Broward News

Every Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Has Taken Campaign Donations From Bahia Mar Developers

Fort Lauderdale's City Commissioners have preliminarily voted to allow redevelopment of the Bahia Mar complex on the city's beach, and a final vote is scheduled for June 7.  It's been controversial: Two major public hearings about allowing a set of skyscrapers to be built on the historic patch of public land  included eight hours of grueling public testimony.

Resident after resident complained last week that that the city had made a "backroom deal.". After voting to keep the project afloat, an angry Mayor Jack Seiler responded:"If anyone has any allegation, bring it forward."

We've yet to find any evidence that some secret deal went down to hand control to the investors that own the property's lease — Tate Capital, led by Miami developer James Tate, along with Miami's Rok Acquisitions, Rialto Capital, and Miami Beach's RCI Marine. But a scan of the commissioners' campaign finance reports shows that while Tate and company were lobbying the city commission, roughly 30 people related to the development pumped money into every city commission member's campaign between October 2014 and March 2015.

While the donations were legal, they reinforce a criticism that has long been lobbed at Fort Lauderdale's city government: It is too cozy with local developers, and not attentive enough to people who don't own construction cranes.

Each of the five commissioners — Bruce Roberts, Robert McKinzie, Romney Rogers, Dean Trantalis, and Mayor Jack Seiler — received between $5,000 and $6,600 in donations from people related to three of the investment groups that now own the Bahia Mar lease: Tate, Rok, and RCI. The numbers are remarkable in a city like Fort Lauderdale, where campaign contributions are capped at $250 per person.

By New Times' count, Roberts received $6,000, McKinzie and Rogers took $5,750, Trantalis was given $5,000, and Seiler received $6,600.

In some cases, the donations were just a tiny part of their total campaign hauls. Seiler, for example, raised a staggering $122,973 through May 10, 2015, while McKinzie reported gathering $82,010. But for Roberts, that $6,000 made up nearly a fifth of his $33,425 total. (However, both Roberts and Rogers, who also raised just $32,125, ran unopposed. Rogers, valiantly, returned the money to all 137 of his donors. It appears Roberts transferred $15,000 to an office account and donated the rest to charity.)

The donations seem to say more about the development group's tenacity than anything else. Because corporations cannot directly donate to the city's political candidates, the money instead appears to have come in coordinated bursts from the same group of investors, spouses, family members, and lobbyists. Most of the donations came in one- or two-week spurts. Virtually every donation was made out for the $250 maximum. In multiple cases, commissioners received more than 10 donations from the Bahia Mar's development team in a single day, implying that the donors attended multiple fundraisers as a group, sent checks to the candidates in bundles, or some combination thereof.

In the meantime, records show that Tate had been lobbying the city commissioners about the project since May 2014.

Among the donors were:
  • James Tate 
  • Tate's brother Kenneth, also an investor with Tate Capital
  • Tate's father Stanley, also with Tate Capital
  • Three women in the Tate family 
  • Sergio Rok of Rok Acquisitions, along with his spouse 
  • Bryan Morjain of Rok Investments, along with his spouse 
  • Morjain family member Marcos Morjain, who sells yachts from the Bahia Mar Yachting Center, along with his spouse 
  • Rok Acquisitions' lawyer Robert Moskovitz and his spouse
  • Rok's Michael Sperling and his spouse
  • RCI Marine's Robert Christoph Sr., Robert Christoph Jr., and their spouses/significant others
  • RCI Marine's John R. Hopwood Jr. and his spouse
  • Project lobbyists Robert Lochrie III and Nectaria Chakas, along with their spouses (Notably, both lobbyists represent scores of different projects around town.)
  • Project lawyer Barry Somerstein
  • Project lobbyists Steve Geller (who only gave $100 to Seiler) and John Milledge. Importantly, neither lobbyist was retained until December 2015, months after each had already donated.
Donations, however, have not stopped the city commission from criticizing the project. Trantalis, for example, openly opposes the development, and voted against the project last week. Plus, the commission did in fact force Tate and company to chop the towers from 39 to 29 stories. But despite serious public outcry, the commission has continued to push the project forward.

James Tate, Sergio Rok, Robert Lochrie, and Nectaria Chakas did not respond to New Times' emails as of press time yesterday.  Roberts and McKinzie also did not respond to multiple New Times' requests for comment yesterday. We'll update the post if we hear back from any of them.

Seiler, meanwhile, told New Times he hadn't heard of some of the names on his donation list before, and that so many people had donated to him during the last election cycle, he was unsure who had or hadn't given him money.

"I received $120,000 in donations this time around, so I couldn’t possibly tell you who gave," he said. "I really think the allegation that $6,000 would influence a vote is absurd." (According to campaign filings, Seiler kept $15,000 in an office account and then donated $40,818 to charity after his campaign ended.)

Seiler stressed that he's been a passionate fighter for campaign-finance reform during his years in politics. He also said that he's known many of the people who donated to him for years, long before Tate and company bought the Bahia Mar lease. Most of the Bahia Mar's developers, he said, wrote him checks during a December 2014 fundraiser held by Robert Lochrie, who is perhaps the most well-connected lobbyist in town. Scores of other big-time developers donated to Seiler's campaign that day. He also said many of the developers tied to the Bahia Mar renovation are working on multiple projects and aren't necessarily all working together.

Trantalis told New Times that some members from the Bahia Mar development team handed him multiple checks in his office in March 2015, just before he won a runoff election.

"They came to my office with all these checks," Trantalis said, adding that they donated because "they thought I was a good candidate." He added, "I thanked them for it and deposited it. I think most of it went to charity. I don’t know how money influences other people in politics, but I resent those who give money and think they've bought influence or in any way suggest I owe them."

James Tate excoriated the commissioner after Trantalis criticized the development last February.

Update: Tate responded to New Times via email at 10:45 a.m. today.

"[P]lease be advised that my family and I have been contributing to political campaigns locally , state wide and nationally for more than 30 years," he said. "We support candidates who have platforms and policies that we believe in."