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Ethics complaint about Beckham soccer complex in Miami spurs question: Who owns team?

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01/12/2019 | 11:08am EDT

Jan. 12--An ethics complaint about the lobbying behind David Beckham's effort to build a soccer stadium complex on a municipal golf course has stalled lease negotiations for two months of an already-tight timeline and raised questions about the people behind Miami's new Major League Soccer team.

Mainly: Who exactly is backing Club Internacional de Fútbol de Miami?

One investor described Inter Miami's ownership structure to the Miami Herald, but the breakdown cannot be corroborated; team officials and their lobbyists have failed to include legally required disclosures in documents filed at City Hall.

On Nov. 6, 60 percent of voters gave the city of Miami their blessing to negotiate a 99-year lease with Beckham and his partners to build "Miami Freedom Park," a soccer stadium and commercial complex on Melreese golf course. Two months later, the city attorney has for the second time cautioned commissioners not to speak with team officials because of a complaint that came to light the day after the referendum vote and is being investigated by the Miami-Dade ethics commission.

The rub is an issue with the forms filed by owners and lobbyists for Miami Freedom Park LLC, the company formed to hold the lease of Melreese golf course, according to an internal email obtained by the Herald. City Attorney Victoria Mendez sent the email to Miami's mayor and commissioners Thursday.

"The Commission on Ethics (COE) still feels the soccer team's lobbyist registration forms need to be filled out a certain way," Mendez wrote. "There is some disagreement on that. Please continue to refrain from speaking to soccer representatives until this is squared away with the COE."

A spokeswoman for the ethics commission declined to comment.

The problem appears to be team officials are not disclosing who is invested in the company -- a requirement under Miami's lobbying laws that helps the public better understand who is coming before the city to wield influence, seek approvals and make deals.

Attorney David Winker, who filed the ethics complaint, outlined the issue in a Dec. 5 letter to ethics commissioners. It states that the "lack of transparency" coincides with the perception that the city is acting more like a cheerleader for the deal than a negotiator protecting taxpayers' interests.

"These are clear rules regarding what information those engaged in lobbying must disclose and how they must undertake their lobbying activities," Winker wrote. "These rules are designed to ensure that the activities of lobbyists -- the principals they represent, who the owners of those principals are, what they want, and who they are targeting -- are fully and meaningfully disclosed."

The team's ownership is complicated by Major League Soccer's rules. Each team owner owns a share of the league, as well as the club they operate. The league technically owns all teams and player contracts and grants investment groups the right to operate clubs.

In interviews and through the referendum campaign, the local face of the group has been Jorge Mas, MasTec chairman, who is invested in the team with his brother Jose, MasTec's chairman. One of Inter Miami's other investors, Sprint chairman Marcelo Claure, told the Herald that he owns 35 percent of the team, and the Mas brothers own another 35 percent. Claure said Masayoshi Son, SoftBank CEO, owns 20 percent, and Beckham owns 10 percent.

But no lobbying forms filed with the city of Miami corroborate the team's investment group, leaving critics like Winker wondering why Inter Miami officials don't just fill out the paperwork.

"It is important that in a civil society, these lobbying rules not be ignored or treated as a technicality or a 'non-issue,'" Winker wrote in his letter. "Meaningful enforcement of these lobbying rules is critical in order to ensure public confidence in government decision-making."

Jorge Mas, who acts as the group's spokesman, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Several team representatives and lobbyists registered last year to represent a different company, Miami Beckham United, LLC. But they did not register to represent the new company, Miami Freedom Park LLC, the corporation listed as the potential leaseholder in the November ballot question. The discrepancy led Winker to file his complaint, though it appears the bigger sticking point for ethics officials is the lack of ownership disclosure.

Among the lobbyists who registered for either of the corporations associated with Beckham's effort to launch a Miami MLS team: C.J. Gimenez, son of county Mayor Carlos Gimenez; Barbara Hardemon, aunt of Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon; and Steven Marin, political consultant.

Mas has insisted he's working under a tight timeline set by the league that requires him to have building permits for the stadium by November of this year. Even past any ethics hurdles, Mas and his partners need to negotiate terms of a 99-year lease with the city and convince four of five city commissioners to vote for the lease. Commissioner Wilfredo "Willy" Gort, whose district includes Melreese, voted against holding the referendum. Commissioner Manolo Reyes has vehemently opposed the whole plan and process, pledging that he will remain a firm no.

Possibly down two votes already, Inter Miami officials might consider their political options going into an election year in Miami. Of the three commissioners whose terms end with this year's November elections, Gort is term-limited, leaving his seat wide open, and Reyes is up for re-election. Commissioner Ken Russell, who was the swing vote to place the stadium question on the ballot, is also running to hold onto his seat.

Russell and the other commissioners who voted in favor of the referendum, Joe Carollo and Keon Hardemon, have all said they expect the team to give more benefits to the public, including more money for the city, before they'll vote for a lease.

"They've got to come back with a lot more money," Carollo told the Herald.

Russell, the new chairman of the commission, said he can only support a deal that adheres to the city's "no-net-loss" policy on park land, meaning the team must make up for the green space at Melreese that would be paved over by the proposed stadium, retail, office and hotel space. And according to Russell and administrators, road medians will not count -- it's got to be true park space that even a child can easily recognize.

"It's got to pass the toddler test," Russell said.


(c)2019 Miami Herald

Visit Miami Herald at www.miamiherald.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

© Tribune Content Agency, source Regional News

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