The Comeback Kid Does South Beach

Spend enough time working in South Beach's competitive nightlife industry, and you're bound to make some enemies. Just ask Gerry Kelly. After arriving in Miami in 1994, the Irish-born Kelly spent the next few years cannily rising through the ranks of clubland's promoters and managers, eventually being hired in 1998 by Chris Paciello as marketing director for Liquid and Bar Room. But when Kelly was offered a partnership in the fledgling Level nightclub the following year, Paciello didn't exactly wish him luck. Instead, fearing a savvy new Beach rival, Kelly's former boss discussed having him killed.

"We've got to get [Kelly's] head fuckin' broken in," Paciello says on a wiretap recording of a phone conversation with an undercover officer. "I got to get him whacked."

Paciello is currently believed to be in a federal witness protection program after pleading guilty to separate mob-related racketeering, robbery, and murder charges. But after last Thursday's Level appearance of former President Bill Clinton, Kelly might still want to watch his back.

Many of South Florida's most prominent Jewish philanthropists are livid at what they consider an underhanded move by Kelly. "Everybody knows what kind of person he is; he's just so sleazy," said one local staffer of the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO), which threw a gala fundraising dinner starring Clinton immediately following his February 7 bash at Level. While none of the WIZO members with whom Kulchur spoke called for a Paciello-style "whacking," they also made it clear that Kelly shouldn't be expecting a Seder invite.

And if Kelly is counting on a return visit from Clinton, the prez's communications director, Julia Payne, suggested he shouldn't hold his breath. "We were as surprised as everybody else when we saw the ads they put out," Payne remarked of Level's promotional blitz touting "An afternoon with William Jefferson Clinton," featuring both $100 general admission tickets and $10,000 "presidential VIP" tables.

Business this season has not been kind to Gerry Kelly. With the similarly megasize crobar sucking off patrons three Washington Avenue blocks to the north, and a host of intimate lounges such as Rumi drawing both high rollers and gossip-page-worthy star power, Level has been feeling the economic squeeze.

What Kelly desperately needed was some fresh buzz, a star-studded event to titillate the media, entice back some boldfaced names -- and with them, mass crowds.

Clinton's arrival certainly seemed to be doing the trick, with scads of television and print coverage trumpeting the benefit for the nonprofit Kids in Dade Society and its minority after-school programs. The Miami Herald's Tyler Bridges isn't exactly a veteran of breaching the velvet rope, but that didn't stop him from writing that Level was "perhaps South Beach's hippest nightclub." Local TV broadcasters were equally gushing as they attempted to discern Level's velvet-rope doorstaff from the Secret Service. (Here's a hint: Level's enforcers wear sharper suits.)

Missing from all this fawning was any inquiry as to just how Kelly had managed to achieve this booking coup for both himself and the relatively obscure Kids in Dade, particularly in light of WIZO's looming $500 per plate dinner with the former president. After all, the 1990-founded Kids in Dade, based at a mere handful of local schools, operates on an annual budget of $60,000. By way of contrast, WIZO is an 82-year-old charitable organization with more than 250,000 international members, official recognition from the United Nations, and a vast array of services in Israel, including day-care centers and battered women's shelters.

Even more glaring, Kids in Dade was receiving a Clintonian visit absolutely free. Meanwhile WIZO was paying Clinton's standard $100,000 speaking fee. That was on top of approximately $25,000 for a chartered roundtrip flight from his Chappaqua, New York, home, as well as accommodations at the Beach's swanky Shore Club hotel.

Forking over this kind of money raises concerns for any charity -- namely that the six-figure guest of honor won't double-book himself across town and cut into the draw. If one could hear Clinton speak for $100 at, oh, let's say Level, why would one pay $500 to WIZO for the same privilege 60 minutes later?

Accordingly WIZO staffers say they had a signed contract with Clinton, similar to the $60,000 deal they brokered with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2000. The key clause: No other South Florida appearances before WIZO's annual shindig. So how on earth did Gerry Kelly manage to snag Clinton?

Enter Hugh Rodham. Before 1992, Rodham was just another anonymous Miami public defender who happened to be Hillary Rodham's brother. With his sister's move to the West Wing, however, Hugh seemingly created a new career out of the fact that the new commander in chief was also his brother-in-law.