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
In May of last year, Shoma paid $39 million for the former Ryder System headquarters in Doral. Masoud Shojaee, president of Shoma Development, had ambitious plans for the 45-acre property -- a pedestrian-friendly town center that would combine 900 residential units with 200,000 square feet of retail space and 150,000 square feet of office space. Only one problem: The property wasn't zoned for that.
Shojaee essentially had taken a $40-million gamble that the newly minted City of Doral would approve the planning and zoning changes needed to fulfill his vision. He consulted with one of Shoma's lawyers, Stanley Price, a prominent Miami land-use attorney. At least one of those consultations took place over the phone. Participants were Shojaee, Price, and an unidentified third party associated with Shojaee.
It seems one of the three men inadvertently caused that three-way conversation to be recorded on the voice mail of a bureaucrat who works for a local public agency. Exactly how it happened is unclear, but it's likely one of the men had called and left a voice-mail message for the bureaucrat, neglected to hang up or shut off his phone, and thus allowed the ensuing Shoma-Doral conversation to feed into an outsider's voice mail. A confidential source provided New Times with a copy of the taped conversation, which probably took place in May or June 2004. A transcript follows below. It lasts only 65 seconds, but it speaks volumes.
Stanley Price: Doral does not have their own filing system.
Masoud Shojaee: Right.
Stanley Price: So we need to file with Dade County. That's -- but I want to meet with the city manager to get --
[ Tape gap ]
Stanley Price: Importantly, we gotta get Ralph to champion this thing through for us. Okay? Ralph, Ralph is the, ah, 2000-pound gorilla in Doral.
Masoud Shojaee: Okay, let's, uh, tell Ralph, uh, Felix come to the office, uh, on Friday morning.
Masoud Shojaee: Okay? Stanley Price: Have a check for him 'cause he's, he's very hungry.
Unidentified: Yeah, I know he is. Stanley, did you discuss any fees with him? Because I remember this agreement he was going to discuss with Stanley. Remember, Masoud?
Masoud Shojaee: Yeah.
Unidentified: Did you guys have a fee arrangement?
Stanley Price: Yeah, he, he wanted $50,000 and I said you'll take $20,000 and you'll get a, get a bonus of $30,000 when the zoning's delivered to us. And that's a tremendous payday for him.
Masoud Shojaee: Okay, he agreed?
Stanley Price: Yeah.
Masoud Shojaee: Okay.
Unidentified: Okay. Stanley, you don't have that agreement drawn up, do you?
Stanley Price: No, it's a uh, I'll tell you what, I'll pull the, uh, I'll pull the prior agreement he did with uh, with uh --
[ Tape gap ] Unidentified: Thanks.
Masoud Shojaee: Thanks.
Stanley Price: Bye, bye.
"Doral does not have their own filing system"At the time of the taped conversation, the City of Doral was only a few months old and had not yet created its own planning and zoning department. Nor had it developed its own comprehensive master plan. Thus it could not process requests for planning or zoning changes, which Shoma Development Corp. needed for the Ryder property.
"So we need to file with Dade County"From its first day as a city, June 24, 2003, until this past October 1, Doral relied on Miami-Dade County's existing master plan and zoning laws. The new city also relied on the county bureaucracy to process any requests for changes brought by Doral property owners.
"We gotta get Ralph to champion this thing through for us"Ralph Arza is a state representative whose District 102 includes parts of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, but not the City of Doral. Arza, however, is widely acknowledged to be a powerful political force in Doral (see "Meet Mr. Arza," New Times, March 24, 2004). A major project like that proposed by Masoud Shojaee would need the support of the Doral City Council. Obviously Stanley Price saw the advantage of having someone like Arza "champion" the project, though in what manner remains uncertain.
"I said you'll take $20,000 and you'll get a bonus of $30,000 when the zoning's delivered to us"If Ralph Arza were to lobby public officials on behalf of the Shoma project, by law he would be required to register as a lobbyist. He is not a registered lobbyist in any Miami-Dade municipality. Under county law, lobbyists are not allowed to receive contingency or "success" fees, which the law defines as a "bonus, commission, or nonmonetary benefit as compensation dependent on ... the passage, defeat, or modification of an action or decision by the county commission or any of the elected bodies governing the municipalities." State law prohibits lobbying on zoning matters because they are considered quasi-judicial proceedings. Arza says he was never hired by Shoma and does not lobby local governments.
After listening to the tape recording, New Times sought clarification from Stanley Price, Masoud Shojaee (pronounced SHOH-jee), and Ralph Arza. Initially Shojaee and Arza declined to listen to the tape or answer questions about it. Price was more cooperative and agreed to be interviewed. New Times later faxed questions to Shojaee and Arza, as well as followup questions to Price. Shojaee and Arza responded to those queries (see "Questions and Responses"), but Price did not. Subsequently an attorney representing Price sent New Times a letter titled "Demand to Cease and Desist and for Delivery of the Illegal Tape Recording." (See "Cease and Desist")