Grainy video shows a white van idling in front of a two-story, dark-salmon-colored townhouse at 3000 Shipping Ave. in Coconut Grove. On the vehicle's side, blue decals spell out the name of the Document Bank, a file management company.
"I guess it's time to move the office," says a baritone male voice with a heavy New England accent off-camera.
The lens pans to the van's open rear doors, revealing more than a dozen boxes stacked in neat rows on the floor. "Looks like all the files are coming out," notes the voice.
The house belongs to Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who resides next door. The 25-second video, shot August 17, is proof positive that Sarnoff was illegally using the house as an office, says the videographer, John El-Masry. The commissioner's deceit after being cited by city zoning officers is just the tip of a scandal that should cause the commissioner to be recalled, he says.
"Knowing how slimy the guy is, I knew he would move stuff out of there," El-Masry notes. "He needs to understand that he is under a microscope and he better walk the straight and narrow."
Sarnoff is the most powerful political player in Miami after Mayor Tomás Regalado. Or perhaps he holds even more sway. After Sarnoff's chief rival on the city commission, Michelle Spence-Jones, was removed from office last November, Sarnoff was selected commission chairman by his colleagues. Over the past two months, he has seized control of the Overtown and Omni community redevelopment agencies as well as the Downtown Development Authority. These agencies collect tens of millions of dollars in property taxes every year and dole out huge contracts.
Elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2007, Sarnoff started as a neighborhood populist candidate. Eight months ago, he championed an ethics ordinance that requires all elected and appointed city officials to take an ethics training course. Last year, the commissioner succeeded in rolling back last call for bars and restaurants in the Grove's business district from 5 a.m. to 3 a.m.
But his rise has been marred by double-crosses and double-talk. He has lied about peculiar stuff; for instance, in 2006 he falsely claimed to be the grandson of David Sarnoff, a television pioneer who founded the National Broadcasting Company. Two years later, New Times interviewed one of the media tycoon's surviving relatives and the executive director of the David Sarnoff Library in Princeton, New Jersey, both of whom emphatically denied the commissioner was related. Confronted with their refutations, Marc Sarnoff removed all reference to David Sarnoff from his city commission bio and admitted he really didn't remember the identity of his paternal grandfather. (See "Marc Sarnoff Lies About His Lineage," February 26, 2008.)
Around the same time, Sarnoff authored a scandalous memo in which he jotted down secondhand, unverified accusations that then-Commissioner Spence-Jones had improperly bartered her vote to approve a condo building on Mercy Hospital property. State prosecutors obtained the note and began a criminal investigation into Spence-Jones that ultimately concluded she did not commit a crime. (She is now awaiting trial on two unrelated public corruption charges.)
More recently, Sarnoff — who boasted to CBS4 that his ethics ordinance "takes away the ignorance-is-a-defense argument" — said he was blindsided when his two top aides resigned Friday, July 30. Yet the following Monday, both men started lucrative new jobs at the Omni CRA, which Sarnoff oversees. Bert Gonzalez, Sarnoff's senior staffer in charge of business affairs, doubled his salary. He took a $105,000-a-year job as the Omni CRA assistant director. And the commissioner's spokesman, David Karsh, garnered an $82,000-a-year gig as communications director.
The moves were not greeted kindly by city workers, who will likely be subjected to huge pay cuts because of strapped city budgets. (CRA employees have so far escaped the ax.)
At the city commission's special meeting last week to approve salary and pension cuts for public workers, a yellow flyer was passed around that read, "Sarnoff knew that today was coming and... put some of his key people in positions where they... wouldn't be subjected to salary cuts but [would be] rewarded for being his butt boys."
Then there's the case of California developer Mark Siffin and his plan to erect huge billboards atop a parking garage near the downtown performing arts center. Sarnoff, whose district includes the area where the media towers are slated to go up, negotiated terms of the deal and then engineered its unusually quick passage. "I think it's time for the City of Miami to make some progress to move at a faster pace than we have been," he said after the vote.
Sarnoff didn't disclose he has received $17,500 in campaign contributions from billboard company executives who want to splash ads on the two skyscraper-size murals.
The commissioner brushes off all the criticism and alleged deceit as the result of misunderstanding and bad blood. He says he had "zero to do with" Gonzalez and Karsh taking jobs with the CRA. "It came as a surprise to me," he adds, also noting El-Masry has a vendetta against him. The owner of popular Grove bar Mr. Moe's is suing the city in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, claiming Sarnoff unfairly targets bars and restaurants near his house while allowing other establishments to stay open until 5 a.m. "John hates me," Sarnoff gripes.
But the details of the illegal office case are nevertheless compelling. On August 6, El-Masry filed a complaint with city code enforcement officers claiming Sarnoff was using 3000 Shipping Ave. to illegally run his private law practice in a residential area.
On August 12, fresh from his summer vacation to the exclusive Ibiza, Sarnoff met with City Manager Carlos Migoya, City Attorney Julie Bru, and Code Enforcement Director Sergio Guadix to discuss El-Masry's complaint. Most property owners, of course, don't have that kind of access.
The commissioner explained that his wife, Theresa, lives at 3100 Virginia St., and he resides next door. While some couples have his and hers towels, the Sarnoffs have his and hers houses.
Guadix says Sarnoff "seemed concerned that he was being targeted for reasons other than the violation at hand." On August 27, Guadix personally inspected 3000 Shipping Ave. — three weeks after El-Masry's complaint. Normally, the code enforcement office has ten business days to inspect a property for a violation. Apparently, the rule doesn't apply when you are a sitting city commissioner.
By then, Sarnoff had rearranged his office, complains the bar owner. What's more, Sarnoff's law partner, Neil Bayer, moved out and relocated to Coral Gables two days prior to the inspection.
Still, Guadix insists Sarnoff "was required to comply with the code just like any other resident." After personally inspecting the property, the code enforcement director rescinded the violation notice.
"Everybody down the line is covering for Sarnoff," El-Masry grouses. "He is lying through his teeth. He'd say his dogs live in that house if he could." The bar owner hopes someone will start a recall campaign against the commissioner. That would require signatures from 10 percent of the registered voters in Sarnoff's district and then a public vote.
El-Masry isn't the only one upset with the commissioner. His next-door neighbor, who asked for anonymity out of fear Sarnoff would retaliate against him, says, "Marc is an insufferable pr**k. A real motherf**ker."