Lobbyist Gives $2,000 to Miami Politician Who Appointed Him to Powerful Board

Florida Rep. Jose Felix "Pepi" DiazEXPAND
Florida Rep. Jose Felix "Pepi" Diaz
Florida House of Representatives
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Every five years, Miami-Dade County convenes a task force to propose changes to the County Charter, which basically serves as the "constitution" for a 2.7 million-person metropolis. In 2012, Miami's ultrapowerful lobbyist class was banned from serving on that Charter Review Task Force out of fear they'd introduce self-serving new laws, which Dade County residents would then vote on.

This year, lobbyists were allowed to sit on the board. So State Rep. Jose Felix "Pepi" Diaz appointed Eric Zichella, a lobbyist for real-estate developers. And lo and behold, months after that appointment, Zichella and the lobbying firm he runs each gave $1,000 to Diaz's state Senate campaign on the same day in June, campaign-finance records show.

Via phone, Zichella said the donations had nothing to do with getting appointed to the board and Diaz was simply "someone I've always donated to." But while Diaz has run in four races — 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016 — records show Zichella only donated to Diaz once before, giving $500 in 2009.

Asked why he donated to Diaz this year, Zichella said he admired Diaz's style as a legislator. "He's a deliberative, intelligent, caring guy," Zichella said. "I supported him in his first race before he was a member. He's just a really great elected official."

Pressed for specifics, Zichella urged people to watch the speech Diaz gave in May when he resigned from the state House to run for state Senate, in which he urged his children to "love early, love often, and love profoundly so that your heart dances."

Diaz's campaign did not respond to a written request for comment.

The donations are sure to raise fears about lobbyists' new role in dictating the task force's proposals — especially because Zichella isn't the only lobbyist who donated to the politico who appointed him or her.

Records show Neisen Kasdin, the former Miami Beach mayor, gave $500 to Commissioner Sally Heyman in 2009 and $1,000 to her 2014 campaign. Appointee Carlos Diaz-Padron gave $1,250 to Rebeca Sosa over multiple elections before she appointed him. Mayor Carlos Gimenez's appointee gave the candidate $1,000 over two elections, Commissioner Bruno Barreiro's appointee gave $500 in 2008, and Commissioner Jean Monsetime received $350 over multiple elections from the family of his choice for the task force.

(Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz's appointee, Maria Lievano-Cruz, donated $5,000 to his campaign in 2014, but she was working as his chief of staff at the time. Lievano-Cruz is now an executive with Florida East Coast Railway, which is building the Brightline train from Miami to Orlando.)

But not every member donated to the person who appointed him or her, which might actually surprise people, given the incestuous nature of Miami-Dade politics. Moreover, both the timing and amount of Zichella's contributions stand out.

Zichella's appointment was already the stuff of controversy. The County Commission formally created the 2017 Charter Review Task Force in March. The task force is supposed to propose rules that benefit all two million Miami-Dade residents, but commissioners immediately appointed a few powerful lobbyists like Kasdin and George M. Burgess.

The chair of the Miami-Dade County delegation in Tally also gets to appoint one member to the task force. At the time, Diaz ran that group and appointed Zichella, who runs the lobbying firm P3 Management N.A. Zichella is an outspoken, bullish presence in county politics — during a fight last year over whether the county could legally ban lobbyists and real estate developers from donating to political campaigns, Zichella fought hard against the measure and even filed a lawsuit to try and kill the plan. (The bill ultimately failed.) Zichella is also prone to launching insult-laden attacks at his critics on Twitter.

After the appointments of Zichella, Kasdin, and their ilk, commission chair Esteban Bovo in May proposed an ordinance that would have kicked all government consultants off the task force and banned lobbyists from being appointed again. Zichella told the Miami Herald the idea was unfair and said he didn't "have a single client who would benefit from anything that the charter-review task force would do," and the County Commission killed Bovo's idea on May 16. Zichella's appointment stood.

Exactly 22 days later, Zichella and his lobbying firm signed over two $1,000 checks to Diaz, the person who appointed him. Neither Zichella nor Diaz's campaign responded to messages from New Times yesterday afternoon asking whether the donation was some sort of favor for appointing Zichella.

As the lobbyist-ban kerfuffle was going on at the county level, then-state Sen. Frank Artiles, a Republican who represented state Senate District 40 in West Kendall, was getting himself into much bigger trouble. On April 18, the Herald reported that Artiles had used the n-word in front of a black lawmaker. On April 21, he resigned, mere hours before the Herald's Mary Ellen Klas reported that Artiles had also hired ex-Hooters waitresses as political "consultants." The resignation meant Florida would have to hold a special election this year to fill Artiles' vacant seat. It's a hotly contested race: Artiles' district voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and political analysts say the Trump administration's bungling incompetence could push Democratic voters to the polls.

Diaz, who flunked out of Trump's Apprentice reality show after two episodes in 2006, was long rumored to have been eying a run at higher office. On May 17, the day after the county voted to keep Zichella on the Charter Review Task Force, Diaz announced in a letter that he would resign from his state House seat to run for state Senate.

According to state campaign finance records, Diaz began accepting campaign donations the next day. As of yesterday, he'd raised a total of $279,182.29 from 334 individual contributions.

Of that $280,000, two contributions ended up coming from Zichella and his firm. Zichella himself wrote a $1,000 check, while P3 Management wrote another. Diaz reported receiving them both on June 7. (State law caps individual contributions to legislative campaigns at $1,000 per person or entity.)

Asked whether the appointment had anything to do with the campaign donations, Zichella said, "Absolutely not."

Diaz received 118 total checks on June 7 alone, including $1,000 from multiple greyhound-racing tracks and medical associations, as well as from Sabal Trail Transmission, Inc., the group that recently built the deeply controversial Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline from Alabama to a Florida Power and Light hub in the center of the state.

He also received three separate donations tied to Miami superlobbyist Ron Book: $1,000 from Book, $1,000 from Book's wife, and $1,000 from Book's law firm, Ron Book PA.

The Senate District 40 race has otherwise been a strange and scandal-ridden affair: Diaz is locked in a primary fight with Alex Diaz de la Portilla, who served as a state legislator from 1994 to 2000 and in the state Senate from 2000 to 2010. (His brother Miguel served on the Miami-Dade County Commission and in the Florida Senate, while multiple members of their extended family served in the Cuban government.) Scum has flown so far throughout the primary: Diaz de la Portilla has been dinged for a 2012 arrest in Boston where police called him "belligerent" and for facing foreclosure on a house he owns outside his district. (Diaz de la Portilla has raised $72,500 from 31 contributions.)

As for Diaz, a Miami man, Steve St. Felix, was arrested June 26 for posting a death threat to Diaz's Facebook page. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez had previously said he supported Diaz — but withdrew his support last week after Diaz and his opponent spent way too much time personally attacking one another.

Diaz also got caught trying to delete a selfie he took with Donald Trump during the presidential inauguration festivities this year.

Given the relative lunacy surrounding District 40, one would think the Dade Democrats could easily win a race that began with a Republican dropping a racial slur. Not so: Democratic state Rep. Daisy Baez could have been the race's front-runner, but was forced to drop out after getting caught living outside her district. The Democrats' best hope is now Annette Taddeo, the former chair of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party who has lost every single legislative race she's ever run.

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