his attorney, Duarte-Viera declined comment. Hernandez, a former Miami city commissioner who was convicted and served time in separate voter fraud and bank fraud cases in the late 1990s, told The Real Deal that Prieguez filed a “meritless, frivolous” lawsuit.

“The intent was malicious in nature,” Hernandez said Friday. “[Prieguez] admitted himself, [the lawsuit] was to harm the sitting commissioner at the time. It had no basis and no facts.” 

In April, Hernandez countersued Prieguez for defamation and tortious interference. “He wants to freeze people from hiring me because I am involved in his lawsuit,” Hernandez said. “He has affected my livelihood and my family’s livelihood.” 

Prieguez, who declined to comment, has 20 days to file an amended complaint, Ruiz’s order states. 

Diaz de la Portilla’s misdeeds allegedly occurred in 2020 when Prieguez represented Melwani’s team vying for a new city contract to redevelop Rickenbacker Marina, which Melwani’s family has operated for decades on land owned by the city of Miami. 

On more than one occasion, Diaz de la Portilla, Hernandez and Duarte-Viera allegedly attempted to get Melwani and Prieguez to give Duarte-Viera a stake in Melwani’s new planned marina project prior to the Miami City Commission voting on the proposals, the lawsuit states. During one of the encounters, Duarte-Viera allegedly implied that adding him as a partner would secure Diaz de la Portilla’s support. 

Duarte-Viera was not made a partner, and the city commission threw out all the bids in two separate requests for proposal processes in 2020 and 2021. Also in 2021, city commissioners voted to bypass another competitive bidding process and selected Melwani’s proposal for a November referendum. Voters rejected Melwani’s proposal. 

Last year, Melwani’s competitor — a joint venture between RCI Group and Suntex — won a court ruling ordering the city of Miami to hold a new referendum for its proposal. The city has not set an election date. 

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