Lily Stefano ran against the mayor of Medley two years ago and lost. This summer a lawyer she didn’t know representing a client he wouldn’t name asked her to try and unseat another incumbent: Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz.
“This is not a joke or anything like that,” Manuel Diner, a Broward County lawyer, said in the voice mail Stefano said she received in June. “I represent a client who is eager to have someone of your quality and experience and professionalism run for office and hopefully take a seat on the County Commission.”
In a follow-up phone call, Stefano said Diner named the District 12 incumbent as the target and said: “We need to get that a-hole out.”
Diner did not respond to interview requests. His reported passion for ousting Diaz adds him to a list of people linked to the American Dream Miami mega-mall who are trying to have someone replace the four-term commissioner.
Diaz is the hometown commissioner for American Dream, a proposed $4 billion retail theme park by Triple Five, the Canada-based developer of Minnesota’s Mall of America. In May, Diaz sponsored legislation Triple Five had sought for several years: final zoning approval for the 175-acre project on undeveloped land in Northwest Miami-Dade, where the Florida Turnpike meets I-75. American Dream would bring the largest mall in America to Miami-Dade in a complex so large it plans to have an indoor ski slope, submarine rides and an amusement park.
Diaz also sponsored legislation that Triple Five resisted: a preemptive ban on granting county subsidies for the project. American Dream didn’t ask for public dollars. But in the run-up to the May 17 vote on final zoning approvals, rival malls paid for television ads and robo-calls pressuring commissioners to approve a ban on public money.
“It’s a great job creator,” Diaz said of American Dream in a recent interview. “”But the people’s money cannot be used.”
The commission ultimately approved a watered-down restriction — one that future commissioners could waive with the same majority vote needed to approve a subsidy.
That seemed to placate American Dream on the political front. The family behind Triple Five, the Ghermezians, have become top donors to county incumbents since launching the project in 2014. The donations continued to roll in for Diaz after the vote. His campaign and an affiliated political committee, We the People, have received more than $30,000 from American Dream since the May vote to approve the project with the subsidy ban.
This week, an American Dream lobbyist issued a flattering statement about Diaz and emphasized the company wanted him reelected.
“It was through Commissioner Diaz’s leadership that American Dream Miami and its 25,000 new permanent jobs are close to becoming a reality for our community,” said Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, an attorney and former state senator. “That’s why we raised over $60,000 for his campaign and will continue to vigorously help him in his reelection efforts.”
But this summer also saw campaign dollars and efforts working against Diaz that tie back to the push to approve the American Dream project:
▪ Diner, a solo practitioner with a Weston address on his website, was one of the most persistent public supporters of the American Dream project before Diaz and other commissioners.
“I was determined to be here today,” a hoarse Diner told the County Commission on May 17, saying he had left his “sick bed” to attend the final vote for American Dream’s hard-fought zoning approval. He said he hadn’t missed a single public meeting about the proposed retail theme park since the approval process began in 2017, and strongly supported the venture. “It will be a world attraction, just as Disney World is.”
Weeks later, Stefano said she received the surprise voice mail from Diner. The June 14 message, obtained separately by the Miami Herald, does not name Diaz but Stefano said the lawyer confirmed that was the target for his anonymous client. Stefano, a District 12 resident, declined the offer, saying she supported Diaz. The charity manager is now running for the Medley City Council.
▪ A Diaz challenger, Rafael Pineyro, has received nearly $5,000 from a Broward family with a member who was a public supporter of the American Dream project.
Meryl Fixler Berdugo appeared with a toddler in her arms at the first County Commission meeting on the American Dream application in January 2017, telling the board that Triple Five’s plans for a retail theme park would give parents and grandparents a welcome alternative. “I’m tired of going to your malls and sitting in a little pit area to play,” she said to laughter from the audience, “and have nothing to do.” .
Berdugo, a Parkland real estate agent, has not given to Pineyro’s campaign. Her brother, Marc Fixler, gave $1,000 to him. Their sister and brother-in-law, also of Parkland, gave $2,000. Another $1,800 came from Fixlers who share the Parkland address that Berdugo gave when she spoke before the commission last year.
In 2012, Marc Fixler and Berdugo formed a charity, AZ Yashir, with a Jacqueline Ghermezian that was dedicated to supporting hospitalized people. Fixler could not be reached for comment.
