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.
In 1988, he was hired by Eugene Hasenfus, the American mercenary who in 1986 touched off the Iran-Contra scandal when the Sandinista government shot down his plane over Nicaragua. Hasenfus, a former Marine and the plane's cargo handler, was delivering guns to contra rebels who were involved in a bloody civil war. The Wisconsin native parachuted to safety and then revealed details to the Nicaraguans about the U.S. government's involvement in the battle.
Sarnoff sued Southern Air, the Miami-based aviation company once owned by the CIA, on Hasenfus's behalf. He lost, but the case was publicized around the world — and the young lawyer's profile rose. (On the biography page of his city commission website, Sarnoff boasts he "had the honor" of being the soldier-of-fortune's lawyer.)
In 1993, Sarnoff landed another controversial case when he successfully represented Miamian Bruce Wheeland in a divorce from his wife Lucienne. The husband accused her of engaging in frequent unprotected sex with him — while she had AIDS. The case was publicized far and wide, further bolstering Sarnoff's media profile. Eventually Wheeland won $18 million in compensatory damages from his ex-wife's homeowners' insurance policy.
The next dispute arose in February 1999, when Sarnoff spearheaded a move to create a dog park within Blanche Park, at Shipping Avenue and Virginia Street, directly across from his home. A neighborhood group secured $30,000 from Ralston Purina to put in — among other things — landscaping, a kiosk featuring the company's logo, water fountains, and a three-foot-tall chainlink fence. (Sarnoff owns three Bernese Mountain dogs.)
Frank Rollason, who was an assistant city manager at the time, says Sarnoff did not disclose his home was across from the park when he first inquired about it during a neighborhood meeting. "I found out from someone else," Rollason recalls. "I thought it was odd that he never told me himself."
Adds Jason Walker, who at the time was working for Winton: "None of us had any idea that he lived in front of the park, because he didn't tell us."
Four months after the dog park opened in February 2001, a group of Coconut Grove parents, including Sarnoff's next-door neighbor James Cashion, complained to the city that the pooches' green space had taken up too much of the park, leaving only a small patch for the neighborhood children. Cashion cited a plan for the project that included a 50-50 split.
An incensed Sarnoff posted signs in the Purina kiosks calling Cashion and his wife people "who were trying to ruin the dog park for dog lovers." He also circulated a negative letter about Cashion, his spouse, and their eight-year-old daughter. "The letter was so bad my neighbors didn't want to tell me what it said," Cashion says. "That gives you a good picture of the character next door."
Another neighbor, Melissa Meyer, accused Sarnoff and the city of discriminating against black and Hispanic kids who used the park. "He kicked the black kids out," wrote someone named "Emma on Shipping Avenue" in a recent post on a Miami Herald story, "and told them if they wanted to throw a ball in a park, then their parents could get into their cars and drive them to another park."
Rollason adds that Sarnoff was very upset about a basketball hoop the city was going to purchase for the park's kiddie section. "He was worried about bringing in the wrong element to the park," Rollason says. "When I pressed him about what he meant by that, he never really explained himself."
Sarnoff responds he's no racist. He was simply trying to improve his neighborhood. "I always judge a man by the content of his character, not the color of his skin," he proclaims.
He denies retaliating against the Cashions, attributing their squabble to "just some bad feelings between neighbors that went on for a long time."
In September 2004, Sarnoff received a call from his friend Sue McConnell, a soft-spoken Grove resident who has known him for more than eight years. She said Home Depot planned to convert an old Kmart on South Dixie Highway into a massive retail center. Like many of his neighbors, Sarnoff believed the project would invade the unique character of Miami's wealthiest enclave. "He has always been a take-charge kind of guy," McConnell says. "He gets things done."
Soon Sarnoff mobilized Groveites. To persuade commissioners to nix the project, he formed Grove First, a grassroots organization identified by yard signs depicting two palm trees forming an X over the Home Depot logo. The movement collected signatures from 13,000 residents opposed to the project and filled city hall every time Home Depot came up for a vote.
Grove First even produced a documentary in 2005 called Don't Box Me In, which prominently featured Sarnoff. In one scene, the bushy-bearded activist accused Commissioner Winton of doing nothing to stop Home Depot. "Johnny and the mayor let us down," Sarnoff moped on camera.
