You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Miami Mayor Suarez’s big VIP weekend was worth $30K. And he still won’t say who paid

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 5/17/2023 Sarah Blaskey, Miami Herald

Formula One roared into town on May 5, bringing with it a who’s who of the global elite, and potential conflicts of interests for Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who was in the center of it all, sporting $14,000 passes to the track’s most luxurious viewing suite — and calling it all part of the job, in a statement from his office to the Herald.

For the second year in a row, Suarez made the rounds to star-studded after-parties, where hosts tied to local lobbying efforts waived steep cover charges for elected officials. The mayor, accompanied by his wife at some events, reportedly promised a headlining celebrity chef that the opening of his Miami restaurant would not be tripped up by permitting problems.

If Suarez paid the cover for each event he and his wife attended, their Grand Prix weekend would have cost him well over $30,000 — more than seven months’ pay for the average Miamian.

Suarez — a corporate attorney and part-time mayor who converts his $96,000 public salary to Bitcoin — won’t say who paid for his weekend of luxury. Nor did he file a quarterly ethics commission report disclosing any sponsors behind a similar tour of the Formula One party circuit he made last year, as is legally required when an elected official receives complimentary admissions or free tickets from anyone outside of their immediate family.

Aside from one hospitality group that said Suarez was given complimentary access to its $6,000 per-person dinner, it’s still unclear who else might have provided freebies to the mayor.

Without more information, it’s impossible to know whether Suarez violated another provision of Florida ethics laws, one that prohibits elected officials from accepting gifts of more than a nominal value from city vendors, lobbyists, or their employers, partners or principals.

READ MORE: This billionaire and major DeSantis donor gave Miami Mayor Francis Suarez $1 million

As Suarez teases a bid for president, ethics experts caution that even in cases where no laws are broken, accepting such lavish gifts can create the appearance of impropriety and erode public trust.

Merrett Stierheim, a former Miami-Dade County and Miami city manager and schools superintendent, said while mayors are expected to attend community events, he would think twice before accepting such valuable invitations.

“I can understand as mayor he is called upon to attend many functions, but when you go to a party or a race where the ticket is $14,000, that’s a sobering amount of money,” Stierheim said.

But, he said, if the mayor and his staff decide there is no conflict of interests and it is beneficial to the city for him to attend, he should be transparent about his reasons.

“If he feels he’s on solid ground then put it on the disclosure form,” Stierheim said. And, he said, if Suarez received tickets from a private individual, it must be disclosed in his quarterly filings.

Going to parties and sporting events is part of the mayor’s job, said Suarez’s publicly salaried spokesperson, Soledad Cedro, in a statement to the Herald.

“He does this to advocate for our city and attract new jobs and opportunities for our residents,” Cedro said. If he wasn’t doing it for the job, Suarez would disclose the donors, she said.

But Suarez and his staff appear to be misinterpreting Florida’s gift disclosure requirements, according to Caroline Klancke, the executive director of the Florida Ethics Institute, a nonpartisan organization.

Elected officials who are invited to exclusive events in their official capacity are still required to report free tickets or complimentary admissions valued over $100 on their quarterly disclosures, said Klancke, who previously served as deputy executive director and general counsel of the Florida Commission on Ethics, the agency that administers Florida’s gift laws.

“The gifts law applies to gifts given to you in your official capacity specifically because of the authority that you possess in that official capacity,” Klancke said. The purpose of the law is to protect the impartiality of elected leaders who award large contracts and make decisions about vast sums of public dollars, she said.

Penalties for violating the gift law include a public reprimand, fines up to $10,000 and even removal from office.

In response to Herald questions, the Ethics Commission declined to comment on specifics but pointed to a 2019 opinion, which states that elected officials must disclose free tickets to private events put on by for-profit or non-profit organizations — even in cases where events are co-sponsored by the city.

The commission also came to a similar conclusion in 2016 when Wellington city commissioners were invited to attend Prince Harry’s charity polo match in their official capacity as elected leaders. While the invite-only event did not charge guests a cover, the ethics commission still determined each elected official should report an $895 gift, a value based on the total cost of the event divided by the number of attendees.

“The acceptance of gifts can result in the corrosion of public trust,” Klancke said. “That trust can be affirmed by transparency.”

