A developer quietly paid Miami Mayor Francis Suarez at least $170,000 over the past two years to help cut through red tape and secure critical permits for his stalled real estate project in Coconut Grove, according to internal corporate records exclusively obtained by the Miami Herald.
Notes of company meetings held last summer and fall by the development firm Location Ventures indicate that CEO Rishi Kapoor was having difficulties getting plans approved for his URBIN Coconut Grove complex as he tried to assure jittery investors that Suarez would help resolve the problem.
The meeting notes, which were provided to investors to appease their frustrations over repeated delays on the $70 million mixed-use project, made his role clear: “Mayor Suarez to assist in pushing this along.”
According to records, Kapoor then met with Suarez and City Manager Art Noriega last summer to discuss a zoning hurdle that, without a waiver, would have required an expensive and time-consuming redesign for the developer.
The internal company records provide details, for the first time, of Suarez’s private work for the developer while he held public office at City Hall — raising legal and ethical questions about the relationship between his role as mayor and his job as a developer’s consultant.
“Did he violate his duties to his office and to the people of his city?” asked Robert Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University law professor specializing in ethics. “It certainly sounds like he did.”
Revelations of Suarez’s consulting contract with Kapoor’s development company have surfaced as the Republican mayor considers a bid for president in the 2024 election.
Suarez’s office denied the meeting occurred. Kapoor said, through his attorney, that he has “no record or recollection of any such meeting” with the city manager and mayor last summer.
Suarez and Kapoor both say the mayor’s work for Kapoor’s URBIN brand was unrelated to City Hall. Suarez’s spokesperson said he was paid to introduce Kapoor to potential investors. Kapoor said the mayor gave advice about “programming” involving the mix of stores and restaurants at his company’s projects in Miami-Dade.
But Location Ventures’ internal reports, which detailed everything from marketing strategies to financial investments, state that throughout 2022, Kapoor repeatedly called on Suarez for help with permitting problems.
“Mayor Suarez did not engage in any lobbying activities for Urbin,” Suarez’s spokeswoman told the Herald. She called the internal records’ characterization of Suarez’s role “inaccurate.”
Neither Kapoor nor Suarez explained why the Coral Gables-based development company’s internal records indicate that the mayor used his influence at City Hall to assist a client quietly paying him $10,000 a month.
Caroline Klancke, executive director of the nonpartisan Florida Ethics Institute, said Suarez’s work for the developer could violate Florida ethics laws that prohibit elected leaders from being employed by a company doing business with their city and could pose a conflict of interest for them in their public office.
“What would create a conflict of interest with that developer is if the developer was subject to the regulation of the city,” said Klancke, who spent 15 years at the Florida Commission on Ethics, where she served as the general counsel and deputy executive director.
Suarez, who is now in his second term and holds a mostly ceremonial post as a part-time mayor, obtained a general opinion from the city attorney that it was lawful to do outside work as long as it doesn’t conflict with his government duties. Suarez has no vote but can issue vetoes. He can also hire and fire the city manager, who runs the city’s day to day operations and oversees all employees.
In addition to potential ethics violations, Klancke said the developer’s internal reports that describe Suarez working on permitting issues for Location Ventures could provide enough evidence to trigger a criminal investigation.
A costly problem
When Suarez appeared with Kapoor at an URBIN promotional event in late 2021, the developer was juggling a half-dozen commercial and residential projects as the post-pandemic economy was limping back while inflation soared amid rising interest rates. Kapoor had financed his company’s URBIN mixed-use “work-live” projects in Coconut Grove, Miami Beach and Coral Gables through private investors and real estate lenders.
URBIN Coconut Grove was marketed as a vision for the future: Five properties located along the south side of Commodore Plaza were to be redeveloped into co-working and co-living spaces for young professionals, as well as long-term rentals including studios and multi-bedroom apartments.
In December 2021, Kapoor’s team applied for its first permits for the re-development of a five-story condo building, located at 3162 Commodore Plaza. The plan was to demolish floors four through six and rebuild as a modern, co-living environment.
Almost immediately, city records show, the project stalled.
City staffers who reviewed the plans found deficiencies in the structural drawings. The gas grills planned for the rooftop deck were flagged as violating fire codes. Also, the project did not meet zoning requirements. Specifically, equipment on the roof made the structure too tall and its balconies encroached on neighboring properties.
Most critically, one city staffer noted the new addition would extend to the property line, in violation of modern zoning codes. Without a waiver, she noted, the condos would need to be redesigned, a change that would cost the developer millions.
Seven months after the developer first submitted its permitting application, a meeting was set with the city’s zoning and land development review committee that would have determined the project’s fate.
Kapoor — who had sold investors on unrealistic construction timelines — called on Suarez to help push the process along, according to the development company’s meeting notes from July 26, 2022.
