By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
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
On January 20, 2000, assistant state attorney Joe Centorino, who heads the SAO's public corruption unit, closed out the investigation against Kasdin. Later that year, on December 11, he closed it against Peebles. In both cases, the SAO could not build a case due to a lack of cooperation by witnesses.
In the Kasdin investigation, Peebles, after initially agreeing to meet with him, stood up Centorino, who'd wanted to take testimony. Eventually Don, through his legal counsel, informed Centorino that he would only come in under subpoena, according to an SAO close-out memorandum. "Without the voluntary cooperation and testimony of Donahue Peebles ... there is no basis for the investigation. I recommend this preliminary inquiry be closed," Centorino wrote on January 20, 2000.
Meanwhile, the SAO's investigation into Peebles's alleged bankrolling of Shapiro through the council also hit a brick wall when a main witness abruptly failed to cooperate. According to a December 11, 2000, close-out memo, Henry Kay, president of the council (and widely known as the generalissimo of Miami Beach's Condo Commandos, a contingent of Beach activists who live in high-rises along Collins Avenue's Condo Canyon), confirmed that Peebles had contributed $2500 to the council's funds, but that the money came with "no strings attached." Kay, according to the memo, recalled that someone, maybe even Peebles, had asserted that the council's actions supporting Kasdin's opponents did not violate any campaign finance laws. Throughout the investigation, Kay maintained his position that the council did not funnel money from Peebles to Shapiro.
From his Coral Gables office three years later, Peebles said he didn't meet with the SAO because he wasn't interested in causing Kasdin or his family problems. Besides, Peebles ended up getting his zoning change on the Bath Club, even after Kasdin won a second term in office. In fact Kasdin actually voted for the zoning change. So there was no reason to keep the political donnybrook going.... No one ever accused either man of being impractical.
At the downtown Miami office of Gunster Yoakley, where Kasdin now earns his keep as a zoning lawyer, he revealed that Don came after him because he told Peebles he had no desire to renegotiate the deal on the Royal Palm. Kasdin said he was the first person to tell Don he bought the building "as is" when Peebles met with him and then-City Manager Sergio Rodriguez in 1998, requesting a multimillion-dollar credit on his ten-million-dollar loan with the city. "Don's problem is that I was one of the few people who could say no to him and he couldn't live with that," Kasdin asserted, adding that Peebles has shown no evidence that the city should renegotiate with him.
"Nothing has come to my attention that shows the facts are different today than they were at the time he first approached [us] three years ago. He is a businessman who wants to maximize his profits. It's up to the city to adhere to what was agreed upon."
Peebles just laughed when presented with Kasdin's account: "Kasdin arranged a meeting with me and Sergio Rodriguez and Steve Horwitz [a former assistant city manager]," Peebles said. "But he didn't say no. In fact, he encouraged Rodriguez to resolve the contaminated soil and structural issues on the Royal Palm. Now, I wouldn't put it past Kasdin to stab me in the back by going to Rodriguez when I wasn't around and telling him not to renegotiate the deal! Neisen Kasdin lacks the courage to stand up and tell people no."
But Kasdin stands by his story. "I'd be happy to hook myself up to a polygraph," he offered. "The proof is that Don never pursued renegotiating during my second term." Rodriguez, who served as city manager from 1997 until 1999, when he left to become the University of Miami's vice president of real estate, supported Kasdin's story. "I remember Peebles came on different occasions asking to renegotiate because of cost overruns and delays," Rodriguez said. "My recommendation was always that the contract was as is. He complained about the Loews Hotel receiving all these enticements and so on, but he had an agreement with the city he had to live up to." (Rodriguez did offer Don the $3.9 million in deferred lease payments, but Peebles declined.)
On November 13, 2002, Peebles was on hand for the city commission's regularly scheduled meeting for a progress report on his negotiations with Miami Beach. On the agenda was an item proffered by Commissioner Saul Gross to ban lobbyists from raising campaign contributions for candidates for elected office. Gross was in for a long morning as Peebles teamed up with his lobbyists, Sylvester Lukis and Alfred Balsera, jokingly referred to as "The Syl and Freddie Show," to derail Saul's noble attempt to reform Beach politics.
In a sobering, eye-opening monologue, Peebles spoke at length about single-handedly raising large amounts of cash for political campaigns. The real sphere of influence on the Beach, Don revealed, are people like himself: real estate developers. Don explained that lobbyists were nothing more than tools, mere vehicles who make phone calls and set up meetings with elected officials when they are too lazy to do it themselves. Never batting an eye, Don told commissioners that he has no problem funneling campaign contributions through various entities he controls. Don also doesn't have a problem strong-arming people who work for him to donate to political campaigns. "Now, let's be realistic," Peebles said hypothetically. "When I call up the general contractor who I am paying $65 million to build a building for me and tell him Saul Gross is a nice guy and I would like you, your company, and your employees to each contribute $500 to his campaign, I dare them to tell me no.... Or I'll get on my intercom, call up my comptroller, and ask him how many limited partnerships and entities do we have? He tells me 30 or so. I tell him to cut a check from each of them and give it to Commissioner Luis Garcia's campaign. That is the power of real estate in this city."