Though the Home Depot store eventually opened, Grove First remained intact. It entered a slate of candidates for the Coconut Grove Village Council in 2005. The top vote-getter was Sarnoff, who was named village council chairman. "He didn't give a damn if Home Depot went in or not," complains Jason Walker. "He admitted as much in meetings with Home Depot's lawyers and city officials." (Sarnoff, of course, says he never admitted any such thing and cites success in limiting the project.)
Indeed, soon after Winton was suspended after tussling with two Miami-Dade Police officers, Sarnoff began campaigning for the seat. The immediate favorite was Linda Haskins, the city's former chief financial officer, whom the commission appointed to the position on an interim basis. (She declined comment for this article.)
Sarnoff and his supporters relentlessly hammered Haskins for her ties to Mayor Manny Diaz and for receiving campaign contributions from lawyers, lobbyists, and people working not only for Home Depot but also other controversial developers. At one point, doctored images depicting Haskins wearing a Home Depot apron and carrying barrels of cash found their way into the in-boxes of the district's voters.
Sarnoff even received help from an unexpected ally: Joe Arriola, who had resigned as city manager after a series of scandals. Before his departure, the city manager helped Sarnoff win some brownie points with parents who had been alienated by the dog park dispute. Via e-mail, Sarnoff asked Arriola to replace playground equipment at the park. Arriola replied, "Your wish is my command!!!" Soon the manager ordered the purchase of $26,000 worth of new equipment and replacement of a fence separating the children's area from the dogs' space.
During the Haskins-Sarnoff race (which also briefly included Rollason), Arriola publicly attacked Haskins, claiming she was a lush who drank on the job and had to be driven home from city hall every day. Haskins emphatically denied the claim, but it gave Sarnoff a substantial boost with voters.
There's another interesting twist: In the final days before the runoff election, Sarnoff switched parties from Republican to Democrat. Soon the Miami-Dade Democratic Executive Committee endorsed him, sent out mailers, and paid for a phone bank to support his candidacy. On November 16, Arriola, a Republican, contributed $5,000 to the Democratic Party. Between November 18 and 20, three Arriola friends — Allison Traeger and Dante and Annie Starks, contributed $6,000 to the Dem's PAC.
That money helped Sarnoff beat Haskins in the November 21, 2006 runoff; Haskins raised twice as much money.
Arriola admits he gave the cash to help Sarnoff's campaign. "Absolutely," Arriola says. "I figured I'd write one big check to show I supported him."
The alliance with Arriola, which Sarnoff denies, would play heavily into the drama over the famed memo: It all began with two controversial projects. The first is a much-disputed plan by Mercy Hospital to sell a piece of land for a three-tower condominium. The second is Crosswinds, an Overtown complex that residents oppose.
Last May 8, Sarnoff says, he received a call from Arriola, who asked to meet at the Grand Bay Hotel. "It was a really hot day, because I was walking to the hotel," Sarnoff says. "But my driver [Miami Police Sgt. Alfredo Alvarez] pulled up next to me as I was walking, and he insisted he drive me over there."
When he arrived at the Grand Bay, Sarnoff says, Arriola was acting strange. The former manager advised him of an April 30, 2007 meeting he had with three people: Related Group executive Alicia Cuervo, Miami's operations chief Mary Conway, and public works director Stephanie Grindell. Cuervo informed Arriola and the others that two Spence-Jones associates — former county Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler and campaign strategist Barbara Hardemon, Billy's wife — had to receive $100,000 if Spence-Jones was to approve the project. And, Sarnoff recalls, Arriola claimed Spence-Jones was holding up Crosswinds because she wanted $50,000 from the project's developer. When the meal was over, Arriola picked up the tab. In the valet area, the ex-city manager allegedly bear-hugged Sarnoff's wife Teresa — who had come to pick him up.
A week later, Sarnoff recorded details of the meeting. He titled the memo "Arriola Conversation," wrote his own name in the "from" line, and addressed it to "File." On the reference line, Sarnoff typed, "Arriola Conversation May 8, 2007, @ 5:15 p.m. at Grand Bay Hotel." He labeled it "Confidential."
