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Shortly before 8 p.m., a revival-like atmosphere consumes the New Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City. More than three dozen supporters of Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones pack the pews. As TV news crews film, the guest of honor, wearing a heavenly blue seersucker pantsuit, enters to a rapturous gospel soundtrack and a thunderous standing ovation.
She sits in the front, next to her husband Nathaniel Jones, who sports long, dark dreadlocks and duds that match Michelle's. He cradles their toddler Nathaniel Jr. in his arms.
Among the guests are two of Miami's most influential black political leaders: state Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall and former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek. They join a chorus of speakers who sing Spence-Jones's praises and spit venom at the white commissioner who, they say, sold her out.
After 30 minutes, a tall, balding man with a round face and a bushy mustache approaches the lectern. The crowd stirs to life as people recognize Billy Hardemon, a longtime political activist whom some people call the mayor of Liberty City. As a county commission aide in the late Nineties, he was charged with bribery and money laundering and then acquitted. In a fiery speech punctuated by amens from the audience, Hardemon identifies the enemy. "Marc Sarnoff is a liar," he rails, pounding the podium. "He should be prosecuted for wasting the state attorney's time."
The crowd cheers enthusiastically. "Marc, you ain't seen nothing yet," Hardemon crows. "We gotta keep the pressure on this fool." He ends his sermon by leading the audience in a chant: "Marc Sarnoff is a liar! Marc Sarnoff is a liar!"
The crowd's anger can be traced to a May 15, 2007 memo penned by the alleged fibber — which has become perhaps the most scrutinized scrap of paper in Miami's long and ugly political history. Sarnoff wrote he had met with ex-City Manager Joe Arriola at Coconut Grove's Grand Bay Hotel and was hit with a bombshell. The developer of a controversial project, Arriola said, had to pay $100,000 to two Spence-Jones confidantes in exchange for the commissioner's vote.
When Sarnoff's memo was made public this past December, it touched off a storm of speculation topped only by the recent fire fee dispute, which included sleazy lawyers, covert conversations, and screwing taxpayers out of millions of dollars. "I've seen my share of problems," opines city Commissioner Tomás Regalado. "But all this about secret meetings and secret memos is pretty damn weird."
Weird is right.
Arriola denies the meeting ever took place: "I never told him about any conversations that I had with anybody about anything going on at city hall."
Spence-Jones contends it's a bunch of lies: "He wrote that memo to deflect attention away from himself. I'm 100 percent sure about that."
Concludes Frank Rollason, a former Miami city manager, who briefly served as Sarnoff's chief of staff: "When he tells you something, you don't know if he is being truthful."
So, does the famed memo — and the hoopla that followed its release — describe anything but the animosity in this racially polarized city between the commission's only Anglo and its sole African-American? Even Sarnoff concedes he has no firsthand knowledge that Spence-Jones committed a crime. "I don't have any idea if what I was told was truthful," Sarnoff says. "But I felt I had an ethical obligation as a lawyer to make sure law enforcement was aware of what was going on."
One thing is certain. The memo is the latest in a long line of controversies that have served Sarnoff well. From his battle with the city over a Coconut Grove dog park to his leading the charge against Home Depot in the Grove, the litigator has springboarded from debate to debate, finally landing a spot on the commission of Florida's best-known city.
"He is a slickster," offers Jason Walker, a former aide to Sarnoff's predecessors Johnny Winton and Linda Haskins. "He can't be trusted. And now he has another four years to prove what a real jerk he is."
It is a rare bitter-cold January afternoon in Coconut Grove. Sitting at an outdoor table at Green Street Café on Main Highway, Sarnoff looks like he is training for a marathon; he's dressed in a long-sleeve black top and black nylon Adidas pants that complement his slender athletic frame. As the city commissioner representing Miami's wealthiest neighborhoods — Coconut Grove, Brickell, Edgewater, Morningside, and the Upper Eastside — he's in tune with his constituency, toting a black leather Prada fanny pack and matching calendar book. A fat silver Rolex wraps snugly around his left wrist.
Between sips of coffee, Sarnoff reveals he was born in Brooklyn in 1959, the youngest of three children. His parents divorced when he was eight years old, and his mother remarried to a Sicilian-American with two sons. He went to PS 193 and then to Valley Stream Central High School in Long Island, where his accomplishments as a champion freestyle swimmer earned him an athletic scholarship to the University of Tampa. After completing his undergraduate studies in criminology, he attended law school at Loyola in New Orleans.
Upon passing the bar exam, Sarnoff began working in the New Orleans city attorney's office. In 1985 he moved on to become an assistant district attorney under Harry Connick Sr., father of the well-known singer. Two years later, he moved to Miami and opened a private practice. It was during this time that Sarnoff first demonstrated willingness to dive into controversy.