By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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When he was 29 years old, Samson bought a failing liquor store and developed it into a profitable operation. In 1949, while still in the booze business, he took a vacation to see his father-in-law in South Florida, visiting for the first time the strip of sand and hotels then called Sunny Isles. Back then it was a sleepy part of North Miami Beach. (The neighborhood would secede from that city to become part of unincorporated Dade in 1951.) In 1952, after selling the liquor store, Samson says he embarked upon his glory years as a businessman; he leased a 100-car parking lot, and then moved across the street and managed the Lincoln Park Ritz Garage. The garage was a 300-space, three-story affair located at 2427 Clark St., just blocks from the homes of many of Chicago's most notable families. “I don't know if this means anything, but I parked the cars of Marshall Field, William Wood-Prince, and Mr. and Mrs. Sarge Shriver,” he offers.
The Chicago blizzard of 1967 put a chill on Samson's glamorous life in parking. The five-day paralysis of the city helped him decide to move to warmer climes. He had heard praise for the pleasures of living in Winston Towers so, after spending a several more winters in South Florida, he bought a condo there in 1972. Two years later he moved in permanently.
Samson's political career began at the condo complex. In 1974 he became president of the condominium association, a post he would maintain for 23 years. Although he downplays his role, the job clearly was the foundation for his later mayoral bid.
Around the time Key Biscayne incorporated in 1991, residents of Sunny Isles were weighing the pros and cons of becoming a city. Residents and business interests considered teaming up with Aventura, which already was building strong momentum toward cityhood. That plan fizzled in April 1993, when Aventura leaders snubbed the poorer enclave across the Intracoastal Waterway, fearing annexation would be detrimental to their image.
By the time Aventura incorporated in 1995, people in Sunny Isles had become worried that a concrete canyon of buildings would form along Collins Avenue. They cited plans for a 30-story condo at 194th Street and Collins Avenue, signs of strain on water and sewer services, and the frequent issuance of variances for buildings with more than 10 stories. As president of Concerned Citizens of Northeast Dade, a watchdog group, Samson tapped that anxiety. On May 17, 1996, he filed an incorporation petition for Sunny Isles. About 750 of the area's roughly 14,000 residents signed it. Despite the snub by Aventura, Samson made an end run: He proposed naming his coastal strip Aventura Beach. Samson argued the name would promote construction of classier hotels. On July 2, 1996, the county commission approved the petition.
Within a month opposition arose. Unsurprisingly much of it came from the one percent of Sunny Isles' population that lives in single-family homes. They feared developers would ruin the town, and preferred the charm and architectural flourishes of the seaside motels. It became a battle of symbols. Canopy-holding mermaids at the Blue Mist Motel versus the staggered, more abstract design of the four-building, 40-story Pinnacle. The mermaids clearly were on the defensive.
By January 1997 Samson, as chairman of the Committee for the Incorporation of Aventura Beach/Sunny Isles, had amassed a $35,000 war chest. Developers such as Joseph Milton, president of J. Milton & Associates (whose Pinnacle condominium tower was then under construction) backed the incorporation movement and its proposed copycat name. Milton joined International Developer Construction, developer Tom Daly, and R.K. Associates (which owns the strip mall where the current city hall is located) in making $5000 donations. On January 7, 1997, 73 percent of 1,922 residents voted in favor of incorporation. One step remained: A city charter would have to be drafted and residents would have to approve it. This was accomplished June 16, 1997.
Less than a month after the charter was approved, Samson drew on his influence as a condominium president and his high profile in the incorporation movement to win the new city of Sunny Isle Beach's mayoralty.
W. Donald Stewart sits in a wicker chair in the den of his spacious home in Golden Shores, a section of Sunny Isles Beach that includes about 250 homes west of Collins Avenue. On this muggy afternoon, he wears an off-white guayabera, shorts, and light-brown moccasins. Blue-green streaks, the beginnings of varicose veins, mark his thick calves. The pale skin of his forearms is mottled with age spots. He and Dave Samson used to be good friends. They once joined forces to draft the city charter, and Stewart even backed Samson's election campaign. Now the former federal agent bends over slightly, handling an inch-thick file of documents he says is evidence of Samson's corrupt activities as mayor. His large, rough hands are steady; they starkly contrast the thin sheets of paper he shuffles back and forth. Somehow he makes sense of the pile.
During a failed summer 1999 campaign for a commission seat, the gray-haired Stewart says he came upon flyers requesting donations for the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC), a city nonprofit group that offered financial support to the Sunny Isles Beach Police Department. The forms requested the money in Samson's name. Stewart, who had once served for nine months on the CAC, says he quit after Samson took over as chairman. “I saw it was a fucking joke,” he says. “He's the only one talking and he's running the whole show.” Stewart's gray eyebrows rise high on a face that vaguely resembles that of a puffy-faced Robert Mitchum. “You see I'm an old FBI man, I've dealt with this kind of stuff. I recognized there was some sort of fraudulent practice right off the bat.” Stewart began his own investigation and discovered that, of the $31,000 raised for the fund in 1999, $8000 was used for activities not directly related to the police department, including $3800 for a Christmas party thrown by Samson and $160 in flowers for a bedridden city attorney. Only Samson and then-Vice Mayor Irvin Turetsky had access to the money. On July 29 the CAC was turned into a private organization, thwarting the rest of Stewart's attempts to follow the money. But that did not stop him from publicizing his findings. He wrote Channel 7 (WSVN-TV) news, which ran a short exposé on the incident. He penned letters to Gov. Jeb Bush and the SAO, which currently is investigating the matter. “Samson was asking [local businesses] for the money; this is blackmail, a shakedown,” Stewart contends. “I mean if these guys don't come up with [the money], then someone's out there -- a code-enforcement officer or somebody -- talking to them.”