And on July 29 — just a week before the scheduled meeting with the city’s review panel — Kapoor met Suarez and Noriega, the city manager, to “discuss the permitting problems,” according to company documents and sources familiar with efforts to resolve the zoning issue. As part of managing the city, Noriega oversees the building and zoning departments.
Although Kapoor and Suarez said the meeting never happened, additional company records show the developer’s staff had prepared the CEO on the zoning issue the night before the meeting with the mayor and city manager.
After the Aug. 4 review committee meeting didn’t resolve the zoning problems, Kapoor contacted the mayor’s office, according to Location Ventures’ meeting notes.
“Rishi reached out to the Mayor’s office to help with resolving the 5 foot setback issue. Zoning director is willing to meet again to discuss a middle ground,” the company’s meeting notes from October said.
On Dec. 1, city records show the zoning director reversed course and determined the setback requirement would not apply to Kapoor’s development project, removing a major obstacle to construction.
The developer removed other project features, including balconies, to comply with zoning requirements and their building permit was approved on Jan. 6, 2023, city records show.
A few weeks later, Suarez donned a hard hat and shoveled dirt alongside Kapoor at a ceremonial groundbreaking for the Commodore Plaza renovation. Suarez did not disclose that he was working for the developer.
The mayor’s office confirmed that a request from Kapoor’s company was routed through the mayor’s staff in October, though she said Suarez had no knowledge of it.
“Mayor Suarez was not aware of and did not attend any in-person, telephonic or videoconference meetings regarding Location Venture’s inquiries,” Soledad Cedro, spokesperson for the mayor’s office, wrote in a statement to the Herald.
Cedro said the help offered to Kapoor by the mayor’s office has also been afforded to hundreds, if not thousands of regular Miami residents.
Kapoor’s company lawyer, Brian Goodkind, declined to comment about whether the developer reached out to the mayor’s office that October or about any other interactions between the developer and Suarez.
“It feels like you are slowly bleeding information to us in hopes of creating a ‘gotcha’ moment,” Goodkind said. “As a result, we are not going to comment further.”
Financial and legal pressures
Court records show that Kapoor sought permitting help from Suarez amid deepening debt and a lawsuit brought by minority investors.
To avoid foreclosure on URBIN’s Grove project, Kapoor obtained extensions on two loans that cost $150,000 in extra fees to one lender and about $132,000 to another lender, according to court records in a lawsuit brought last December by the group of minority investors against URBIN and Kapoor. He also obtained additional financial totaling $16 million from a private lender, records show.
The investors suing Kapoor are seeking his removal as “manager” of the Coconut Grove project, expressing alarm about the developer’s financial moves, according to the suit.
This month, Kapoor’s development company was also sued by its former chief financial officer, Greg Brooks, who held that position at Location Ventures from August 2022 to March 2023. Brooks was fired by Kapoor after the CFO raised a slew of concerns about alleged “financial improprieties” involving the CEO’s handling of his company’s funds. Brooks is seeking to collect $80,000 in unpaid bonuses for obtaining mortgages for URBIN’s Commodore Plaza mixed-use development in the Grove and a single-family home project in the same community.
Among many allegations lodged against Kapoor of impropriety, Brooks’ lawsuit highlighted the $10,000 monthly payments to the mayor “for unknown services,” as previously reported by the Herald.
Brooks also accused Kapoor of using development funds to pay for his nearly $6 million Coral Gables waterfront home in Cocoplum, a $10,000-a-month private chef to cook on his yacht and a McLaren sports car, without reporting the income to the IRS.
Goodkind, the attorney representing Location Ventures, said Brooks’ allegations were false. “There is absolutely nothing inappropriate here,” he said in an interview.
Even though Suarez earned at least $30,000 working for URBIN in 2021, he left it off his financial disclosure form filed in the summer of 2022. Cedro, Suarez’s spokeswoman, said the mayor did not have to list the URBIN consulting job because state law does not require public officials to disclose work that does not exceed 5% of his gross income.
This would mean the mayor earned at least $600,000 from outside income in 2021. The mayor’s office declined to confirm. His annual compensation as mayor is about $130,000.
For years, Suarez has refused to disclose his client list, or much of anything about his private work. When he was asked about his work for Kapoor on Sunday morning on CBS’ Face The Nation, Suarez dismissed the question, saying “I don’t know why my local paper is obsessed with how many jobs I do.
“I have to disclose all the jobs that I have. It really shouldn’t matter how many jobs I have,” he said. “What should matter is how I do my primary job, which is being the mayor of Miami, and nobody criticizes that.”
This article has been updated to provide additional attribution around reporting on the July 29, 2022 meeting between developer Rishi Kapoor, Mayor Francis Suarez and City Manager Art Noriega.