Secret recording, fundraising allegations: Miami Beach mayor race is already heated

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

By Aaron Leibowitz

Published May 5, 2023


When Michael Góngora and Michael Grieco sat down for drinks at La Cervecería de Barrio on Lincoln Road in late December, Góngora spoke candidly about his relationship with Russell Galbut, perhaps the most powerful developer in Miami Beach.

Grieco, who was weighing a run against Góngora for Miami Beach mayor at the time, asked Góngora if he believed he had Galbut’s unwavering support.

“He’s already with me and giving me money no matter who files [to run],” Góngora replied, adding that he and City Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez — his “political wife,” he joked — had met with Galbut the day before. “I went through this whole scenario with him,” he said.

What Góngora didn’t know was that Grieco was recording the entire conversation on his phone.

Grieco, who filed to run for mayor last week, says he made the recording for “self-preservation” purposes, to ensure Góngora couldn’t misrepresent anything Grieco said. Góngora had been pushing for the meeting, Grieco said, and was trying to convince him to stay out of the mayor’s race.

Michael Gongora, left, and Michael Grieco are running for Miami Beach mayor.


But Grieco later shared some of the recording’s contents with the Miami Herald, saying Góngora’s comments about financial support from Galbut raised the possibility of campaign finance violations. Grieco is familiar with the subject: His fundraising for a secretive PAC torpedoed his first run for Miami Beach mayor in 2017.

“I never expected him to admit that he was actively fundraising from those prohibited from donating to campaigns per our city laws, and weaponize that information to dissuade me from running,” Grieco said, referring to Miami Beach’s campaign finance laws that prohibit some developers, including Galbut, from donating to candidates.

Góngora denied committing any violations.

Entities tied to Galbut gave $10,000 in November to a political fundraising group that is backing Góngora’s campaign, but Góngora said he knew nothing about those contributions and noted that the group, an electioneering communications organization (ECO) called A Better Future for Miami Beach, is exempt from the city’s campaign finance rules.

Góngora filed a required disclosure form this week saying he was soliciting contributions to the ECO, which began raising money in late 2021.

Góngora wrote on the form that his soliciting activities began this month, although the Herald found he spoke to at least one donor about the group last summer.


The episode marks the opening salvo in what is likely to be nine months of political sparring and gamesmanship ahead of a November election to replace Mayor Dan Gelber, who is term-limited and was Grieco’s opponent for the seat six years ago.

The mayoral hopefuls now disagree on at least two things: whether Góngora broke campaign finance laws when he courted Galbut’s support and initially failed to disclose his ties to the ECO, and whether Grieco’s secret recording of their December meeting was legal.

Góngora says it’s Grieco up to his old tricks. In 2017, Grieco pleaded no contest to a criminal charge of taking an illegal donation from a foreign national to a secretive PAC.

He infamously told the Herald to “look right into my soul” as he denied any connection to the group. It’s “ironic,” Góngora said, for Grieco to now be accusing him of similar dishonesty and campaign shenanigans. Told by a Herald reporter that Grieco secretly recorded their conversation, Góngora said he believes that was a crime. “He engaged in criminal behavior, illegally recording a private conversation without my consent,” Góngora said.

Michael Grieco was elected to the Florida House of Representatives after resigning from the Miami Beach City Commission in 2017 amid a campaign finance scandal.


Grieco, a criminal defense attorney, says the recording was perfectly legal because it took place in a public setting.

He told the Herald he has “learned from [his] past” — and that Góngora is the one who can’t be trusted. “This race is very much about shaping our future as a city and having the full trust and support of our community,” Grieco said.

The secret recording

Florida’s two-party consent law generally bars recording someone without their knowledge, with key exceptions. Góngora said he plans to report Grieco’s actions to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office and the Florida Bar. The December meeting, he said, took place at a “private table for two with nobody else around.” Grieco remembers it differently, saying he and Góngora were sitting at an outdoor sidewalk cafe in the middle of Lincoln Road with no reasonable expectation of privacy — the standard courts have previously applied to Florida’s secret recording laws.

“We met in a very public, crowded setting with individuals sitting within arms reach,” Grieco said.

Other voices can be heard in the background of the audio reviewed by the Herald, though it’s not clear how close they were to Grieco and Góngora.

Legal experts say Góngora would likely face an uphill battle pursuing a case against Grieco for illegal recording, a third-degree felony in Florida, given that the meeting took place at a restaurant.

“When you’re in a public place, it is very difficult to demonstrate that you have a reasonable expectation of privacy,” said Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University. Ed Birk, who is general counsel for the Tallahassee nonprofit First Amendment Foundation, agreed with that assessment but said it would ultimately depend on the specific facts.

