“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby, “they are different from you and me.” Millionaires and billionaires expect the world and those in it to bend to the great gravitational pull of their wealth. The latest example isn’t Mike Bloomberg or Donald Trump.
This one’s much closer to home.
Every citizen has the right to contact their elected officials. It’s in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. After the parts about freedom of the press and freedom of religion, it says that says that Congress can’t abridge “the right of the people … to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
A local billionaire thinks that means that he can send an inter-office memo to the Miami Mayor’s office, schooling them like a used car salesman who didn’t make his quota. Here’s what happened.
Auto dealership magnate and cranky rich guy Norman Braman didn’t like the idea that Magic City Casino wanted to open a poker room and a jai alai fronton in Edgewater and had already gotten the necessary permits from the State of Florida. And the casino owners got a number of letters from City of Miami officials to send to the State saying that a card room and fronton was a legal use for the property.
Norman, apparently enraged, did what fat cats do. He called in his lawyer. And not just any lawyer. He called Stephen Helfman, a partner at Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman. Weiss Serota acts as the city attorney for a number of cities and towns in South Florida. Steve Helfman knows how to write like a bureaucrat.
So, Helfman got to work. He drafted a memo making it look like it was written by Francisco Garcia, Director of the City Planning Department. Under his nom de plume as Garcia, Helfman wrote that the casino was improper and almost stressed that it was ugly and its mother would dress it funny.
Norman Braman got the faux Planning Department Memo from Helfman and sent it to Mayor Francis Suarez via the Mayor’s AOL email address. His missive to Suarez reads, in part: “Please ask Emilio to have this signed by Francisco (with minor changes he thinks are needed). It should then be distributed by Francisco to each Commissioner and made part of the record …” Braman then noted that if Suarez, Emilio, Francisco, or the City Attorney had any questions, they were to call Steve Helfman at his office.
Suarez then dutifully forwarded the email from his AOL account to the City Manager, Emilio Gonzalez, at the City Manager’s private email account. When asked why he used the Manager’s private email account, all Francis could do was channel 1980s comedy character Steve Urkel by saying, “Did I do that?”
Gonzalez sent it Garcia, who dutifully signed it. He claimed he didn’t review it before signing it, saying he thought it had been vetted by some other department. This excuse doesn’t seem credible because it is the Planning Department that is supposed to vet proposals like this.
With the stamp that Garcia had authored the memo, the Commission adopted legislation killing the fronton/cardroom. However, the casino owners did the same thing that Braman did. They reached for their lawyers. The City of Miami got sued and the City had to cough up the email from Braman to Suarez and from Suarez to Gonzalez during the discovery phase of the lawsuit.
We live in an era where ordinary citizens stand at the podiums at Commission meetings are told to sit down and shut up by Commissioners. We regularly see public officials respond to public records requests with a demand for thousands of dollars to cover the cost of “research” merely as a tactic to make the citizens go away and to keep the truth hidden.
And we also live in a community where a scion or a scourge can hand a document to a public official like a bad financing deal on a used car and tell that official to sign on the dotted line.
The lawsuit’s been settled. The developer will get the fronton and, perhaps, a poker room one day. The City avoided having to pay the developer’s attorney’s fees.
What Norman Braman did wasn’t normal. Nor should it ever be.
The whole exercise proves that Fitzgerald was right. The rich are different from you and me.