Secret recording, fundraising allegations: Miami
Beach mayor race is already heated
Courtesy of The Miami Herald
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
“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
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
“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
“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
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
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
“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
“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.