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The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office has opened an investigation into a taped conversation between a successful real-estate developer, his lawyer, and a third party in which the three men discuss retaining the services of state Rep. Rafael "Ralph" Arza. The recording was the subject of last week's cover story ("Caught on Tape," April 14). "We've opened an inquiry based on the information published by New Times," said Ed Griffith, spokesman for State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. "We feel it is a legitimate issue for criminal review."
On the tape, Masoud Shojaee, president of Shoma Development Corp.; Stanley Price, Shoma's land-use attorney; and another Shoma attorney identified by New Times sources as Felix Lasarte discuss hiring Arza to assist Shoma in obtaining a zoning change. The goal: Convert the former Ryder System property in Doral into a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly town center encompassing 45 acres currently zoned for industrial use.
Shojaee paid $40 million for the property, apparently confident the city would approve this plan. On the recording, which was accidentally recorded on the voice mail of a bureaucrat at a public agency and which New Times obtained through a confidential source, Price said: "Importantly, we gotta get Ralph to champion this thing through for us. Okay? Ralph, Ralph is the, ah, 2000-pound gorilla in Doral." Price also talked about paying Arza $20,000 up-front and another $30,000 "once the zoning is delivered to us." (To hear the tape call 305-571-7615.)
Price, a name partner in the Miami firm Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod, subsequently told New Times he recommended Arza because the state representative was a former elected official in Doral and has a close relationship with the current members of the city council. Price, Shojaee (through his legal counsel), and Arza insist that Shoma ultimately decided not to hire the legislator to lobby on behalf of the developer. However, Price admitted that in the past he has "used Ralph, uh, in the city on legislative matters." New Times reached Price on his cell phone April 14, but he declined comment. "Anything I say is going to be taken out of context," he said. "Have a good day."
Arza has steadfastly denied that he is a lobbyist and has repeatedly refused to answer questions regarding his income as a private consultant. Arza is not registered to lobby in Miami-Dade County or the City of Doral. He declined comment for this story.
Steven Chaykin, a criminal-defense lawyer retained by Shojaee, also declined comment. In an April 7 letter published by New Times, Chaykin maintained that his client did not engage in any "improper or unlawful" activities during the taped conversation. Katherine Fernandez Rundle's spokesman Ed Griffith would not discuss what crimes, if any, may have been committed. However, it is illegal in Miami-Dade County to lobby public officials without being a registered lobbyist; furthermore, it is against the law to pay lobbyists a bonus or so-called success fee for their work.
In a related development, a number of people, including three lobbyists, a criminal-defense attorney, and two county employees, have contacted New Times to identify the previously unnamed male voice on the tape as Felix Lasarte, another Miami land-use attorney who has also represented Shoma. WPLG-TV (Channel 10) also identified Lasarte as the person in the recorded conversation.
On the recording, Lasarte, who recently joined the Miami law firm of Holland & Knight, asks Price how much Arza would be paid and if Price had written a contract for Arza's services.
According to Miami-Dade County lobbyist registration records, Lasarte has represented Shoma Development Corp. on county-related zoning matters since 2003. He is not listed as one of Shoma's registered lobbyists in the City of Doral. According to sources, Lasarte from time to time has arranged meetings between Shojaee and elected officials when Shoma had a project pending before a local governing body.
Lasarte has not returned repeated phone calls to his cell phone and to his office seeking comment. The lawyer joined Holland & Knight this past February 28 after a two-year stint at the Miami office of Akerman Senterfitt. Prior to that, Lasarte was an attorney with Miami's Steel Hector & Davis.