Berdugo, who did not respond to interview requests, is already a donor to the campaign for Gus Barreiro, a commission candidate who is receiving extensive financial support from the Ghermezian family. The former state representative is challenging Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava in District 8.
Levine Cava was the only commissioner to vote against approving American Dream’s zoning in May, and Triple Five executives have given more than $100,000 to Barreiro’s campaign and political committee. Berdugo gave $1,000 to Barreiro in July.
She’s no stranger to Miami-Dade politics. In September 2016, Berdugo gave $10,000 to a political committee supporting the reelection of Mayor Carlos Gimenez, an early champion of American Dream. The same day Berdugo gave $10,000 to Gimenez’s Miami-Dade Residents First, Triple Five CEO Syd Ghermezian gave the organization the same amount.
▪ A business partner to a member of the Ghermezian family donated $2,000 to Pineyro. Nathan Yadgar, an Aventura business consultant, gave the maximum $1,000 and a company he owns, NNY Development Group, gave another $1,000.
Yadgar is also a partner in Say Holdings, a company formed in 2016 to purchase a house on Northeast 121st Street in North Miami for $425,000. The company sold it last year for $700,000. One of Yadgar’s two partners in Say Holdings in Michael Abadi, a Ghermezian son-in-law who also lives in Aventura. The third partner in the Say Holdings, Murray Sager, shares a Wellington address with another Pineyro donor, Jason Sager, who gave $2,000 personally and through a business he owns.
The Sagers could not be reached for comment. Yadgar, a District 4 voter who appears to be a first-time donor in a county race, said Wednesday his support of Pineyro had nothing to do with Abadi. “I just saw what he’s about,” Yadgar said of Pineyro. “I think it’s time for a change from Pepe Diaz.”
Barreiro identified Abadi as his main contact with Triple Five on campaign issues as he tries to unseat Levine Cava. Abadi, who gave $5,000 to Diaz’s We the People in late 2017, did not respond to interview requests.
Abadi and his wife, the former Shayna Ghermezian, both appeared before the County Commission during American Dream hearings.
In May, Shayna Abadi stood briefly with her father, Eskandar Ghermezian, a Triple Five partner and the company’s top Miami-Dade negotiator, when he introduced some family members to the board. Michael Abadi addressed commissioners during public comments on Jan. 25, 2017, without mentioning his family ties. He urged commissioners not to dismiss the idea of public subsidies for Triple Five. “I think it should be an issue that’s discussed among the people, the community, to see if it’s an investment that might be beneficial,” Abadi said.
Pineyro, who used to be a top aide in the Doral mayor’s office, said he has not met with American Dream representatives. But he said he did seek the developer’s support since he values the American Dream project. “I reached out for the opportunity for support,” he said. “I didn’t hear back.”
He gave up a City Commission race In Doral to challenge Diaz. The other District 12 candidate is Patricio Moreno, a former state House candidate who was recruited by the Miami-Dade Democratic Party to run against Diaz, a Republican, in the nonpartisan race. Pineyro is an independent.
Moreno had raised less than $2,000 for his campaign in the latest report. Diaz, meanwhile, has raised more than $400,000 in his campaign alone, with another $300,000 to spend from his committee.
While Pineyro can’t hope to outspend the incumbent, he can claim a better fundraising record than any challenger.
Of the 10 candidates challenging five commissioners up for reelection on Aug. 28, Pineyro has raised the most campaign cash: roughly $77,000.
“I’m reaching out to people,” Pineyro said of his fundraising success. “And I’ve asked people to reach out to their friends and family.”
Pineyro recently pulled off a coup for a challenger by securing the endorsement of a sitting county commissioner: Xavier Suarez of District 7. On American Dream, Pineyro said he wants Miami-Dade to extract more benefits from the project. “We still have more to ask of them,” he said. Pineyro said he’s also not ready to support a ban on local dollars for American Dream. “A blanket ban? No,” he said. “We have to look at each [request] independently and discuss it.”Thursday morning, Pineyro sent an updated statement backing away from a willingness to at least consider the possibility of government support. “As your next commissioner,” he wrote, “I’ll not approve the use of public funds for this, or any private project.”
By Douglas Hanks