From the Heat to ‘Hamilton’

Since being elected mayor at the end of 2017, Suarez has reported almost $120,000 in gifts, largely international travel paid by conferences he attended, ethics commission records show. He also reported thousands of dollars of free entertainment, including tickets to Super Bowl LIV gifted by Eugene Frenkel of the investment firm Legacy Group, a Miami Heat playoff game from tech entrepreneur Sean Wolfington, and to the Broadway hit “Hamilton,” donated by the Adrienne Arsht Center.

But social media is flooded with pictures of the mayor attending other parties and events that were not reported in the disclosures, including last year’s Formula One races at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens and the World Cup in Qatar, where he posed with David Beckham during the match between France and Morocco.

Beckham himself is a registered lobbyist for his controversial Miami Freedom Park project, a planned 25,000-seat soccer stadium and complex that is now moving forward after years of negotiations, a public referendum and two commission votes. Suarez, as mayor, doesn’t have a vote but he does have veto power.

Suarez is required to report the names of anyone who gave him free tickets or provided complimentary admissions to events during the 2023 Formula One weekend by the end of September.

In addition to the passes to the Formula One Paddock Club, which Bloomberg reported cost around $14,000, Suarez also made appearances at Once Upon a Kitchen and Carbone Beach, luxury after-parties featuring $6,000 and $3,000 cover charges, respectively.

Photos show Gloria Suarez also joined her husband when he went back to Carbone for a second night. And she spent her weekend with him in the Paddock Club, where the couple posed with Gloria Estefan and her husband, Emilio Estefan Jr.

The Estefans were invited to the races by billionaire Ken Griffin, according to an Instagram post.

Once Upon a Kitchen

High-end hospitality groups the Gr8 Experience and Major Food Group jumped on the opportunity to use the Miami Grand Prix to make in-roads in the Magic City.

A-list celebrities and some of the world’s wealthiest people paid thousands to get into their exclusive Formula One after-parties. Local politicians from Miami and Miami Beach were let in for free.

On Friday night, Suarez dropped by Gr8’s $6,000 per person dinner party, Once Upon a Kitchen, where he posed for photos with event coordinators and mingled with the headlining chef, Massimo Bottura.

Later, Bottura told diners that, despite some permitting delays, his first city of Miami location would open within a few months — something Suarez had just assured him was still possible, according to an article in the Observer.

Bottura’s Miami restaurant, Torno Subito, is planned for the rooftop of Julia & Henry’s, a redevelopment project lobbying the city of Miami for permits to convert a historic building on East Flagler Street into a food hall.

Neither Julia & Henry nor its lobbyists returned the Herald’s request for comment.

“The mayor did not have a ticket to the event. He said hello to the culinary talent and departed before the dinner began,” according to a statement from Gr8’s spokesperson. However, Gr8’s Instagram post about the event made no such distinction. The post called out Suarez by name, saying he was one of 200 dinner guests.

Suarez also spent two nights at Carbone Beach, an after-party put on by Major Food Group, a hospitality up-and-comer involved in a different development project registered to lobby the city.

According to the Real Deal, Major Food Group is the hospitality arm of the Villa Miami Residences development project in Miami’s Edgewater neighborhood, which is currently listed in the city’s lobbyist registry over permits.

Iris Escarra, a lobbyist from Greenberg Traurig who is representing the project, said in a statement that Major Food Group does not have an ownership interest.

“Major Food Group will be a tenant in the ground floor restaurant space,” Escarra said.

Neither Suarez nor Major Food Group answered questions about who covered the $9,000 for the mayor’s and his wife’s attendance at the event.

Emails obtained by the Herald show city of Miami Beach officials were sent complimentary tickets by the event organizers. Two Miami Beach commissioners who attended Carbone Beach last year reported their complimentary tickets came from Major Food Group — which was registered to lobby in Miami Beach at the time.

Suarez also attended Carbone Beach last year but did not report it on his gift disclosures.

Even assuming no laws are broken, John Pelissero, senior scholar in government ethics at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, cautioned against accepting free admission from a hospitality group with something to gain from the mayor.

“Even if the mayor discloses the gifts, and the mayor is following all the legal rules, he’s still leaving the perception that he’s using his position as mayor to benefit personally,” Pelissero said.

Miami Herald staff reporters Aaron Leibowitz, Joey Flechas and food writer Connie Ogle contributed to this report.

©2023 Miami Herald. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon