Facts Come To Light On Greco Avenue Lot Sale; Letter Of Ethical Concerns Filed

Ariel Fernandez

Founder & Editor
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Gables Insider shone light last week into the questionable proposed sale by the City of the property at 350 Greco Avenue, a surface parking lot near Merrick Park which the City recently used as its COVID-19 testing site.

The sale was discussed at the Tuesday, May 11th, City Commission meeting and passed unanimously on first reading, requiring a second vote to complete the Commission’s approval and proceed to closing.

The sale, as proposed by the City, would be to the owner of the two adjacent lots who intends to build a structure and incorporate a parking garage with 34 parking spaces to be used as public parking.

Conflict Of Interests

Prior to the final vote, Vice Mayor Michael Mena publicly stated that “one quick comment that I wanted to mention. The individuals who are looking to purchase this property happen to also be the owners of the company for which I work. The company has nothing to do with this transaction, its them in their individual capacities. I have spoken to [City Attorney] Miriam [Ramos] to ask if there is any conflict there. I have been told there is not, because I have no financial interest whatsoever in this, its something they are doing in their individual capacities, but I wanted to mention that in the spirit of transparency and let everybody know that. Regardless, if my four colleagues vote for it, it doesn’t really, my vote won’t have an impact anyway at that point, so I wanted to disclose that to everybody before we proceed.”

Mena is employed by MSP Recovery Law Firm, a law firm jointly owned by attorney John Ruiz and attorney and former Coral Gables Commissioner, Frank C. Quesada.

Following the vote, Gables Insider reached out to City Attorney Miriam Ramos to secure a copy of her conflict of interest opinion. None was available, as the City Attorney stated that, “my opinion was verbal and concluded that he did not have to recuse himself from voting on this matter.” When asked who the developer was, she replied, “unknown to me at this time.”

Ramos was appointed City Attorney on November 14, 2017, Quesada voted in favor of her appointment and served on the Commission through April 26, 2019.

The Ownership Group

In the cover memo provided by the City on this agenda item, it states that “The City (the ‘Seller’) was approached by the owners of the two (2) lots adjacent to the south of the Property who expressed an interest in purchasing the Property from the City.”

The two properties to the south of the Greco lot are 4251 South LeJeune Road and 4601 South LeJeune Road. The properties are registered with the Miami-Dade County Property Appraiser’s office to 4601 Coral Gables Property LLC. That company is registered with the State of Florida Division of Corporations linked to the names of John H. Ruiz and Frank C. Quesada at the listed address of MSP Recovery Law Firm (2701 S LeJeune Road, 10th Floor in Coral Gables).

The proposed sale is being made to a separate entity however. The listed buyer is JRFQ Holdings, LLC, a Delaware registered corporation. According to LegalZoom, registering corporations in Delaware is popular for several reasons, one of them being that “when you file in Delaware, you don’t need to disclose your directors’ and officers’ names to the state. This allows for anonymity.”

Although the corporation is registered to a corporation that specializes in registering corporations in Delaware, the initials used in the Holding Group, JRFQ, are the same as those of the principals of MSP Recovery and the listed agents of 4601 Coral Gables Property LLC, John Ruiz (JR) and Frank Quesada (FQ).

“The owner/principals from JRFQ Holdings, LLC (the “Purchaser”) submitted a Purchase and Sale Agreement (the “PSA”) to the City that became effective on February 8, 2021,” stated the City’s Cover Memo.

Ethics Concern

Late Tuesday evening, Gables Insider secured a copy of a formal Ethics Letter of Concern filed with City Attorney Ramos, the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust and the State of Florida Ethics Commission by attorney David J. Winker. (COMPLAINT) (ADDENDUM)

In his letter of concern, Winker asserts that, “If Commissioner Mena’s employers are in fact owners of the entity being sold property owned by the City, it would appear that Commissioner Mena speaking in support and voting in favor of such sale is not just an appearance of impropriety, but a situation expressly prohibited under Florida law.” It continues, “The Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees provides at Fla. Stat. § 112.313(7)(a): No public officer or employee of an agency shall have or hold any employment or contractual relationship with any business entity or any agency which is subject to the regulation of, or is doing business with, an agency of which he or she is an officer or employee…Commissioner Mena appears to have a prohibited conflict of interest because the City is contemplating selling a City-owned property to an entity owned by Commissioner Mena’s law partners. This analysis would appear to be the same under the Miami-Dade Code of Ethics and the Coral Gables Code.”

Matters of violation of ethics are not handled directly by the City, they are handled by the two Ethics Commission independently. They have the sole authority and discretion to investigate matters and render judgement.

The Background

The property was first referenced by the Commission at the May 14, 2019 meeting, the first meeting following the retirement of Quesada from the Commission. However, video from that day reflects the City had been working to find a partner for the sale of the property leading up to that date.

Interestingly, then Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli, explains that “this should not have been in the Mayor’s comments, but here it is” referring to the placement of the item on the Agenda.

The City Manager explained at the time that the City had not made a final decision on whether to sell the property, as they were considering their options, including “creating a park.” He added that the City was reaching out to the developer of both the southern lots and the eastern lots to try to negotiate a sale.

At that meeting, Mena stated that, the City Manager should have the discretion to “focus more on the development aspect of it than just the monetary. I think we all want to see, and I speak for everyone up here, the best project possible there that is in line with what we want to see,” when deciding who to negotiate with and who not to.

The motion to direct the manager to begin negotiations was moved by then Commissioner Pat Keon and seconded by Mena. It passed unanimously.

The City code in section 2-1091, requires that, “an advertisement soliciting proposals for said sale or lease published in a daily newspaper of general paid circulation in the city, allowing not less than 60 days for the city’s receipt of proposals from prospective purchasers or lessees.” However, the action taken by the Commission to direct the manager to negotiate a deal rescinds that requirement.

On November 13, 2019, 4601 Coral Gables Property LLC closed a deal for $4,170,000 to purchase the adjacent lots to the south of the Greco lot, just days after Mena joined MSP Recovery.

The Deal

The sale, as considered, is using a February appraisal of the lot, which valued the lot at $3,525,000. The agreed sales price is $3,500,000, $25,000 under the appraised value. The City negotiated for the owner/developer to incorporate a parking garage with 34 public parking spaces, which the owner will have full financial benefit and control over. The management of the lot until the start of construction will be done by the City with a 50-50 split on profits.

At the request of Mayor Vince Lago and Commissioner Rhonda Anderson, the City Manager was asked to work with the developer to install charging stations for electric and hybrid vehicles and re-engage with Tesla to re-attempt to secure super chargers at that location.

Gables Insider has tried to secure copies of the plans of the proposed project, but as of publishing, staff had not replied to the public record request.

The proceeds from the sale of the lot are projected for use in the construction of parking garage 7, which will be adjacent to the new Police and Fire Departments Headquarters building.

Quesada’s Involvement

Quesada has remained active in Coral Gables politics since leaving office. He has raised funds, endorsed and/or campaigned for all current members of the City Commission.

Mayor Lago, Commissioner Anderson, Commissioner Jorge L. Fors, Jr. and Commissioner Kirk Menendez all told Gables Insider that Quesada had not lobbied them in favor of the sale of the property and that their votes were strictly based on the merits of the sale.

No impropriety has been alleged of any of these members of the Commission.

Mena’s Response

Gables Insider reached out to Commissioner Mena about the potential conflict of interest, this was his response: “Frank disclosed to me that they made an offer so that I would be aware, but that was it. We never discussed any particulars as I don’t get involved in their personal business away from MSP Recovery. I checked with the City Attorney to confirm that I didn’t have a conflict of interest, which she did confirm. Regardless, I made sure to disclose it at our meeting today to ensure full transparency. As set forth in the cover memo attached to the agenda item, the Property Advisory Board, the Parking Advisory Board, the Budget and Audit Advisory Board, and the Economic Development Board, all independently reviewed the proposed terms and recommended that the City enter into the PSA (which price is based on an appraisal). That was in addition of course to the CM’s recommendation. And today’s vote was 5-0.”

What’s Next

The State and County Ethics Commissions will independently decide whether to investigate if any alleged impropriety took place by Mena. Meanwhile, the sale will be taken up for a final vote by the Commission at the May 25th Commission meeting. If Mena were to need to recuse himself from this vote, a super majority of the remaining four Commissioners would be needed to approve the sale.

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18 thoughts on “Facts Come To Light On Greco Avenue Lot Sale; Letter Of Ethical Concerns Filed

  1. This stuff went on for years. The commission used to meet at a booth at burger Bobs to discuss the upcoming meeting for years. Well that ended… moved to CG country club till the disaster there.
    Kudos to those who work to draw a light on this shenanigans.

  2. This seems to be corruption at its best . Put forsale sign and sell to highest bidder . Shame on those commissioner’s.

  3. There are a lot of excellent comments on here, thanks Maria Cruz, Aurelio Durana, and Gables Insider. This is far from being an “opinion piece”. The story lays it out rather well and the whole thing stinks! Arrogant Mike Mena should be booted from the Commission, especially after reading what the other three periodicals (Herald, Political Cortadito, Community Newspapers) disclose about him and his complete lack of ethics. Mena gets to usher through a prime parcel of land for his boss to buy at a sweetheart price and Mena claims there’s nothing in it for him? Puhhhhleeease. He’ll most likely be promoted to ‘partner’ by his boss and friend, former Commissioner Frank Quesada and move on. The City attorney wasn’t on her game either. If the City intends on selling this property, then the City should list it and sell it at the CURRENT appraised value. Mena should immediately be recalled or step down. Miriam Ramos ought to be called out as well. If this sale of land doesn’t mean anything at all to Mena, then put a “for sale” sign on the lot and sell it outright. No conflict of interest here???? Yeah, right.

  4. There is absolutely no reason to sell these publicly held lots at this time. With all the construction going on in this area and the US 1 cortador nearby, it makes more sense to see what the impact to our community will be after this current major surge in development is completed, before we allow another developer to build another multi story building, especially since we have not been told what the purpose of this new bldg may
    be?!

  5. The potential sale of this lot should be approved first by the City Commission. The reason for the sale should be well established and made clear. If the sale were to be approved, then the property should be openly listed for sale and the best bid considered. Sale below appraised value is inconceivable.
    A sale of a City property to parties close to elected officials is shameful. This is a black eye on honest elected officials that gain a bad reputation for actions like these that they do not deserve. It is in the best interest of honest elected officials to reject these kind of deals.

  6. This is the most biased article I have read in a long time. Sounds like Mena disclosed a potential conflict and they voted on it. His lawyer acknowledged in this article that he was advised he didn’t have to recuse himself. This article is hot garbage and my only question is who asked you to write this? You should present the facts in a non biased way.
    I really hope most people know that one of the reasons people incorporate in Delaware is for tax reasons. The only reason presented in this article is to hide the Directors of the company. Give me a break, if they wanted to hide something I hope they could of come up with something better then using their initials for the name of the company.
    Also, the paragraph titled “conflict of interest” should read “Disclosure of Potential Perceived Conflict” since that’s all it says is that Mena disclosed that his boss was purchasing the lot in question.
    Why are you trying to smear our public officials? All that does is deter good people from running in the future.
    Maybe I’m wrong

  7. This is not the right way for elected officials to behave. It sounds like Mena made a comment it was somehow green lighted to cover himself in case this came to light. Not ethical!

  8. No more deals “among friends” of whom some happen to be our elected officials as well as former elected officials…. this may be seen as appropriate in the City of Miami but not in Coral Gables!
    Is this what you consider “full transparency?”…….
    STOP this stink and do your jobs, what we actually elected you to do….or take your dirty traveling show to another willing city!

  9. I would like to reiterate what I said during the discussion of this item for those who did not attend, in person, or by zoom, yesterday’s CG Commission Meeting. Since I am quite aware of the present status of the real estate market, ie, people paying more than appraisal value when they really want to buy, the City should put this property up for sale instead of selling it to those who “approached” it to buy it. I find it very interesting that no one picked up on this. What do we have to lose by doing it?
    As far as I know our City is not desperate to raise money, and I am keenly aware that we are not bankrupt! Having spoken to budget department personnel and listening carefully to present and past city managers, I know that there is always funds to be found when the elected officials decide to pay for a specific project.
    The time has come to be smart and not allow friendships and past relationships to drive this, or any other, business decisions!
    Please let your elected officials know how you feel before the final vote is taken!

  10. Good job David Winker! Looks like another deal agreed between friends rather than an open bidding process. Typical Miami.

  11. It would seem that if the City decides to sell publicly owned property that it follow a set policy which has been subjected to legal and ethical review. Once property is declared surplus it should be offered to the public for sale through a competitive bidding process.

  12. I have been stating for years. Follow the money. It just shows the level of corruption in the city government by those elected to serve us

  13. Very thorough exposé! This land should be preserved as green space for the burgeoning, high rise residential area around it.

  14. More building and more construction? Make it a City parking lot and end this mess. We voted for those who would not allow continued construction. Now do your job.
    And Mena, you are one who supports concrete. You need to go.

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