Commissioner Marc Sarnoff's ethics questioned over Mercy condo project

Joe Arriola is an arranger, a fixer of sorts. So when Marc Sarnoff was elected to the Miami City Commission, Arriola thought it was a good idea to arrange a sit-down between his pal of 25 years, prominent developer Jorge Perez, and Coconut Grove's new political capo di tutti. Arriola knew Sarnoff wasn't keen on Perez's plan to build a three-tower condo project on land owned by Mercy Hospital. So two months before the city commission's first zoning hearing, Arriola invited Perez and Sarnoff over to his sprawling South Miami estate for Sunday-morning breakfast.

"I figured that by maybe getting the two principals together, we could stop a lot of the public posturing," Arriola recalled in a 2007 sworn statement. "At the end of the day, they agreed to disagree and shook hands."

Sarnoff, who ultimately voted against the condos, says he met with many builders following his win but never spoke to them about specific projects in the city. "It was to show them I wasn't a three-headed monster," says Sarnoff, who ran on a controlled development platform.


Marc Sarnoff

Arriola's testimony about the breakfast meeting recently surfaced when Cornelius Shiver, a Miami attorney currently suspended from practicing law in Florida, filed a Miami-Dade ethics commission complaint accusing Sarnoff of violating a state law that prohibits elected officials from speaking in private to anyone about a zoning matter before casting their vote. The ethics commission dismissed Shiver's complaint as "not legally sufficient" because the three-year statute of limitations had passed.

Shiver tells Riptide that Sarnoff needed to be exposed. "He's always crusading against others being unethical," Shiver says. "But he is not so squeaky-clean himself."

The commissioner says Shiver, who volunteered for Sarnoff's opponent Linda Haskins in 2006, has no credibility. "He's a disbarred lawyer," Sarnoff says, "and he hates me."

Sarnoff's detractor provided Riptide with copies of Arriola's 2007 sworn statement, as well as investigators' interviews with Perez and Sarnoff. The commissioner first said he did not meet with anyone prior to his vote and then acknowledged the sit-down with Perez. But he vehemently denied they talked about the Mercy project. "We talked about predominantly who everybody was backing for president," he said.

During the Q&A session, state prosecutor Jorge Cueto noted that Arriola had sworn he set up the meeting "with the express purpose for [Sarnoff] to discuss with Perez the Mercy Towers" and reminded the commissioner he was under oath. "If you did, you know, it's OK," Cueto said. "I mean, we have basically given you immunity. If you lie about it, that's a problem." Sarnoff stuck to his story. "The only thing I recall being discussed was Joe's backing for Barack Obama," Sarnoff said, "and [Perez] was backing Hillary Clinton."

Of that first meeting with Sarnoff, Perez said, "I didn't know him from Adam. So it was a good thing that I at least got to see him and talk." So if Mercy didn't come up, what else did the developer and commissioner discuss? Development in general, the Miami Art Museum, and how he was "not the typical developer," Perez said.

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