The four paragraphs are written in stilted legal language, including phrases such as "to achieve Michelle Spence-Jones's vote" and "requires $50,000 from the Crosswinds applicant prior to the modification for more time on the Crosswinds matter." Sarnoff ends it by stating Arriola "further indicated he was going to try to monitor the situation with the Crosswinds deal and that he wanted a meeting with Joe Centorino of the State Attorney's Office concerning this."
Related Group Chairman Jorge Perez told the Miami Herald this past December 20 that his company did in fact hire Hardemon and Carey-Shuler to conduct community outreach, but emphatically denied they were paid to secure votes at city hall.
"I am not the judge or the jury," Sarnoff says. "I was conveying information about a possible crime, and I had a duty to make sure that it was being investigated. When the state attorney's investigation is concluded, the truth will emerge."
Mary Conway is a key player in the Sarnoff/Spence-Jones drama. Sarnoff asserts she told a tale virtually identical to Arriola's a week before he spoke with the former manager. That conversation was not addressed in the memo.
A fair-skinned woman with straight, light brown hair, Conway is a civil engineer who spent the first 12 years of her career working for Florida Power & Light and the Florida Department of Transportation. Before accepting a post at the City of Miami in 2004, she spent two years working for a private engineering firm.
Conway was fired by the city last July following the arrest of 11 members of the capital improvements department, which she headed. Prosecutors say the 11 employees were doing private consulting jobs during regular work hours. Conway claims she turned them in — and recently collected a $200,000 settlement from the city after filing a whistleblower grievance.
This past January 16, around 10 a.m., Conway sat before six attorneys inside a Coral Gables law office. In response to a question from John Shubin, a well-known local land use attorney who works for the Related Group, she revealed a close relationship with Sarnoff. "He was very supportive of me and my position at the city," she said. "I had frankly reached out to him and to Joe Arriola for help and guidance."
Sometime in late March or early April last year, Conway said, she had lunch with Cuervo and Grindell at Mr. Moe's Cantina in Coconut Grove. Soon after sitting down, Cuervo received a call from Related lobbyist Rosario Kennedy. After an indeterminate time, Cuervo hung up. She was "a bit exasperated that [Commissioner Spence-Jones's] office had requested that $50,000 be paid to Barbara Carey-Shuler, and that it had already been paid," Conway testified. "And the exasperation was now that they were requesting another $50,000 to be paid to Barbara Hardemon."
After the lunch meeting, Conway says, she met with Grindell, but did not specify when or where. "I was soul-searching whether I should share with the State Attorney's Office that information that I heard at the lunch," Conway said.
This is where Conway's story begins to diverge from the events described in Sarnoff's memo. On April 30, 2007, she says, the same three women rendezvoused for lunch at Garcia's Seafood Restaurant, a popular eatery on the Miami River. This time they were joined by Arriola, who was there to celebrate his birthday. He made cryptic comments about Spence-Jones. "Something to the effect that the commissioner better be careful.... If she continued this type of behavior, she was going to get herself in trouble," Conway says.
Shubin then read aloud to Conway the first paragraph of Sarnoff's memo, in which he describes Arriola's revelation about the $100,000 paid to Spence-Jones's friends. "Is the substance of Mr. Sarnoff's first paragraph true?" Shubin inquired.
"No, it's not true," Conway replied. "While I was at the [Garcia's] lunch, there was no specific discussion regarding payments associated with the Mercy project."
Next, Conway reported she had met with Sarnoff on May 1, before the commissioner's meeting with Arriola. Though Sarnoff told the Miami Herald (and later New Times) that Conway was wearing a pink dress and crying during that meeting, she denied both. However, she admitted telling Sarnoff the payments were discussed at Mr. Moe's.
The memo "has elements of truth, but it is not completely true," Conway said.
The Herald, the South Florida Business Journal, and other media outlets have reported that Conway's deposition is consistent with Sarnoff's memo. But there has been little mention of the discrepancies.
During an interview this past January 10, Arriola insisted he never met Sarnoff at the Grand Bay and that he certainly did not tell Sarnoff about any alleged payoffs. "He called me and asked me if I had heard the rumors about this and that," Arriola recalls. "I told him to be careful with rumors he hears at city hall. End of story."
And Carey-Shuler dismisses Conway's testimony as idle gossip from secondhand sources. After all, Conway admits she got her information from Cuervo, who in turn claims Kennedy told her about the cash payments.
Of course, Kennedy denies the whole thing. "That conversation never happened," she says.
