By Nicholas Nehamas and Joey Flechas
For months, Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco insisted he was not involved in a mysterious political group raising money from developers, lobbyists and city vendors, just as he launched a surging campaign for mayor.
“It is absolutely untrue,” Grieco told the Miami Herald on Tuesday. “You can look right into my soul.”
But new evidence suggests otherwise: Handwriting on a public document filed by the group — People for Better Leaders — is identical to handwriting on paperwork the commissioner filled out for city elections, according to two well-regarded forensic document experts.
Their findings directly link Grieco to the political action committee he has repudiated.
So far, People for Better Leaders has raised $200,000 from Beach residents and special interests. The political action committee, or PAC, is run by Grieco’s friend, Brian Abraham, the former manager at King of Diamonds, a Miami-Dade strip club.
Abraham’s signature appears on a document filed to state election authorities by the PAC. But the rest of the form was filled out by the same person who completed Grieco’s city campaign paperwork, according to Thomas Vastrick, a forensic document examiner based in Central Florida.
Vastrick conducted a side-by-side examination of letters from Grieco’s handwriting and from the PAC document, as is standard industry practice. Differences in handwriting make each person’s script unique.
“The evidence brought me a very high level of confidence that they were written by the same person,” said Vastrick, who has 40 years of experience in the field and worked for the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Postal Service for more than a decade.
He has testified as an expert witness in federal and state courts around the nation, written books and held a research position at the University of Central Florida. He also sits on the board of directors of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.
On Tuesday, the Miami Herald published a story outlining Grieco’s connections to the PAC. The article included an interview with a Miami Beach real estate investor who said Grieco recommended donating to the PAC. Another donor said he contributed to the PAC at a Grieco fundraiser in South Beach.
Grieco said earlier this week he had nothing to do with the PAC, and that people who claim otherwise are lying.
Last year, the city passed a law to prevent campaigns from soliciting special interests for PACS. People for Better Leaders has become controversial because it accepted donations from a Miami Beach vendor and a lobbyist, as well as others with business before the city.
Emailed a copy of both handwriting reports Thursday, Grieco said he needed 48 hours to respond.
“Note that my calendar doesn’t and won’t revolve around yours,” he wrote.
Grieco’s fingerprints might not be all over the PAC, but his handwriting appears to be.
The Herald hired Vastrick to perform the analysis after it was given a previous expert examination also linking Grieco to the PAC document. That analysis was paid for by a longtime ally of Grieco’s opponent in the mayoral race, Daniel Gelber, and performed by handwriting analyst Dianne Flores of Miami. Like Vastrick, Flores is considered an expert in the field of forensic handwriting analysis.
“It is my professional opinion within scientific probability and in accordance with industry standards, that Michael Grieco is identified as the author of all the extended writing appearing on [the PAC document],” Flores wrote in a sworn affidavit. She declined further comment.
Vastrick’s report represents an independent confirmation of her findings.
In order to ensure Vastrick came to an unbiased conclusion, the Herald did not tell him any details about the controversy surrounding Grieco and the PAC, nor did it inform him of Flores’ earlier conclusion. His examination was based on the same documents used by Flores.
Flores was commissioned by Miami attorney Samuel Rabin, who has donated $1,000 to Gelber’s mayoral campaign, the maximum allowable, according to campaign finance records. Rabin donated an additional $1,000 through his law firm, records show. He did not respond to a phone call Thursday.
The PAC document examined by Vastrick and Flores is a request to the Florida Division of Elections for credentials to use its website, dated Nov. 6, 2015. The form names Abraham and accountant Brian George as the PAC’s officers. Neither man has any political experience. They have not responded to messages. Abraham was not at his family’s Coral Gables office Thursday morning.
The Grieco campaign documents include candidate statements, financial disclosures and campaign-finance filings. All bear his writing.
The accuracy of handwriting comparison is sometimes contested, as are some other forensic sciences. But courts around the nation allow expert testimony from handwriting analysts, and judges and juries use their findings in reaching verdicts. In Florida, state courts allow witnesses to testify to the authorship of disputed handwriting.
Rumors about People for Better Leader’s connection to Grieco started circulating in January. Outside political fund-raising groups are unpopular on the Beach because of former Commissioner Jonah Wolfson’s Relentless for Progress PAC. Wolfson and Mayor Philip Levine raised money from city vendors and lobbyists for the group before the last Beach election.
In response, commissioners passed a new campaign-finance law in January 2016. The law’s intent was to prevent elected officials and candidates — and people working with them — from shaking down special interests for political access. The commission, including Grieco, voted unanimously in its favor.
Two of the donations to People for Better Leaders came from city vendors and lobbyists. If Grieco or someone acting on his behalf solicited those donations, he could have broken the new law.
An additional Miami-Dade County ordinance, implemented in 2017, would have required Grieco to register to undertake any fund-raising activities for the PAC.
In an interview before the Herald’s original story was published, Grieco doubled down on his denial, emphatically stating that he had nothing to do with the PAC. He and his political consultant, David Custin, said his political enemies, including Gelber, are conspiring to discredit him.
The commissioner then responded angrily to the story once it appeared online, asking if a reporter was on Gelber’s payroll. He later sent out an e-mail blast to supporters thanking them for “opting to ignore what is clearly my opponent’s attempt to distort my record, attack my character and avoid talking about substantive issues of the city.”
The PAC is already causing fallout on the Beach. Its activities were raised at a city meeting on Wednesday when Marc Lawrence, one of the owners of the Angler’s Resort hotel, appeared before the commission.
The hotel is seeking a zoning variance at its Washington Avenue location. It contributed $15,000 to People for Better Leaders last year. Grieco sponsored the zoning item on the agenda.
At the meeting, Commissioner Ricky Arriola asked the purpose of the donation. Lawrence replied that he did not know anything about the donation or how it happened.
A corporate affiliate of the hotel’s management company, San Francisco-based Kimpton Group, made the donation. Kimpton did not respond to a request for comment.
Arriola, who donated $1,000 to Gelber, said he would not support the project of any donor to the PAC until it was clear who was behind it and why it was raising money. While Mayor Philip Levine and Commissioner Joy Malakoff expressed similar concerns, Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez questioned their stance.
“Why are we being mean like this?” she asked. The hotel doesn’t “need to suffer because of any interpersonal conflict you guys are having with Grieco. … Why don’t you guys just put on some gloves and go at it outside?”
Several of the PAC’s other donors also have business before the city.
“It smells like quid pro quo,” Arriola later told the Herald. “That’s why we ban these kinds of donations.”
Grieco left the meeting shortly before its final vote of the day.