Some Miami officials acted more like “PR agents and cheerleaders” for the David Beckham soccer stadium instead of as elected officials who should have pushed for more transparency on who controls Miami Freedom Park LLC, according to a lawsuit filed Friday.
The city didn’t enforce its own law requiring Beckham, his soccer partners and his attorneys to register as lobbyists when they spoke for the project at a City Commission meeting last July. Instead, according to the complaint, the city knowingly allowed them to bypass the requirement — and has systematically failed to enforce its own lobbying laws.
Miami attorney David Winker, a former partner at Zumpano, Patricios & Winker in Coral Gables who started his own firm, filed the Miami-Dade Circuit Court complaint as plaintiff and lead attorney.
For its part, the city said it’s working to ensure compliance.
“The city has been working diligently with the Commission on Ethics to ensure all our codes are followed,” City Attorney Victoria Mendez said in an email sent Friday night.
Winker first raised the lobbyist registration issue in an ethics complaint against Beckham and some of the stadium venture partners with the Miami-Dade County Ethic Commission. He filed the complaint on Oct. 31, 2018, days before voters approved a referendum allowing the city to negotiate a 99-year lease with Miami Freedom Park for a 25,000-seat Major League Soccer stadium and other development at the Melreese municipal golf course.
In his lawsuit, Winker maintains Beckham and project partners, including MasTec Inc. executives, brothers Jorge and Jose Mas, as well as Sprint executive chairman Marcelo Claure, didn’t register as lobbyists when they spoke in favor of the referendum last July.
Ethics commission executive director Jose Arrojo in an email to Mendez on Jan. 16 said that the lobbyist registration requirement for Miami Freedom Park has been fulfilled. In his lawsuit, Winker counters that Beckham and the others only registered as lobbyists after Winker filed his ethics complaint.
His lawsuit adds a claim that the commission resolution to schedule the referendum was approved under false pretenses because city officials were misled about who owns and is behind Miami Freedom Park.
Jorge Mas at the July City Commission meetings when the project was discussed listed the project partners, who also include British entrepreneur Simon Fuller and Sprint and SoftBank chairman Masayoshi Son, and then often used the pronoun “we,” making it seem as if all are behind Miami Freedom Park, according to the complaint.
The Miami Herald first reported Jan. 12 that Miami Freedom Park is wholly owned by Jorge Mas. A letter sent to the city Jan. 10 from Miami Freedom Park manager Cristina Canales acknowledges that.
If the city had enforced its lobbyist registration law, then this would have come to light sooner, according to Winker. The registration form requires lobbyists to disclose the name of any company they represent, he said during a phone interview Friday.
“Now there’s a ton of questions about what is the structure of this group,” he said.
An attorney for Miami Freedom Park, which isn’t named as a defendant in Winker’s suit, called the complaint and allegations pertinent to Miami Freedom Park “frivolous” and meritless.
“We’ve reviewed Mr. Winker’s lawsuit and it has no merit. Should Mr. Winker continue to pursue his frivolous claims and baseless allegations directed at Miami Freedom Park, we will mount a vigorous defense and seek sanctions and attorney’s fees to the full extent permitted by law,” John Shubin, a Shubin & Bass founding partner, said in an emailed statement.
Winker’s five-count complaint also alleges the city violated a charter requirement for competitive bidding on public land sales and leases.
This is the second time the city has been sued over how it handled the soccer stadium referendum.
Attorney Douglas Muir in July 2018 sued the city and its top officials for skirting their own rules, specifically leasing public land without competitive bidding. Muir argued that the ballot language sought to amend one part of the city charter but a different section also prohibits a city property lease without public notice and an opportunity for a competitive process.
Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Reemberto Diaz on Aug. 15, 2018, denied Muir’s lawsuit in part saying Muir lacks standing because he failed to show he was harmed beyond any harm experienced by the public and that he failed to show a constitutional or statutory right has been violated. Muir has appealed to the Third District Court of Appeal.