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Miami’s pursuit of MLS soccer stadium for Beckham team faces new lawsuit

David Beckham speaks at an event where it was announced that Major League Soccer is bringing an expansion team to Miami, Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, in Miami. The team is backed by Beckham and a team of investors. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Two lawsuits filed by a Miami attorney aim to derail the effort to redevelop a city-owned golf course into a stadium and commercial complex for David Beckham’s planned Major League Soccer team.

One suit, filed late Tuesday, raises questions about whether the city correctly described the land that would be leased for construction of the complex. The allegations could throw another legal wrench in the gears of those who want to quickly craft a lease and seek approval from Miami commissioners — gears that had already been jammed by an earlier ethics complaint.

Another suit, filed last week and reported by the Daily Business Review, focuses on issues related to laws requiring Beckham and all his associates and lobbyists to disclose the ownership of the corporation they are representing — issues that came to light as a result of an ethics complaint filed by Miami attorney David Winker.

Winker, a former partner at Zumpano, Patricios & Winker who left to open his own firm, filed both suits against the city of Miami over the plan to lease Melreese golf course for the construction of Miami Freedom Park, which would include a 73-acre commercial development with hotels, office space, retail, a stadium and soccer fields. The team’s investors have also pledged to build a 58-acre public park next door, meaning 131 acres of land next to Miami International Airport would be radically transformed in a $1 billion development.

The new lawsuit focuses on the language used to describe the public land that would be leased to Jorge Mas, MasTec chairman and investor in the upcoming MLS team, Inter Miami. Winker argues the words used to identify the land are so vague that they would confuse common people on a seemingly simple facet of the deal: Which land would be used to build Miami Freedom Park?

In a two-count complaint filed in Miami-Dade County court late Tuesday, Winker argues that city documents did not clearly describe the land. The resolution to hold the referendum, passed by Miami commissioners in July on a 3-2 vote, identifies the 131 acres as property under two folio numbers, which are unique numbers used to legally identify land parcels.

That referendum passed with 60 percent approval in November, when voters gave Miami’s government permission to skip the usual competitive bidding process to negotiate a lease of public land with Mas and his associates. The vote allows the city to give Mas and Beckham a one-time exception from the law meant to force an open competition among proposals for private use of public land — a law that is supposed to ensure taxpayers get a good deal for their land.

Winker’s lawsuit asserts that the math presented to voters doesn’t add up. The two adjacent parcels total about 157 acres — a larger slice of land than the 131 acres proposed in the referendum. Because of the 26-acre discrepancy, Winker maintains the city should not be allowed to use the referendum as authorization to negotiate the no-bid lease.

If the court disagrees, Winker says development should be restricted to 131 acres, which might not be enough land for the vision presented in renderings released to the public with much fanfare last summer. Those images, when compared to Miami-Dade property records cited in the lawsuit, suggest the proposed development requires more than 131 acres.

The suit raises questions of how Miami Freedom Park can be constructed as promised in architectural renderings — important questions because Mas said there are restrictions on how buildings can be built there, due to proximity to the airport and Federal Aviation Administration regulations. Taller buildings must be grouped on the north end of the site, bordering the Tamiami Canal.

Miami’s City Attorney Victoria Mendez said lawsuits from Winker and Bruce Matheson, another Miami Freedom Park opponent, do not “depict a clear understanding of our codes.”

“We hope to have a resolution through our court system soon,” she said.

Winker’s suits add new wrinkles to a process that has faced criticism since the preliminary plan was rolled out to the public last summer, when critics such as Winker blasted the Beckham group and Miami’s administrators and elected officials for shepherding a rushed concept through to a referendum.

“This amendment to the City’s mandatory competitive bidding protections was passed by the Commissioners in a rushed, behind closed doors negotiation,” Winker told the Miami Herald in a written statement. “So it is no surprise that the Charter Amendment language doesn’t allow a reasonable person to understand what land at Melreese can actually be leased to Miami Freedom Park, LLC.”

Mas and proponents of the deal have defended the proposal as the antithesis to the infamous Marlins Stadium agreement, which left taxpayers responsible for $2 billion in loan payments. Mas has touted the project as a job creator that will bring in rent and tax revenue while replacing a country club with a new large public park and providing a home for Miami’s new MLS team.

Immediately after the election, Winker authored the ethics complaint that prevented team officials and city administrators from negotiating a lease. Earlier this month, ethics officials said an issue with required disclosures was cleared up, clearing the parties for negotiations. But the ethics inquiry is still ongoing, and the disclosures revealed that the corporation that would hold the lease is solely owned by Jorge Mas — even though Mas made public appearances with Beckham and implied the fellow team investors would be a part of Miami Freedom Park.

An attorney for Mas’ corporation, Miami Freedom Park LLC, told the Herald last week that the other investors in the soccer team, including Beckham, Sprint chairman Marcelo Claure, SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son and Jose’s brother Jorge Mas, have an interest in Miami Freedom Park, and that Mas is contractually bound to include fellow investors in the deal.

John Shubin, an attorney representing Miami Freedom Park LLC, called Winker’s latest lawsuit “meritless” in a statement Wednesday.

“It is unclear what motivates Winker’s opposition but we will not let a pattern of frivolous lawsuits and allegations stand in the way of bringing Major League Soccer to the city of Miami,” he said.

Winker said he simply wants to see a stadium deal free of any legal or ethical questions.

“This process has been a legal and ethical mess from the start and we deserve better from our elected leaders and city government,” he said. “I hope that when the smoke clears from the ongoing Ethics Commission investigation and these lawsuits, that we can end up with a stadium deal that is done in an open and transparent way and that benefits the entire community.”

Winker’s legal complaints follow a string of suits filed by opponents of Freedom Park.

The first lawsuit against the Miami Freedom Park was filed by another attorney, Douglas Muir, amid the controversy swirling around the commission vote in July. A judge dismissed the lawsuit in August. Muir has appealed to the Third District Court of Appeal.

Another lawsuit challenging the referendum was filed weeks before the November vote by Bruce Matheson, who owns land near Overtown property that the Beckham group once proposed as a stadium site but no longer wants.

Matheson had previously filed a separate suit over the no-bid deal for that Overtown land, which he has appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.

Matheson’s Miami Freedom Park lawsuit remains in Miami-Dade circuit court. A hearing in that case is scheduled for Feb. 4.

Read Winker’s more recent lawsuit below:
This article was first published by the Miami Herald on Jan. 24, 2019.
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