The Comeback Kid Does South Beach

Spend enough time working in South Beach's competitive nightlife industry, and you're bound to make some enemies. Just ask Gerry Kelly. After arriving in Miami in 1994, the Irish-born Kelly spent the next few years cannily rising through the ranks of clubland's promoters and managers, eventually being hired in 1998 by Chris Paciello as marketing director for Liquid and Bar Room. But when Kelly was offered a partnership in the fledgling Level nightclub the following year, Paciello didn't exactly wish him luck. Instead, fearing a savvy new Beach rival, Kelly's former boss discussed having him killed.

"We've got to get [Kelly's] head fuckin' broken in," Paciello says on a wiretap recording of a phone conversation with an undercover officer. "I got to get him whacked."

Paciello is currently believed to be in a federal witness protection program after pleading guilty to separate mob-related racketeering, robbery, and murder charges. But after last Thursday's Level appearance of former President Bill Clinton, Kelly might still want to watch his back.

Many of South Florida's most prominent Jewish philanthropists are livid at what they consider an underhanded move by Kelly. "Everybody knows what kind of person he is; he's just so sleazy," said one local staffer of the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO), which threw a gala fundraising dinner starring Clinton immediately following his February 7 bash at Level. While none of the WIZO members with whom Kulchur spoke called for a Paciello-style "whacking," they also made it clear that Kelly shouldn't be expecting a Seder invite.

And if Kelly is counting on a return visit from Clinton, the prez's communications director, Julia Payne, suggested he shouldn't hold his breath. "We were as surprised as everybody else when we saw the ads they put out," Payne remarked of Level's promotional blitz touting "An afternoon with William Jefferson Clinton," featuring both $100 general admission tickets and $10,000 "presidential VIP" tables.

Business this season has not been kind to Gerry Kelly. With the similarly megasize crobar sucking off patrons three Washington Avenue blocks to the north, and a host of intimate lounges such as Rumi drawing both high rollers and gossip-page-worthy star power, Level has been feeling the economic squeeze.

What Kelly desperately needed was some fresh buzz, a star-studded event to titillate the media, entice back some boldfaced names -- and with them, mass crowds.

Clinton's arrival certainly seemed to be doing the trick, with scads of television and print coverage trumpeting the benefit for the nonprofit Kids in Dade Society and its minority after-school programs. The Miami Herald's Tyler Bridges isn't exactly a veteran of breaching the velvet rope, but that didn't stop him from writing that Level was "perhaps South Beach's hippest nightclub." Local TV broadcasters were equally gushing as they attempted to discern Level's velvet-rope doorstaff from the Secret Service. (Here's a hint: Level's enforcers wear sharper suits.)

Missing from all this fawning was any inquiry as to just how Kelly had managed to achieve this booking coup for both himself and the relatively obscure Kids in Dade, particularly in light of WIZO's looming $500 per plate dinner with the former president. After all, the 1990-founded Kids in Dade, based at a mere handful of local schools, operates on an annual budget of $60,000. By way of contrast, WIZO is an 82-year-old charitable organization with more than 250,000 international members, official recognition from the United Nations, and a vast array of services in Israel, including day-care centers and battered women's shelters.

Even more glaring, Kids in Dade was receiving a Clintonian visit absolutely free. Meanwhile WIZO was paying Clinton's standard $100,000 speaking fee. That was on top of approximately $25,000 for a chartered roundtrip flight from his Chappaqua, New York, home, as well as accommodations at the Beach's swanky Shore Club hotel.

Forking over this kind of money raises concerns for any charity -- namely that the six-figure guest of honor won't double-book himself across town and cut into the draw. If one could hear Clinton speak for $100 at, oh, let's say Level, why would one pay $500 to WIZO for the same privilege 60 minutes later?

Accordingly WIZO staffers say they had a signed contract with Clinton, similar to the $60,000 deal they brokered with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2000. The key clause: No other South Florida appearances before WIZO's annual shindig. So how on earth did Gerry Kelly manage to snag Clinton?