Carey-Shuler acknowledges receiving $50,000 to $100,000 from the Related Group, but says she earned it as a lobbyist. Spence-Jones, she adds, did not know about the payment. "In politics there is a rumor out there every day," Carey-Shuler adds. "I have never heard of a commissioner writing himself a memo and then turning it over to the state attorney. To me that is evil, vicious, and racist."
Michelle Spence-Jones is sitting inside the Lost & Found Saloon, a pleasant, dim Mexican restaurant on NW 36th Street in Wynwood. It's a cool, sunny afternoon. Before munching on a plate of shrimp, chicken, and pork tacos, the pretty, tender-voiced lady with jet-black, shoulder-length dreadlocks bows her head and says a prayer before eating.
"Maybe the investigation started with him first," she says, referring to Sarnoff. "He got scared so he decided to go after me and present his theory that the only black commissioner in this town is corrupt. How is that not racist?"
Spence-Jones is a true Miami girl. Born and raised in Liberty City, she attended Lorah Park Elementary in Brownsville and later graduated from North Miami Senior High School. As a child, she played with Carey-Shuler's son at the then-county commissioner's home.
After working for the city for a few years, she was elected to the city commission in 2005. As with Sarnoff, that election was controversial. She was recently fined $8,000 by the Florida Elections Commission after it was determined she had paid poll workers in cash instead of checks. "I've been a target of allegations since the day I was elected," she says. "But that doesn't mean they are true. I have done nothing wrong."
If anyone deserves to be investigated, she says, it is Sarnoff. He was only a tool for Arriola. Take his handling of Rollason, who spent just one day on the commissioner's staff before abruptly resigning.
In fact, says Spence-Jones, Arriola ordered Sarnoff to fire Rollason. Not long before Sarnoff took office, she explains, the former manager walked into her office, pulled out his cell phone, dialed Sarnoff, and put him on speakerphone. "He tells him that no one likes Frank and to get rid of him," Spence-Jones claims.
Then, she says, Arriola demanded to speak with Sarnoff's wife Teresa. "She has more balls than you do...," Spence-Jones recalls the former manager saying. "Teresa said they would handle it, that they would dump Rollason."
On December 4, 2006, Rollason recalls, he showed up for work only to be called into the commissioner's office around 11 a.m. Sarnoff claimed two other commissioners, Spence-Jones and Joe Sanchez, disapproved of his appointment. So Rollason quit. "My relationship with Marc has deteriorated since then," he says. Indeed both Sanchez and Spence-Jones deny complaining.
Says Sarnoff: "Frank just wasn't the right choice for me. It is a decision I had to make."
After all of the debate over the Mercy Hospital and Crosswinds projects, both were approved last year. Spence-Jones supported them. Sarnoff opposed Mercy but voted for Crosswinds.
State prosecutors are investigating several criminal allegations against her, none more damaging than the one about her supposedly instructing the Related Group to hire her confidantes in exchange for her vote. No charges have been filed.
Until the investigation is complete, no one can judge the memo's veracity. But regardless of the conclusion, one thing is clear: As with the many other disputes that have filled Sarnoff's career, this controversy has made him better known and allowed him to seem the good guy.
Consider the commissioner's long climb to the commission dais:
• By playing the role of dog lover, he made most of Blanche Park off-limits to children and, incidentally, increased his property value.
• By leading the Home Depot fight, he positioned himself for political office. And, incidentally, the store still opened.
• To cement his position with city unions and his own constituency, he denies a close relationship with Arriola — though the facts contradict this.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
And then there is the memo itself. Sarnoff's supposed source, Arriola, says the commissioner made it up. Conway says the memo "has elements of truth but that it is not completely true." Kennedy, Carey-Shuler, and Spence-Jones all deny the facts described in it.
Questions abound. Why would someone — anyone — write such a memo? Why doesn't the document include mention of his meeting with Mary Conway? Why did he wait a week to write it?
Indeed, Sarnoff's behavior related to the memo is odd. He gave it to prosecutors but fought an (unsuccessful) court battle to keep it from the Related Group and local media.
Nevertheless, Sarnoff, who once likened himself to a soldier at war, stands behind the substance of the document. "I believe in a God and a higher power," he says. "There are a lot of people mad at me. But I'm not doing this job to get along with people."