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In the audience, one of county hall's usual suspects, a high-power lobbyist who asked to remain anonymous, recalls that back in 1998, days after Rolle's appointment to the county commission, the lobbyist began receiving invitations to JESCA fundraisers from local land-use attorneys with business before the county. "There was, like, one every week attended by lobbyists, vendors, zoning lawyers, and anyone who had something live before the county," the professional arm-twister remembers. "All of sudden, JESCA was everyone's favorite charity."
Every year, JESCA holds an annual dinner during which the agency collects thousands of dollars from private benefactors in the community. The association raised $300,000 at last year's annual dinner. It gleaned another $100,000 from private donations not tied to the gala. Rolle did not respond to New Times's questions about the identity of JESCA's private donors. He would not disclose whether his developer buddies, like Sergio Pino and Alan Potamkin, have given to JESCA.
But Sylvester Lukis, Potamkin's lobbyist, says he, the auto magnate, and several other clients have regularly contributed to JESCA though not because they are trying to curry favor with Rolle, Lukis counters. "Anybody who's anybody in Miami-Dade County has given to JESCA," Lukis rattles. "It is a tremendous organization."
Rolle was the leading advocate of a plan that would have allowed Potamkin to develop a massive auto mall along NW Seventh Avenue. Had the deal gone through, the county would have spent $25 million to $30 million in condemning land that is currently home to several decades-old businesses.
Lukis claims the auto mall would have been a "legacy project." His client was going to deliver on 487 new jobs at salaries starting at $50,000 a year, Lukis says.
Besides, there is no conflict, because JESCA is not a money-making enterprise, Lukis says. "I could understand if JESCA was his private business," he asserts. "But does this mean that if you're the pope, you can't raise money for Catholic Charities?"
Planning advisory board chairman and lawyer Al Maloof says that in the past Rolle has contacted him, soliciting his law firm to buy tables for JESCA's gala. However, Maloof adds, he has always respectfully declined. "He wasn't a strong sell," Maloof relates. "I don't interpret him as the guy who twists arms. His pitch is very inviting."
Any suggestion that Rolle is using his position as a county commissioner to elicit donations for the social agency is wrong, Maloof says. "Yes, he calls around and asks for money," Maloof allows. "But if a commissioner gets in my face, I'm going straight to the inspector general."
Holland & Knight zoning lawyer Felix Lasarte is another county hall regular whom Rolle taps to raise funds for JESCA. However, Lasarte attests, Rolle has never asked him to contribute to the agency when they have met regarding a county-related issue.
"He has asked me to help, and I have," Lasarte says. "I've asked clients to help out with tickets to the annual gala. And I've had clients donate to [JESCA's] bike drive so they can give bicycles to poor kids in the inner city."
Nevertheless, ethics experts say, Rolle does have a conflict of interest because he is in a position to vote in favor of a contract or land-use items that would benefit the lobbyists, vendors, and developers who give money to JESCA. At that point, the contribution ceases to be voluntary, opines Santa Clara University's Judy Nadler. "He runs the organization," she says. "He still receives a salary. It could be interpreted that he is using his political position for some type of gain."
Nova Southeastern University law ethics professor Robert Jarvis adds that Rolle creates two problems by raising money for JESCA through people who do business with the county.
On one hand, someone who cuts a large check to JESCA might feel entitled to Rolle's vote, Jarvis explains. On the flip side, lobbyists and their clients might feel compelled to give the nonprofit money out of fear Rolle would vote against them.
"There is an appearance of impropriety," Jarvis affirms. "He really should not be soliciting or accepting money from people who have business pending before the county commission."