Enter Hugh Rodham. Before 1992, Rodham was just another anonymous Miami public defender who happened to be Hillary Rodham's brother. With his sister's move to the West Wing, however, Hugh seemingly created a new career out of the fact that the new commander in chief was also his brother-in-law.

Despite the reported urgings of leading Democrats who feared he'd embarrass the president, in 1994 Rodham embarked on a quixotic Florida run for the U.S. Senate, getting soundly trounced by Republican Connie Mack. In 1997 Rodham joined a group of plaintiffs' attorneys for multimillion-dollar negotiations between government prosecutors and cigarette manufacturers -- this despite his having virtually no experience in tobacco litigation or any product liability cases. To many it seemed he was brought onboard simply because of the supposed clout his last name wielded. In fact from 1994 to the present, Rodham has not argued a single case in either a Broward or Miami-Dade court.

In 1999 Rodham entered into a $118 million hazelnut deal in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Rodham's Georgian partner was accused of attempting to overthrow the Georgian government -- a U.S. ally -- and using the former public defender as a shield.

Most recently Rodham again made national headlines when he received $400,000 to successfully lobby for two presidential pardons during the final days of Clinton's administration. (He eventually gave the money back.) Given this track record, it's little wonder that a senior Clinton White House official told the New York Times last year: "You never wanted to hear [Rodham's] name come up in any context other than playing golf."

In late January, after initially announcing Clinton's imminent arrival, Kelly was more than willing to crow of his close friendship with Rodham -- and how that bond had been parlayed into a Clinton visit -- to Herald nightlife columnist Lesley Abravanel, as well as the Daily Business Review. But once those boasts appeared in print, both Kelly and Ray Zeller, executive director of Kids in Dade (on whose board Kelly sits), received irate phone calls from Clinton's staff. Both men say they were ordered to stifle themselves.

Rodham did not return phone calls, and Clinton spokeswoman Payne refused to discuss the matter. But she stressed Clinton was only "dropping by" Level. Contrary to Kelly's repeated assertions that the former president would be delivering an hourlong speech, "that's not the case," Payne said. Sure enough, just 24 hours before Clinton's jet touched down in South Florida, Level's marquee mysteriously transformed from "An Afternoon with William Jefferson Clinton" to "Bill Clinton Speaking." The actual speech clocked in at five minutes.

"It's politics," sighed Kelly last week of the WIZO dinner. "That's the event they want the press on, because that's the event that's paying him." He added glumly: "I've been told by Clinton's staff not to give any interviews," and referred Kulchur to Ray Zeller, who also sounded a note of exasperation.

"Look, I don't want another screaming phone call from New York," said Zeller, a long-time activist with the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party. "I'd love to shoot my mouth off, but I can't." Still, Zeller was quick to rise to the defense of both Kelly -- "The man has a heart; South Beach can be proud of him" -- and Hugh Rodham. Indeed Zeller was part of Rodham's failed 1996 effort to seize control of the county Democratic Party from chairman Joe Geller.

"Hugh's gotten a raw deal," Zeller insisted. As for Clinton's South Beach stop, he noted, "Hugh did not make this happen. I've been writing letters to Clinton for a year, and I finally got some results. I have no idea how [Rodham's] name even got into all this."

When February 7 finally arrived, however, Level co-owner Noah Lazes was more than happy to clear up the confusion. Standing inside his club, Lazes watched as the room filled with an odd mix of Beach scenesters and local politicos; nightclub promoter Michael Capponi and artist Romero Britto threaded their way past a Lubavitch rebbe, careful not to knock off his wide-brimmed hat.

Gazing out proudly over the surreal scene, Lazes explained: "This all developed out of our relationship with Hugh Rodham, who is a very close friend of Gerry's. Hugh made the introduction to Bill Clinton's manager, and Gerry worked on him night and day."

