By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
"The winters got a little too brutal for me," Sopher said during a brief telephone interview in mid-November. "And that's probably the main reason I'm down here. There's no secrets in my life." But the affably blunt businessman refused to grant New Times a full interview until December, citing scheduling concerns. "In the interim [write] anything you want to write as long as it's honest; I have no problem with that." Before hanging up he offered a suggestion. "The surcharge issue may be one percent of your story. Because we've been around awhile. We have an extensive operation both in Manhattan and now in Miami and we hope to launch it down here. And like I say, we're an open book."
So is the public record, of course, which reveals that Sopher began investing not only in Miami Beach real estate but also in the city's politicians. For example, he gave $1000 to Neisen Kasdin's successful mayoral campaign in the fall of 1997. "In the scheme of things in my campaign, that was a relatively insignificant amount," Kasdin recalls. "It's nothing that really registered then or now in terms of being of any particular significance." In last year's race for mayor, Sopher shifted his preference to losing candidate Martin Shapiro, who received a total of $3000 from Sopher entities (including checks from five of his New York City garage corporations registered with Quik Park's East 61st Street address). That time Kasdin garnered one $500 Quik Park check. He can only speculate about the shift: "Maybe they and some other people might know that you can't influence me with contributions."
Sopher also tossed funds at other Miami Beach politicians. Trying the approach he later would with Joe Carollo's brother Frank, Sopher's garages supplied $5750 to Joe Fontana's losing commission-seat race against Louis Garcia in the fall of last year. Checks for $500 came in from eight different garage companies with the East 61st Street address. Two of them (Irene Garage Corporation and Irvin Garage Corporation) contributed $1000 each, a violation of state election laws. Quik Park of South Florida also wrote two $500 checks. Records indicate that Fontana returned the illegal ones.
Just to keep things interesting, Garcia received a $500 check from Jonee Sopher. And Commissioner Matti Bower took in a $500 Quik Park check and $100 from Brian Tague, one of Quik Park's lawyers. "We have friends everywhere, thank God," said Rafael Llopiz, Quik Park's fast-talking 33-year-old executive vice president, as he rushed out of Miami Beach City Hall recently. Llopiz is Sopher's brother-in-law. "If I see a politician who's doing the right thing for the city, sure, I support them. As long as they're doing the right thing I'm all for it, because it's only going to help me."
But as would befall Sopher in Miami, a troublesome matter concerning Quik Park popped up at a Miami Beach city commission meeting this past July. The issue arose during what was to have been a routine discussion to renew Quik Park's contract for the Anchor Shops garage. But Commissioner Luis Garcia told his colleagues he had learned the city had been paying salaries to two Quik Park employees who actually didn't work at the garage. One was Harvey Figueroa, Quik Park of Florida's regional manager, whom the city was paying $36,000 to manage the garage. The other was Elizabeth Llopiz, Sopher's sister-in- law. Records showed she was working overtime, and Quik Park was billing the city for it.
Then Kasdin angrily raised his voice. "Quik Park has put on the payroll of the Anchor Shops garage individuals who don't work there or don't work there full time," he chided. "And those salaries are getting reimbursed from the city and the city is paying, for lack of a better way of putting it, phantom employees. I am concerned ... that we do not pay for phantom employees."
But another public servant rose to Quik Park's defense. It was Assistant City Manager Christina Cuervo. "Quik Park would like to speak to this," she began, "because they feel that they have been to a certain degree, for lack of a better word, defamed as it relates to this." Then Figueroa tried to assuage the mayor. He acknowledged that as regional manager responsible for 30 Quik Park locations, he did not work on site. Kasdin responded: "You're saying you billed us for your time, but in reality it's other people's time?" Figueroa concurred: "We thought this was the easiest, the [most] seamless, the fairest way to do it. Philosophically is it the correct way? I see not." An audit completed last week by the city's finance department figured Quik Park owed the city about $4500, owing to sloppy accounting. But City Manager Jorge Gonzalez had bad news for Sopher. The analysis, he said, found that the city could run the Anchor Garage itself for about $73,000 less than Quik Park has.
But back in Miami, for a while at least, Sopher's PR was looking pretty good. His incursion into downtown Miami started in 1998. It seemed to follow a pattern. Again he took care of some personal residential matters. (He sold his Portofino condo in 1998 for the same amount as his purchase price; he also sold two properties in Southampton, the tony Long Island seaside town, for almost five million dollars.) A few weeks later he purchased his current three-bedroom bay-view condo on Fisher Island for $1.8 million and a smaller one for $125,000.