“Were the tables close together? Were they speaking in outdoor voices? Was the person being recorded trying to whisper? It’s the environment that would be a key factor for the court,” Birk said. Legal questions aside, Góngora said Grieco’s secretly recording a political foe should make voters queasy. “Just as when he ran for mayor in 2017 ... my opponent is acting irrationally and without a moral compass,” he said.

Grieco’s decision to run for mayor again has infused fresh competition and drama into a contest in which Góngora was previously seen as the only formidable candidate. Grieco has bounced back politically since his 2017 resignation from the city commission, winning two terms as a Democratic state representative.

Góngora, a condo board lawyer, served two terms on the commission and sued the city in pursuit of a third in July 2021, but was blocked by a judge due to term limits. He filed to run for mayor that September.

Jarvis said Grieco’s recording raises questions about both candidates. “The question as a voter is, why do you want to vote for either of these guys?” he said. “Miami Beach has been a cesspool when it comes to politics for a very long time. This is just par for the course.”

Another challenger could enter the race soon. Vice Mayor Steven Meiner told the Herald on Wednesday that he is “strongly considering” a mayoral run.

Campaign finance questions

Góngora’s statement to Grieco that he has financial backing from a major Miami Beach developer cuts to the heart of the city’s campaign finance ordinance, which says developers, lobbyists and vendors with active city projects can’t donate to candidates — and that candidates can’t solicit them for cash.

But it’s not clear if Góngora’s relationship with Galbut has run afoul of those laws — or, perhaps, if it fits into one of the many loopholes that allow developers to skirt the city rules and play a major role in elections.

On Nov. 17, a group of 20 entities connected to Galbut gave a total of $10,000 to A Better Future for Miami Beach, the ECO with ties to Góngora. Miami Beach candidates can’t “directly or indirectly” ask prohibited donors to give money to PACs. But they can ask them to give to ECOs, according to a document outlining the city rules.

ECOs, like PACs, can run political ads highlighting candidates’ bona fides or flaws, but they can’t explicitly tell people to vote for or against a candidate. They can only run ads within 60 days of an election, and they can’t give money directly to candidates or PACs.

Several contributors to A Better Future for Miami Beach told the Herald they donated with the understanding that it would help Góngora’s campaign. Among them was former Miami Beach fire department whistleblower David Weston, who said he spoke directly with Góngora about the group before contributing $10,000 last July.

“This is how I can help get him elected,” Weston said, recounting the conversation.

“I hope it’s true.” Asked about the ECO this week, Góngora acknowledged that he expects it to support him. On Tuesday, he filed a disclosure form that is required under Miami-Dade County law for any candidate soliciting donations to a PAC or an ECO. The forms are supposed to be filed within five days of the start of fundraising.

Violations of the county rule come with a written warning for a first offense, followed by fines up to $5,000. Still, Góngora said he doesn’t believe the $10,000 from Galbut’s entities was meant for him. “I think somebody would have told me if the money was intended for me,” he said.

And Galbut, whose firm Crescent Heights is one of the developers of an upcoming 45-story residential tower on Alton Road, said he doesn’t recall what it was for. “I don’t even remember the contributions or the entity,” he said.

Galbut can’t donate directly to Góngora’s campaign account, but Góngora noted that Galbut has numerous family members in Miami Beach who are allowed to support him. And by utilizing an ECO, Góngora may be in the clear when it comes to the Miami Beach ordinance.

Nonetheless, Grieco accused Góngora of running a “secret fundraising operation” to court special interests and ultimately fund attack ads against him. Despite the ECO loophole, he said, candidates can’t use the groups solely to skirt the rules. He pointed to a 2011 email from former City Attorney Jose Smith that said doing so may violate Miami-Dade ethics rules.

“I expect the ethics commission to look into my opponent’s actions,” Grieco said. A Better Future for Miami Beach, which is registered to Tallahassee attorney Mark Herron, has raised $56,000 since its formation in July 2021.

Among its donors are entities tied to Miami Beach power players, including entrepreneur David Grutman, lobbyist Michael Llorente, parking mogul Andrew Mirmelli and the Clevelander hotel. Llorente is on the city’s prohibited donor list.

Allegations of Miami Beach candidates breaking or sidestepping campaign finance rules have clouded city politics for years.

After a shadowy political committee raised more than $1 million from local developers, lobbyists and vendors in 2015, the city’s ordinance was expanded to address PAC contributions. Grieco’s secretive PAC during his first run for mayor, People for Better Leaders, raised $200,000 from powerful city interests before it was disbanded.

Responding to Grieco’s recent campaign finance allegations against him, Góngora was quick to point out that Grieco is still dealing with fallout from the 2017 scandal. Last month, a judge investigating the matter recommended a 90-day suspension of Grieco’s law license. It’s not clear when the Florida Supreme Court will make a final ruling.