It all sounds like the plot of a movie or dime store novel.
But, CBS4 I-Team investigator Stephen Stock discovered it’s not fiction but the plot of a Miami-Dade Ethics Commission Report on the actions of Miami Beach’s city commission.
Strippers, money, alcohol and the Miami Beach city commission.
All of it mixed together in back room deals discussed in this ethics report concluding “Miami Beach officials improperly intertwined City business with (a) personal lawsuit.”
The I-Team uncovered the fact this entire fight began after Miami Beach’s city commission decided not to allow alcohol at Club Madonna back in 2004.
A major opponent in that public battle was a private citizen. Her name: Jane Gross. Gross was seen at several city commission meetings when the issue of alcohol and Club Madonna came up. She was an outspoken opponent of the issue.
Jane Gross happens to also be the wife of Miami Beach city commissioner, Saul Gross. Nothing wrong there.
And there was nothing wrong with her opposition to alcohol in a strip club. On the street and in city hall, Jane Gross became an outspoken opponent against Leroy Griffith, Club Madonna’s owner.
“She was saying I was a tax cheat,” Club Madonna owner Leroy Griffith said. Jane Gross said “that I caused prostitution.”
Believing Jane Gross went too far with her campaign to defeat the ordinance which would have allowed alcohol in his Club Madonna, Leroy Griffith filed suit for libel.
“I filed a libel suit against her for the remarks she was saying (in public), ” Leroy Griffith said.
After filing the suit and after asking Miami Beach’s city commission to reconsider allowing alcohol at his club, Griffith says a member of the city attorney’s staff approached him.
“He (the attorney) told me that they were not going to hear it (the alcohol ordinance) unless I would drop the lawsuit against Gross’ wife,” Griffith told the CBS4 I-Team.
That’s exactly what an independent investigation by Miami-Dade’s Commission on Ethics Commission found.
Here’s how part of the Ethics Commission report reads: “The evidence suggests that the City Attorney allowed the City Commission to push their collegial bonds over the ethical line.”
Former Miami Beach city commissioner Luis Garcia remembers it the same way.
“One meeting was that Leroy would have to drop the lawsuit against the city,” former commissioner Garcia told I-Team investigator Stephen Stock.
Stock then asked Garcia to clarify. You mean “before the city would even consider hearing him on the alcohol ordinance?” Stock asked. Former city commissioner Luis Garcia replied “Yea.”
So Leroy Griffith dropped the lawsuit in order to do what he thought he must do in order to be heard on a public matter before a public body—Miami Beach City Commission.
“I dropped the lawsuit in order to have the ordinance heard,” Griffith said.
Again, to be clear, Leroy Griffith is talking about the ordinance preventing him from serving alcohol at Club Madonna.
But then a twist that the Ethics Commission reports calls “the troubling aspect.”
The Ethics Commission Report states that assistant city attorney Gary Held contacted Leroy Griffith and Griffith discovered that the stakes and cost of doing public business in Miami Beach just got higher.
“Gary Held told me if I don’t pay the 30 thousand dollars fees the second time around they wasn’t going to hear it. I didn’t pay it(the $30,000). They didn’t hear it(the alcohol ordinance),” Leroy Griffith said.
Why 30 thousand dollars? That’s how much it cost Jane Gross, a private citizen, to hire an attorney to defend herself against Leroy’s libel suit against her.
Leroy Griffith’s attorney Daniel Aaronson was also in on the discussions.
“The essence of it was that first the lawsuit needed to be dropped and secondly after that was the 30 thousand dollars to Jane Gross in attorney’s fees needed to be resolved before things could move on,” Daniel Aaronson said.
Former city commissioner Luis Garcia, Jr. remembers it the same way. Garcia is now a Florida state representative Luis Garcia.
Rep Luis Garcia Jr.\Former Miami Beach City Commissioner: “It was implied that if Leroy wouldn’t pay for the Gross’s expenses you know,” Garcia told the CBS4 I-team’s Stephen Stock.
Stock asked “The city wouldn’t hear his ordinance?”
“The city wouldn’t hear it, you know,” Garcia replied.
Stock asked further. “So it was implied that Leroy needed to pay those attorney fees for Jane Gross?” Stock said.
“Correct,” Garcia replied.
Stock asked “In excess of 30 thousand dollars?”
“Whatever the amount was,” Garcia replied.
And then there’s this.
The Ethics Commission’s report was released in June, 2007 and received almost no attention outside city hall. The advocate served as investigator for the Ethics Commission on this matter and filed a close out memorandum on June 21, 2007.
The advocate’s report raises serious questions about the actions of these public officials.
“The troubling aspect of this case is whether the City inappropriately attempted to wrest payment of Mrs. Gross’s legal fees from Griffith by conditioning their payment on resolving the lawsuit between Griffith and the City.”
The report continues “…it seems almost certain that the City raised the idea (of paying in order to be heard on the alcohol ordinance) with Griffith.”
In the end the Ethics Commission advocate’s report is blunt. It reads: “In conclusion, it appears very likely that Commissioner Gross, along with other City Commissioners, engaged in wholly inappropriate behavior by linking and conditioning the payment of Mrs. Gross’ legal fees to the settlement negotiations between Griffith and the City.”
“I think he (the Ethics Commission advocate), his conclusion was that at minimum it created an appearance of impropriety,” said Robert Meyers, who serves as the Executive Director of Miami-Dade Ethics Commission.
CBS4’s I-Team attempted to get the views of Miami Beach city commissioner Saul Gross on all of this. “This is your wife’s private business that was done in executive session on the public dole,” I-Team investigator Stephen Stock asked Commissioner Gross at city hall.
“Doesn’t that concern you?” Stock asked.
“I’m not going to discuss it with you,” Commissioner Gross said.
After attempts to get explanations by telephone and e-mail failed, the I-Team found commissioner Saul Gross during a lunch break at city hall.
“I didn’t create any linkage whatsoever and I feel that all of my actions have been totally proper,” Gross told investigator Stephen Stock.
City attorney Jose Smith–himself a city commissioner during this fight with Leroy Griffith–agrees with Commissioner Gross’ assessment.
“Because Mr. Griffith, on behalf of Club Madonna, linked all the issues and the city at that time was considering an overall holistic settlement of all of the litigation,” Jose Smith said.
Leroy Griffith was blunt when asked what he thought the bottom line to all this was.
“It is extortion,” Club Madonna’s owner said. “I mean, if somebody tells you that they’re [not] going to hear city business unless I’m paying 35 thousand (or) 30 thousand dollars, that’s extortion,” Griffith told the CBS4 I-Team.
“I feel that’s a private matter that’s between private parties,” former city commissioner and now Florida State Representative Luis Garcia said. It is “a private matter. A settlement.”
Leroy Griffith’s attorney Daniel Aaronson summed up his frustration like this.”It wasn’t “Pay the money and you’ll get what you want.” It was “You just need to pay the money for access.” Which is as bothersome as anything because access is supposed to be there for all people,” Aaronson said.
CBS4’s I-Team left messages on Jane Gross’s phone but she did not return our calls for comment.
The Ethics Commission did not take any action against city commissioners because the Ethics Commission report found that Miami Beach City commissioners acted on advice of the city attorney’s office even if some commissioners “engaged in wholly inappropriate behavior.”
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