Read a related post at Political Cortadito: "Levine handler Jonah Wolfson dodges ethics questions."
It was just one in a series of Miami Beach mayoral debates being conducted this election season...this one at the Miami Beach Golf Club last Sept. 23.
None of the participants - former comedian Steve Berke, Beach commissioner Michael Gongora, and businessman Philip Levine - would say anything remarkable, memorable or even newsworthy that night.
But everyone who was there remembers one word shouted from the back of the room.
Berke was in the midst of calling Levine "one of the biggest special interest groups in Miami Beach," when someone in the audience yelled at Berke, calling him an "a**hole."
That someone was Miami Beach Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, one of Philip Levine's staunchest supporters.
Levine, is a multi-millionaire, who, so far, has spent more than $1 million of his own money trying to become Miami Beach mayor. Think of Levine as a shark and Wolfson as his remora.
While the expletive is hard to pick up on the tape, Wolfson doesn't deny saying it. “I stand by my description of Berke,” Wolfson told the Miami Herald's David Smiley.
It's not the first time Wolfson has gone the potty-mouth route.
Last August, Miami New Times staff writer Frank Alvarado tried to ask Wolfson if he did favors for Miami Beach's two towing companies in exchange for their support of his wife's judicial campaign.
Wolfson told Alvarado: "Because we're talking about the tow companies, you want to make it salacious," he says. "My response to asking me if political contributions had something to do with my vote is, 'Go f*ck yourself.'"
Wolfson's outburst at the debate didn't surprise one Miami Beach voter.
"Doral has Joe Carollo, we have Jonah Wolfson," a long-time Beach resident told me. "It's not the first time Jonah has come unhinged. Over the past few years his behavior has become increasingly erratic," the resident said.
My curiosity piqued, I started doing some research on Wolfson.
Thanks to the miracle of Google, I stumbled upon this campaign video his wife Andrea posted on YouTube last year when she was running for judge.
In it, Commissioner Wolfson - who is also a personal injury attorney - comes across as a loyal husband, adoring father of two children and a soft-spoken and articulate advocate for his wife's campaign.
But as I dug deeper, a darker portrait of Wolfson began to emerge.
Back in September, Wolfson told the Herald's Smiley, "[Berke] is a comedian trying to make a video and profit off of our local electoral process. He’s not a legitimate candidate. He’s a clown.”
Imagine that, Wolfson calling someone "a clown" and accusing them of profiting off the electoral process. (Pot, meet kettle.) But I digress.
ITEM: In 2011, Wolfson ran unopposed and won a second four year term on the city commission. Despite of the fact no one opposed him, Wolfson still managed to collect almost $108,000 in contributions.
Wolfson's final campaign treasurer's report shows that he paid a firm called DRC Consulting more than $100,000 for direct mailings, TV production, a "Spanish TV purchase - thank you ad," and a $10,000 bonus to DRC Consulting's owner, David R. Custin.
|Jonah Wolfson has been very, very good to David Custin. |
What does Wolfson get in return?
It's a question many in Miami Beach are asking.
Do the math on that one: Wolfson wins a second term as Miami Beach commissioner - a job that pays $6,000 a year.
And even though he ran unopposed, he still raised over $100,000, paying most of that to David Custin. And expecting nothing in return from Custin, naturellement.
Custin is now running Philip Levine's campaign.
(Last September, Custin threatened political blogger Elaine de Valle - a journalist who spent 18 years at the Miami Herald and was on two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams - because of her attempts to reach Philip Levine in her capacity as a journalist.)
Custin (read Wolfson) is also behind the Citizens for Ethical and Effective Leadership ECO, a PAC that's been sending out mailers attacking mayoral candidate Michael Gongora. So far this year, the PAC has raised over $1.7 million.
The most recent treasurer's report for the PAC shows that it's paid back over $80,000 to Custin's company, DRC Consulting for "direct mail" and "TV advertising."
When I showed the report to a South Florida political veteran, this was his response:
The problem is there is no proof that the bill is really for any service rendered. No one can audit it. He controls the checkbook and just approves his payment to himself. There is a "Treasurer" Daniel Cifuentes, but he just signs the reports.
Notice that Gerald Robins (the father of Scott Robins; Philip Levine's business partner) gave the Citizens For Ethical….Leadership Pac/eco (Wolfson and Custin) $50,000; he also gave the Let Miami Beach Decide pac (Jonah Wolfson's other pac) a separate $25,000 contribution.
That is $75,000 to Jonah in a two week period in September. It will all get spent on DRC Consulting (David Custin) David and Jonah will will work out their personal arrangement on how it gets split and shared. No accounting.
ITEM: In August, 2012, the Miami Herald's David Smiley took a look at a loophole in Miami Beach's campaign finance laws that prohibit companies, developers and vendors that do business with the city from contributing to the political campaigns of candidates for mayor or commission.
"But they can give freely to commissioners’ spouses," Smiley reported.
Smiley also reported that Wolfson's wife, "County Court Judge Andrea Wolfson has received at least $9,500 from companies related to Russell Galbut, a principal of convention center bidder Crescent Heights, and thousands more from Miami Beach vendors."
Smiley's report apparently didn't cause Judge Wolfson to scrutinize donors to her campaign any closer, even though one might think that as a judge she would want to hold herself to higher standard and avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.
On Oct. 25, 2012, Judge Wolfson received a bundled contribution from companies owned by Boca Raton entrepreneur Marc Bell. (Click here to view the report and Bell's contributions starting at sequence number 66. That same form, by the way, also shows that Wolfson's campaign paid David Custin's firm $45,000 for "TV advertisements." Ain't that cozy?)
In the business world, Marc Bell is perhaps best known as the CEO of "FriendFinder Networks Inc., the publisher of Penthouse magazine and numerous adult-entertainment websites" which last September filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
(For those of you with nothing better to do, here are two videos that show the business side of Marc Bell, and Marc after dark.)
(According to the Florida Department of State Division of Elections website, Marc Bell's sister, Leslie Bell, gave $25,000 to Citizens for Ethical and Effective Leadership, Custin and Wolfson's PAC. The elections website lists Leslie Bell's address as Stamford CT and her occupation as "owner computer company.")
After looking at the videos of Bell, you might be tempted to ask yourself this: "Why would a multi-millionaire Boca Raton pornographer want to contribute money to the election campaign of a relatively obscure judge in Miami... whose husband just happens to be a Miami Beach commissioner?"
Well it just so happens - and this is probably a coincidence - that Marc Bell had partnered up with Keith Menin and Jared Galbut, the principal and managing principals of South Beach's Menin Hotels, hoping "to open a new 100-suite flagship hotel called Market Lincoln Lane as part of a larger project just off Lincoln Road," the Herald's Hannah Sampson reported last April.
ITEM: In June 2011, when Wolfson's wife, Andrea, filed a public disclosure form that's required every year of judges, she listed the couple's financial interests and assets. On it, she listed her home and its value at $470,000.
On this year's public disclosure form, Wolfson now claims the value of the house is $500,000.
But sources tell me that the couple is fighting the valuation - much lower than $500,000 - given to the home by the Miami-Dade property appraiser's office.
When blogger Elaine de Valle tried to question Commissioner Wolfson on Saturday about those discrepancies, de Valle says Wolfson "went off the reservation." You can read de Valle's report on Wolfson on her blog, Political Cortadito.
Also, in 2011, Judge Wolfson listed the couple's net worth as $118,000. This year she listed it at $372,000.
|Jonah Wolfson and his wife live in one of these houses in a modest neighborhood|
on the northern end of Miami Beach. The couple claims the house's value
is $500,000, far more than any of the neighboring homes.
(Click image to enlarge.)
ITEM: While Wolfson has other troubles that we'll examine in later posts, it appears that those who work in close proximity to him are also snakebit.
Sources tell me that Wolfson's city hall aide, Leonor Hernandez, who has a foreclosure and judgments against her in the neighborhood of $5 million, has somehow managed to buy a house for close to $300,000 in cash.
Last month, the Miami Herald reported that Hernandez was to "be issued a letter of instruction after a resident filed an ethics complaint over a public records request."
The complaint will be dismissed, but Wolfson’s aide, Leonor Hernandez, will be issued a letter of instruction “reminding her of the duties and obligations regarding provision of public records by public servants in the Miami-Dade County Citizen’s Bill of Rights.”