Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Give Us The Facts, Recall PAC

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but we gotta hear Miami-Dade Commissioner Natacha Seijas out.

(For relevance of this photo, keep reading).

I know. I know. My friends’ mouths drop open, too, and my stomach is turning. But this does not mean I do not support a recall effort against the woman portrayed as the wicked witch of the Northwest. I will vehemently defend the voters’ right to recall any elected official deemed deserving of the dishonor.

Just maybe not this recall effort.

Not unless the founders and leaders of the Miami Voice PAC that filed the petitions for the commissioner’s recall – paid political campaign operatives who do not live in District 13, not citizen activists as they claim to be – come clean, or clear rather, about their hidden agenda, hidden campaign money and what is reportedly a huge number of serious and not-so-serious petition problems.

Not until they practice what they preach.

The PAC lost its bid Tuesday to block a lawsuit that challenges the petition process that put Seijas on the recall ballot. She will have her day in court. But why would the PAC want to deny her that if everything was done above board? At first, they argued the lawsuit was a delay tactic because it was to Seijas’ disadvantage (and, therefore, their advantage) to be on the same ballot as Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez, the target of a separate recall effort funded by millionaire auto dealer Norman Braman.

But now that’s a moot point. The county commission has already approved two recalls in one ballot. There is nothing to lose from a review that can take place while the Miami Voice PAC continues to campaign. Well, nothing to lose but a tiny piece of democracy.

PAC members clearly and far too adamantly do not want anyone to look at the petitions more closely or review the process, which may have been rushed in order to meet the deadline to get the two recalls on the same ballot. That’s smart, strategically speaking. Except that MAYBE, in the zeal to make it happen, corners were cut and shortcuts were taken and all the legal requirements were not met. I commend the chutzpah and the hard work of right-minded volunteers to try to meet that deadline. But, if someone -- anyone, I don't care who -- raises issues or concerns about the process, and shows cause, then it behooves us to get them clarified.

And there is cause. A circuit judge agreed on Tuesday, ruling against a PAC motion to suppress the deposition of petition takers (again, what do they fear these people might say? Now, I want to hear from them more.) and setting a hearing for the arguments Feb. 7.

We are not talking about a little “typo on a form,” as PAC founder and chairwoman Vanessa Brito said to the press outside the downtown courthouse. Seijas attorneys’ Stephen Cody and Kendall Coffey, well-respected members of the 305 legal community, say there are hundreds upon hundreds of questionable petitions. Perhaps as many as half of the 4,216 signatures could be invalid, Cody said. At least enough so that the PAC does not meet its required threshold to represent 4 percent of the elected voters.

“Once is an oversight. Over 120 times smells of conspiracy to commit election fraud,” Cody told me. And he was referring solely to the 121 signatures collected by a Marsellous Eaford that Cody will argue were not collected personally by her, also as required by law.

"Whoever spelled out that name on those certificates, spelled Marsellous with a C. And you may forget a lot of things, but the first thing you learn in kindergarten is how to spell your name," Cody said, adding that the misspelled certificates are written in five or six different handwritings.

In another instance, Cody alleges that about half of the 600 petitions collected by former Miami Lakes Councilman George Lopez (who would not comment on his role when I called him) were written out in a different handwriting than his. Miami Voice got a lot of support in Miami Lakes, which is square in Seijas' district, including pro-bono representation from the town Mayor Michael Pizzi, who spearheaded a failed 2006 recall against Seijas.

Pizzi, who was seen at events with the PAC leadership in the town collecting signatures, seemed to distance himself from the group when we spoke. "I am not part of the Miami Voice recall effort. I am assisting them as an attorney," Pizzi told me, adding that he had not had time to review all the petitions, but had gone over some.

"From what I've seen, I'm not aware of, I have no idea about anything inappropriate."

Maybe he isn’t as sure of his client's innocence as he was when he jumped in too quickly without looking and is now doing the backstroke. Some say it’s more nefarious than that. Rumors that he is behind the $5,000 donated to the PAC by the chairwoman’s own firm, Myami Marketing, even caused a buzz at town hall last week, online versions getting printed and handed over to the town manager to look into.

When Ladra asked him, Pizzi said Brito “volunteered” to help him get some Spanish media outlets at a check redistribution event. “But I did not know she wrote a press release, I did not approve a press release and she absolutely was not paid for it,” Pizzi told Ladra.

Well, maybe not a check cut by the city. I doubt a public records request of the city's expenses last month would turn up a payment. But she was paid by someone for something.

According to campaign finance disclosure records filed earlier this month, Miami Voice raised almost $13,000 as of Dec. 31, including $5,000 from Braman (it is in his best interest to have her on the ballot, too) and another $5,000 from the slightly less affluent Brito, through her Myami Marketing firm, an inactive Florida corporation until reactivated two days before the contribution to the PAC Dec. 17.

In fact, Brito admitted to Ladra that Myami Marketing got the $5,000 from one of her clients, a consulting company, specifically for the campaign. (Is that even legal? Commission on Ethics please?) But she refused to disclose the name of the “client” (which I will just guess maybe she didn’t have before the recall effort because she had no company prior to Dec. 15).

"We have nothing to hide,” Brito said. Well, um, not exactly. You are hiding the identity of the source of funding.

“If my client wants to come forward, that’s their prerogative.”

Really? Isn’t that the definition of special interest? Who is the puppeteer here? How can we follow the money if the trail is hidden behind phony contributors? When she is subpoenaed, will Brito, a medal-worthy question-dodger and spin doctor, continue to sidestep the issue of who is truly funding her “grassroots citizen effort” that included public notaries (the two who approved 85 percent of the petitions will be among those deposed) “up until the wee hours of the night, two and three o’clock in the morning, notarizing forms and petitions.”

Really? Three in the morning? With the petition collectors present, of course!

Brito won’t call me back now. The last time we spoke on the phone she repeatedly refused to disclose the source of her funneled $5,000 gift to the PAC. She also said it was inappropriate for me to ask questions and write about this because I have a personal axe to grind. I never carry an axe. They are too heavy and I have binoculars and a magnifying glass and public records request forms and other tools that I am much better with than an axe.

Here is my full disclosure: Brito and I once worked together when, briefly during a temporary episode of complete lunacy, I dabbled in political media consulting. That ended after several strange "boundary-challenged" incidents for which she had/has a stream of excuses and what I consider a difference in ethical standards that centered mostly around the creation of her first PAC, the TaxPayer Coalition, which would be a front to support the candidates she was working for. (Photo above are the PAC board, Brito and Carlos Alvarez, then campaign manager for state house candidate Johnny Farias, and another Farias volunteer, at a Doral event for the PAC in November 2009).

But, while my doubts on this PAC may be supported by history and inside knowledge, my concern is not personal.

Ladra is not barking because of my professional/personal history with Brito or other PACkers. But they would have me silenced because of it? That’s just as bad as being baited by it, isn’t it?

No, Ladra is barking because she smells something. Maybe someone's bacon?

And here is the best part: If the process was not corrupted, the legal challenge will fail and the recall campaign is that much stronger for its transparency. Yay! But that makes the question louder: Why is the PAC fighting that so hard?

Again, to be clear: I am not saying the commissioner should stay in office, I vehemently defend the right of voters to recall any elected official they deem fit and I also believe the current requirements need reform because they seem too burdensome. But that does not mean a small group of politically-connected insiders with a hidden agenda (I almost want them to succeed so we can see who runs for office and who runs the campaign…) can take little shortcuts in the law here and there so they can make their deadline and get onto a ballot that gives them a political marketing advantage just because we agree with them. The end does not justify the means.

I mean, what if it were the LBA or a new PAC called You're Welcome David Rivera. See? We have to apply the same scrutiny and expectation of transparency across the board. We cannot demand public disclosure from some and not from others. Is this the kind of campaign we can expect from the candidate the PAC will bring forward to replace Seijas? (My guess is that the lucky winner is already hand-picked and in training).

There is no delay tactic. Seijas is already on the ballot. Why doesn’t Miami Voice let the court review the process while they continue to raise funds for the recall campaign (but this time, let us know where the money comes from).

It seems they would not waste resources in this court battle if they did not know already that they don’t have the required 4 percent of the signatures needed.

And they say they are the voice of the people? What people? Prove it.

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