Ex-Commissioner Marc Sarnoff Lost a Swim Race, and Charity Never Got Its Money

The swim race was meant to be a hilarious escapade of less-than-Olympic-caliber politicians thrashing about for a good cause. Held last July at the West Grove public pool, Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff lined up to race with two other commissioners and filmmaker Billy Corben, with each pledging $1,000 toward the financially strapped community pool in a historically black neighborhood. Luther "Uncle Luke" Campbell later stepped in with his own $1,000 donation (though he stayed out of the pool).

But Sarnoff lost the race, and nine months later, the pool still hasn't gotten its money. Commissioner Ken Russell, who won Sarnoff's commission seat last fall, says he'll cover the payment using his office's accounts. 

Sarnoff says the problem was simply a bureaucratic mixup when he asked the city to send the money from his office's accounts. "We did donate the money. We put in the order for those funds to be paid to the pool," he says. "Whether they were ever actually paid is up to the city."

But Corben isn't buying the excuse. He says Sarnoff should have ponied up from his personal funds in the first place.

"I signed a damn check. It came out of my own pocket," Corben says. "He was happy to campaign out there and talk about how great this was for the kids. He should have made sure they got their money." 

The July 2015 race was organized by Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who was upset to learn that the West Grove pool would have to begin charging local residents — $1 for children and $3 for adults — to swim there. He recruited his son, city Commissioner Francis Suarez, along with Sarnoff and Corben. 

Corben, swimming the breaststroke, teamed up with the younger Suarez to race Sarnoff and the elder Suarez, a former Miami mayor. Corben's squad prevailed, but everyone agreed the race was about helping the pool. 

“The real winners are the kids of Coconut Grove,” Francis Suarez told reporters after the race.

But Sarnoff's portion of that program-saving cash never made it through. Sarnoff's chief of staff at the time, Ron Nelson, says that his office put in a request for money to be paid to the pool but that the city regularly loses such requests in red tape. By the time Sarnoff left office a few months after the race, no one had followed up to check on the payment.

"What happens is sometimes it takes the city a long time to hit send on a payment. But it was absolutely done," says Sarnoff, who adds that he left Russell $35,000 in rolled-over office funds, so the $1,000 the new commissioner is paying the pool isn't onerous.

But Russell's staff says that's not the point. "It's more a question that you made a promise to these kids, and then you should have followed up on it," says Eleazar Meléndez, Russell's chief of staff. "Now we're going to cover it."

Corben is also far from appeased. "While it was a worthy cause, we shouldn't have had to do this to begin with. The City of Miami couldn't find 4 or 5 grand for this pool, but they can write Jeff Loria a check?" he says. "And then he didn't even pay? That's despicable."

As for Sarnoff, he's no longer a city official, but he's still a power player in Miami politics. The longtime Democrat endorsed Gov. Rick Scott in his last election, and that maneuvering paid off in March when Scott appointed Sarnoff to the Florida International University Board of Trustees
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink