WHO ARE THE "EVERYDAY PEOPLE" WHO WANT TO CHANGE THE COUNTY'S CAMPAIGN FINANCE LAW
125,000 PEOPLE IN MIAMI-DADE COUNTY SIGNED PETITIONS TO PUT A REFERENDUM BEFORE THE VOTERS TO CHANGE THE CAMPAIGN FINANCE LAW, BUT DOES ANYONE REALLY KNOW WHO WAS BEHIND THIS EFFORT, OR WHERE THE MONEY CAME FROM
SEPTEMBER 1, 2016
A CRESPOGRAM EXCLUSIVE
I think that the news on August 2nd that 125,000 signatures had been collected on petitions calling for a referendum vote to change the campaign finance laws governing the election of the Miami-Dade County Mayor and Commissioners caught a lot of people by surprise.
It wasn't necessarily the number of signatures that was surprising because I think that if there was a simple poll that could be voted on by people on their cellphones that started with the question as to whether they thought that the Miami-Dade County Mayor and Commissioners were unethical and/or corrupt, an overwhelming number of people would respond with a yes vote.
Instead, I think that the surprise was in part because of the very quiet way in which this feat had been accomplished, and also because the supporters showed up with a panel truck full of petitions, which raised the question of why was so much paper needed for a petition drive.?
Normally, referendum petitions are 1 or 2 pages long, and would be wheeled into the elections department on a hand cart, not in truck, but in this case the petition organizers had included a 14 page draft ordinance that would become law if the voters approved the referendum question on the ballot.
In the days following the delivery of these petitions, controversy erupted when a meeting of the County Commission required in order to direct the Supervisor of Elections to start the verification process for the petitions was cancelled when one of the Commissioners claimed she had a conflicting doctor's appointment, which was followed by the revelation that the County wanted to charge $22,500 in order to provide emails and other correspondence to Juan Cuba, the Executive Director of the local Democratic Party related to this petition effort, both issue providing ample fuel for those who believed that there was some grand conspiracy to thwart the "will of the people" in putting this referendum question on the November ballot.
I must admit that during this time I was focused on other stories and so it wasn't until I decided to attend the Special County Commission meeting on August 22nd, that I soon realized that what was being put forward as an alleged effort intended to stregthen good governance and level the playing field to encourage the participation of more people into the political process, was in fact a pretty interesting example of a concerted and sophisticated effort to highjack the county's campaign finance system.
As the meeting went on it became apparent that these efforts at campaign finance reform appeared were little more than a nakedly directed effort intended to make sure that the Democratic Party, labor unions and supporting activist groups could, under a guise of cleaning up a political mess, exclude or minimize the ability of business interests, lobbyists and companies that do business with the county from donating to the political campaigns of the County Mayor and County Commissioners, while insuring that the unions and their allies could continue to be able to make their own unlimited campaign contributions without the restrictions that the referendum would impose on the contractors, lobbyists and business interests they viewed as their political opponents.
HOW A WASHINGTON D.C. GROUP AND A HANDFUL OF LOCAL DEMOCRATIC OPERATIVES AND PARTY SUPPORTERS JOINED FORCES IN AN EFFORT TO BRING THEIR VERSION OF DEMOCRACY TO MIAMI-DADE COUNTY
A lot has been written and said in recent years about the efforts of the Republican Party, and interest groups allied with them in trying to get Republican controlled state legislatures to limit or restrict the voting rights of poor and minority folks.
Not as much attention has been paid to the Democratic Party and their allies and the strategies that they're coming up with to counter what they believe to be the influence of corporate money in the political process that was created by the Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision.
One of those efforts appears to have been behind the current petition drive to "reform" Miami-Dade County's campaign finance ordinance, and this undertaking raises serious questions about what it means when outsiders interject themselves, their money and their version of "reform" into a local community, especially in a case where local government is being used as guinea pig to see how far the "reformers" can go.
Contrary to any representations or denials that will be made by the collection of local political operatives, union leaders, community activists and the politicians associated with this effort to change the Miami-Dade County campaign finance ordinance, this effort was not the result of an organically home grown effort, but rather it was an effort almost exclusively initiated, strategized and financed by a Washington D.C. group called Every Voice Center.
The evidence that supports this claim is available by looking through the public records and campaign finance reports of An Accountable Miami-Dade, a PAC that was created to be the local front group for this effort, and that begins with a timeline that shows that this group was created and chartered by local Democratic political operative Christian Ulvert who initially listed himself as the Chairman on May 3, 2016, followed 10 days later by the substitute appointment of Monica Russo, the president of SEIU Florida as the PAC's new Chairman replacing Ulvert, and only afterwards, on May 17th, was there a press release announcing the creation of an Advisory Committee and an additional Co-Chairman.
While this timeline supports the claim that the cart showed up before the horse, the true evidence of this being an an outside effort was found the old fashioned way by following the money.
YOU'LL NEVER GO WRONG FOLLOWING THE MONEY
As part of their public relations effort to convince the public that efforts to change the county's campaign finance ordinance was an idea whose time had come, An Accountable Miami-Dade PAC released a supposedly confidential report from the research company Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, that claimed that an effort for reform would be supported by "67% of likely voters" and that their research showed a "strong positive reaction" from "69 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of Independents and 62 per cent of Republican voters," for such a change.
Those are significant numbers, and given the recent behavior and decisions of various politicians and local governments - be they Sweetwater, Opa-Locka, City of Miami, and county government to name just the most obvious - there was reason to question why those percentages weren't actually higher.
With those kinds of numbers, you might think that if this had in fact been a locally initiated effort the organizers would have decided that the best place to find the money to finance this petition drive would have been from those very people so aggrieved by the current system.
While you might think that, but you would be wrong.
The financial reports filed by the An Accountable Miami-Dade PAC show that to date they have collected $312,108.57 in cash donations, and $438,898.45 in In-Kind contributions, for a grand total of $751,007.02.
The cash donations they received came from 1107 donors. Of that number there were 4 entities and/or individuals who gave almost all of the money.
The remaining $12,108.57 came from the other 1100 donors who made small donations of anywhere from $1.25, to $2.50, to $5.00, to a smattering of $100.00 and $250.00 donations. The overwhelming majority of those 1100 donations came from every place in America but Florida, or more specifically every place but from Miami-Dade County.
In fact, of those 1100 individual small donors, only 11 donors with addresses in Miami-Dade County made a contribution to this referendum effort, and the total amount of their donations was $397.85, wich raises some unavoidable and glaring contradictions.
When it came to the $438,898.45 in In-Kind contributions, the reports showed that the Washington D.C group Every Voice Center contributed a total of $407,408.63 of that amount, for everything from staff salaries, staff travel, research, consulting, legal and petition circulation.
Yet, as the financial reports filed by An Accountable Miami-Dade reveal, everything that Every Voice Center claims to be fighting against, is exactly the behavior they've engaged in as part of this effort to force a change in Miami-Dade's campaign finance ordinance.
First, it appears that they parachuted into this community largely though an association with Christian Ulvert, a Democratic political operative who some view as an unprincipled opportunist with a less than stellar record of managing winning campaigns, and who so far has received a total of $47,171.80 in payments from An Accountable Miami-Dade for his services.
Then, like the "big money interest groups" they rail against on their Solution Page, Every Voice Center ponied up $190,000.00 to help fund the referendum petition effort, while turning to multi-millionaire Henry Pincus, a son of the founder of the private equity firm Warburg Pincus, for $50,000.00, and to another millionaire, Sean Eldridge, who's husband is the billionaire co-founder of Facebook, Chris Hughes - in the financial report he is listed as Sean Eldrid - for another $25,000.00, and finally to the SEIU labor union for another $35,000.00.
These 4 donations constitute $300,000.00 of the total $312,108.57 in cash donations received by An Accountable Miami-Dade.
When it comes to their In-Kind contributions, Every Voice Center not only contributed a total of $407,408.63 of the total $438,898.45, but those contributions constituted a commitment of ALMOST ALL of the job categories and skills required to move this effort forward, from research, to legal services, strategic services, outreach, fund-raising and petition circulation.
Without the money, manpower and technical skills provided by Every Voice Center, it could be argued that if the so-called local Advisory Committee had been forced to rely on their own skills and the $397.85 donated by the 11 local donors they probably couldn't have organized a petition drive to legalize marijuana at a Willie Nelson concert.
For all intents and purposes, this was a 99.9% funded and staffed undertaking by an outside group with a specific, and clearly biased agenda who came to Miami-Dade County in an effort to test their ideas of using a voter referendum campaign as a way to change local campaign finance rules in ways that would not, as they would have everyone believe, remove the influence of big money from political campaigns, but rather, would serve only to remove the kinds of big money that they perceived as being in conflict with the political goals of their own big money campaign donors and allies.
Big labor unions, especially SEIU, that represent county employees would not be subjected to the restrictive provisions spelled out in the ordinance that accompanied the referendum petitions from continuing to make the same kinds of large donations that they want to deny county contractors and their employers.
A FAILURE OF KNOWING WHO MAKES UP THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT YOU'RE TRYING TO TELL HOW TO BEHAVE IS A GUARANTEED WAY TO FIND YOURSELF IN COURT
Even though Every Voice Center raised and spent $751,007.02 to date in their effort to change the county's campaign finance ordinance, there is every reason to believe that they will now have to spend even more money on lawyers to defend what is expected to be at least one, and possibly several lawsuits challenging the placing of the referendum question on the November ballot as soon as the petitions have been certified.
Having gone through all this effort, and spent all this money it seems that with, or without the assistance of their local Advisory Committee, whoever drafted the language of the ordinance accompanying the petition produced what one knowledgable county observer labeled as a, "pretty poor work product."
A legal team led by Ben Kuehne, a local criminal attorney who I've had occasion to refer to as one of the lawyers who helped Al Gore lose the presidency, after he unsuccessfully defended Miami City Commissioner Frank Carollo against an ethics complaint I had filed accusing him of abusing his official position (HERE) (HERE). issued a rebuttal to the claims made above by the Assistant County Attorney, and it can be read HERE.
While the court case(s) I, and others expect to be filed if, on September 7th, the County Commissioners decide not to vote down the placement of this referendum on the November ballot, I believe that it would be helpful for readers to understand several of the issues raised by Oren Rosenthal, the Assistant County Attorney in the above video.
The first, and simplest example to understand of why a lawsuit(s) might be filed is the one I've highlighted in BLUE. It's the definition of who is subject to this proposed ordinance.
On the streets there's a saying that goes, 'If I pay, I get to say," and clearly when it came to saying, Every Voice Center was in a position to do a lot of that.
DO AS I SAY AND NOT AS I DO
It says so right on their Solution page. (If you need a larger page in order to read it, click HERE.)
Missing in the list is the Property Appraiser, who because Miami-Dade County is governed by a Home Rule Charter, is one of the list of elected officials that includes the Mayor and the County Commissioners, who are considered to be "constitutional officers" for the county.
Whoever wrote the draft ordinance excluded the Property Appraiser, while illegally including Members of the Miami-Dade School Board, Members of the Board of Supervisors of a Soil and Water Conservation District and Members of Miami-Dade Community Councils.
While the School District receives county ad-valorem taxes, the School Board members are distinct and separate from the Mayor and County Commission because they have no say in the operation of the county, but rather only have a say over the School Superintendant and the operation of the school system. The other groups only represents portions of the county, and act in an advisory capacity, without the power or authority of the Mayor and the County Commission.
A far more disturbing portion of this draft ordinance, a portion that represents an overreach that goes beyond just an ignorance of the provisions of who the County Charter applies to, is the effort to criminalize campaign contributions by individuals who might not be directly, or even indirectly involved in the business interests of individuals and/or companies doing business with the County, and which I highlighted in above in RED.
If you're the adult child of such an individual, with you own life, and no financial interests with a company owned and/or controlled by your parent who is doing business with the county, this restriction on your right to donate money to whomever you want to is a major violation of your rights as a citizen,
Going even further, if you have no close family ties or direct relationship with anyone associated with a company doing business with the county, and are just a member of a "club, organization, estate, estate trust, business trust, syndicate, or other combination of individuals having collective capacity..." to own stock in a company that does business with the county, and if you donate more than $250.00 to the Mayor or members of the County Commission, that would subject you to civil penalties and a fine up to $10,000, and possibly even criminal misdemeanor charges.
Given the documented examples that I, and others have provided in story after story about the biased and unethical behavior of the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission, (HERE, HERE and HERE for just a taste), the very notion that whoever wrote this would not only choose to rely, but increase the power of this group to oversee this ordinance, is indicative that this was written by someone not from this community who was clueless to the political consequences of entrusting the Unethical Commission On Ethics with overseeing ethical behavior.
To throw a net out as far as the writer(s) of this proposed ordinance have done in an effort to disenfranchise the rights of people who might at best have a tangential connection to individuals and/or companies doing business with Miami-Dade County constitutes a classic example of what it means violate someone's constitutional rights on the basis of perceived association.
In no way should anything I've written be taken as an indication that I support, or endorse in any way the manner in which Miami-Dade County government currently awards contracts, or the way that large campaign contributions are made, not only by companies doing business with the county, but also by the powerful friends of the Mayor and Commissioners.
I think that I have more than anyone in the media in recent years gone out of my way to uncover and write about abuses involving the award of contracts (Here are two examples, HERE and HERE), and I have also written about the big campaign contributions that pals of the Mayor, like Jeffrey Berkowtiz, have given to his campaigns that I believe colored his decision to recommend the award of $9 million in economic development money to Berkowitz's Skyrise project.
At the same time, I am far from convinced that this effort to push through this clearly biased and unfair ordinance represents any kind of improvement, except of course to the individuals and groups who have consciously been excluded from being subjected to the ordinance's requirements.
There are any number of intelligent reforms that could be initiated that would hopefully make a positive difference in how county government is run, but for those kinds of changes to take place, they would need to come from a wider, more inclusive, and certainly more transparent process than the process that led to the current petition drive.
It was suggested to me by a friend with whom I talked with regarding the information that I had uncovered in researching this story, that what was apparent by the actions of Every Voice Center and their allies in using outside money in an effort to influence and exert control over Miami-Dade County's campaign finance ordinance, was little more than a liberal, version of the same kind of behavior engaged in by the Koch brothers in using their money, and the money and influence of their allies in a quest to shape and control the behavior of state and national government to reflect their own political philosophy.
The efforts to block companies who do business with the county from any signifiant ability to make political contributions - even small businesses who might have a contract worth over $250,000, which in today's financial world is chump change - while continuing to allow labor unions who represent many of the county employees to have the unfettered ability to use their money to help finance the election of candidates who support their agendas, cannot be seen as anything other than part of an effort to do the very things that they are attempting to deny companies doing business with the county from doing through the language of this referendum.
In my years as a photojournalist covering protests all over this country, one of the things I learned early on, was that everyone loved and supported the First Amendment, as long as it was THEIR version of the First Amendment that everyone was supposed to love and support, and if questioned, many of those people turned out to have a far more draconian and restrictive view of who had a right to free speech then the people and institutions they were often protesting against.
This world view of people engaged in these kinds of efforts is important to consider in judging the merit of their arguments because even though 125,000 people signed petitions to change the campaign finance ordinance, a dollar to a donut says that if you went out and asked each those individuals to explain what they signed, or better yet, what they were told that convinced them to sign, the odds are that they got tens of thousands of explanations from the people soliciting signatures, and I doubt that few if any of those 125,000 people were told that this petition drive had been created and financed by a tax-exempt group in Washington D.C., a couple very rich guys and a labor union.
Contrary to any claim that the ultimate goal of this referendum might result in making the campaign finance laws of Miami-Dade County more fair and equitable, one should consider the famous scene in the book Animal Farm, when Napoleon, the Boss Hog, declares, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."
Stripped of all the self-serving and misleading rhetoric, what is happening in Miami-Dade County with this effort to rewrite the campaign finance laws through a badly written referendum ordinance is just a continuation of the age old struggle by one group trying to become more equal than others.
There's nothing noble, fair or even equitable in the process, just raw politics dressed up to look like a pig with lipstick.
It's Miami, Bitches!