Miami Beach Mayor Blames Shady PAC for Tanking Convention Center Vote

In the days leading up to yesterday's vote on whether to build a massive new convention center and hotel in the middle of South Beach, skeptics voiced a number of concerns: the snarled traffic in the heart of SoBe, the outsized scale of the building, the environmental impact. 

But when the project failed at the polls last night, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine pointed to one nefarious reason the convention center project tanked: a group of mysterious political action committees that bombarded voters with misleading robo-calls and mailers. 

"Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a small group hide behind shady outside PACs and engage in the worst scare tactics to spread complete lies about the hotel referendum," Levine says in a statement about the vote. "These PACs purposefully skirted election laws, resulting in voters receiving complete falsehoods without the benefit of knowing who funded these attacks."

Levine has a point. The telephone ads were misleading, warning voters they'd be on the hook for $400 million for the project; the city says it would be privately financed

And Levine is also right that it's unclear who funded the attacks. The calls and mailers were paid for by a pair of PACs called Governmental Values Coalition and People for Responsible Development. State documents show the registered agent of both firms is a CPA in Venice, Florida, named Eric Robinson. But Robinson denies he signed off on doing that duty for the groups.

"Someone asked me to be treasurer of the PACs. I did respond positively, but upon further investigation, I responded negatively. I had concerns," Robinson tells New Times

So who's pulling the strings at the PACs? The first group lists its chairperson as a New Jersey-based realtor named Ed Abramovitz; he hasn't returned a call from New Times for comment. 

And although Governmental Values Coalition was supposed to report its contributors last Thursday, it still hasn't done so. Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner's office filed a warning against the group Friday, noting the group faces escalating fines if it doesn't submit a report. As of this morning, the PAC has yet to do so. (The other PAC, People for Responsible Development, has a later deadline, in April.)

In a close vote, Levine argues, those secretly purchased robo-calls and mailers were the difference. The convention center plan, which called for a 288-foot hotel with 800 rooms, garnered 55 percent of the vote — but it needed 60 percent to pass. 

"A majority of Miami Beach voters today said they are ready to finish the job at our convention center," Levine said, while promising, "I will work with my colleagues to ensure that the will of the majority of Miami Beach voters is not silenced and that the progress we’ve made with our convention center corridor continues."

There's little doubt the PACs waged a shady campaign against the plan — and voters may never find out who paid for it. But placing all of the blame on the mailers ignores some of the real concerns of Miami Beach voters. Many residents interviewed by the Miami Herald pointed to the size and scope of the project in an already traffic-clogged city and the threat of sea-level rise. 

It's worth noting that voters shot down a similarly oversize project the mayor was pushing in North Beach last year because of similar concerns.   
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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