Lazes gestured to where 30 small children -- some in-the-flesh Kids in Dade -- were about to take their seats on either side of Clinton's podium. "I remember one night," he laughed, pointing to a spot stage left. "Gerry and Clinton's manager were onstage together at 1:00 a.m., drinking champagne. Here's a guy who'd never been in a nightclub before!" Lazes shook his head, clearly impressed with Kelly's ability to charm. "I said, 'Oh my God, Gerry -- you've corrupted the president's manager!'"

Lazes insisted no money changed hands, that Rodham simply was hooking up a favorite cause with a dear friend.

So will Rodham at least get a table in the VIP room when he comes to Level from now on?

Lazes chuckled: "Oh, he gets a good table anyway."

It was easy to spot the winners inside Level. Zeller looked pumped, perhaps gearing up for yet another power grab within the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. Moreover, with Florida's Democrats revving up to unseat Jeb Bush in the upcoming fall race for governor, the afternoon had all the hallmarks of an anti-GOP rally. United Teachers of Dade's Pat Tornillo and Painters Union's Seth Sklarey worked the room, glad-handed by a slew of party loyalists and aspiring candidates.

Conspicuously absent was Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer, who, despite being a Democrat, received an election endorsement from Jeb Bush last November. Dermer's defeated opponent (also a Democrat), former state Rep. Elaine Bloom, occupied a seat front and center of Clinton.

Amid all this glitz and politicking, it's unclear if the actual kids who make up Zeller's Kids in Dade were anything more than useful props. Although Kelly said afterward he expected the benefit to raise some $75,000, that claim seems highly inflated. A look at a carefully annotated list of the afternoon's attendees revealed that roughly half had received complimentary tickets. And even several of those who did pay their way in found themselves upgraded to pricier seats in an effort to fill the otherwise half-empty $10,000 tables.

There were no glitter balls on display at the WIZO gathering, and even fewer shabbily dressed political hacks. Instead an elegant black-tie crowd of some 450 spread out on the lush Vizcaya-fashioned Pine Tree Drive estate of perfume magnates Luis and Norma Quintero. After a private cocktail reception in a side room, where $2000 granted one a personal photo alongside Clinton, the entire audience took their seats under an open-air tent. Clinton then delivered a tour de force 40-minute address on the war in Afghanistan, peace in the Middle East, and Black Hawk Down.

"I walked through a lot of blood when I was president," Clinton summed up as the crowd listened raptly, but such is the continuing price of living "in a world without walls." Cue the applause: At least where Clinton is concerned, all seemed forgiven.

By 11:00 p.m. the last stragglers were walking to the valet; Luis Quintero stood on his patio entertaining developer Michael Dezer's children with his Sixties' tales of catching Dylan and Hendrix in Greenwich Village. Turning to Kulchur he projected the air of a deeply satisfied man. As for Gerry Kelly's poaching of Clinton, "It bothered me briefly," he said dryly. "We were worried all their advertising would hurt our event." But given how well the WIZO dinner had gone, Quintero preferred to focus on the "greater good" being done. "I'm a Republican," he continued -- and a goy to boot -- "but Clinton's still one of the best presidents we've ever had." Not that he necessarily supported Clinton's positions. "It's difficult to go against success," he offered with a grin, and though he was addressing the Clinton-era economic boom, the adage applied just as aptly to the evening's till.

Indeed that would seem to be the lesson of the entire day. Of all the characters in this little drama, the only figure who could be accused of actually breaking the law is Bill Clinton, by breaching his WIZO contract and appearing at Level. Yet like his earlier missteps, whether sexual peccadilloes or controversy-shrouded pardons, the self-described "comeback kid" looks set to walk away from this affair unscathed. As one WIZO staffer scoffed to Kulchur, "What are we going to do? Sue Clinton?"

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Brett Sokol
Contact: Brett Sokol