Defamation suit over mailer brings Miami drama into Coral Gables runoff

Samantha J. Gross
·4 min read

Miami’s messy political squabbles have again crossed into the Coral Gables municipal election, this time over a political mailer attacking a candidate who is no longer in the race.

Former Miami City Manager Joe Arriola is suing Coral Gables commission candidate Javier Baños and Marc Sarnoff, a lobbyist and former Miami commissioner, over an ad attacking former candidate Alex Bucelo, who Arriola supported early in his campaign.

Arriola filed the complaint Wednesday in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.

The attack ad — sent last month by a political committee that on paper is controlled by neither Baños nor Sarnoff — portrays Arriola as one of Bucelo’s “puppet masters” and says the former city manager was “forced to resign due to pay-to-play developer scandal.”

Bucelo did not make it to the runoff election.

The ad was paid for by Citizens for a Better Miami Dade Government, a political committee formed in 2019 by Bradley Cassel. Cassel is a former member of the South Miami pension board, on which he served alongside Baños. The political committee has reported only $30,000 raised, all of it in February. The bulk of the money — $25,000 — came from Sarnoff’s Truth is the Daughter of Time political committee.

In the complaint, Arriola contends that he left his role as city manager “under mutual agreement” between himself and former Mayor Manny Diaz, and that he was not forced to resign due to any scandal.

“If you lie about my integrity, I am going to fight it,” he said Wednesday. “They are 100% lies ... this taints my reputation for no reason at all.”

In a statement, Diaz said the allegation against Arriola is false and that after several years as city manager, “Joe and I negotiated his retirement from the City when the goals he wanted to accomplish had been met.”

“Joe [Arriola] was never asked or forced to resign, let alone for the false allegations being raised against him,” he said.

Sarnoff said while his political committee contributes to other committees, he would “never authorize it to run an ad.” He says he did not make the decision to send out the mailer and wasn’t aware it was sent at all.

“I personally don’t think nasty ads work,” he said.

When the ads went out, Baños denied any involvement in sending them, though the PAC lists his email as its contact.

Stake in the Gables races

Arriola lives just outside Coral Gables, but involved himself in two campaigns at the beginning of the cycle, including Bucelo’s. He has since donated a maximum donation of $1,000 to Kirk Menendez, who faces Baños in an April 27 runoff election made necessary when no candidate in the race was able to top 50% voter support on April 13. Bucelo did not make the cut.

Arriola said previously that he was backing Bucelo in an effort to thwart a candidate who is “associated with what I believe to be a criminal,” he said, referring to Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo. Carollo responded by calling Arriola a “scumbag.”

Arriola is an organizer and financial backer of the effort to recall Carollo, a campaign focused on controversies that have marked the commissioner’s term since he was elected in 2017.

Baños, a CPA, has been the treasurer of Carollo’s campaign accounts and political action committee, and was Carollo’s appointee on the Bayfront Park Management Trust. Baños’ mother-in-law is also Carollo’s cousin.

“[Baños] comes from the Joe Carrollo school,” Arriola said Wednesday, noting that he thinks the mailers “absolutely” have to do with his involvement in the Carollo recall effort.

Baños, who has repeatedly told the Herald that he has no relationship with Carollo, said the lawsuit is just a distraction, and blamed Menendez, who worked for years at the Miami City Hall.

“My opponent has tried to paint me on numerous occasions as the one with links to the City of Miami, yet his Miami friends are coming to help save his campaign,” Baños said.

Baños also noted that Menendez faces a pending claim worth $30,000 to $50,000 from creditor Portfolio Recovery Associates, filed in February of this year.

“This is a frivolous lawsuit and an attempt to take the attention away from my opponent’s $50,000 lawsuit from a creditor of unpaid debt, and influence our Coral Gables election,” Baños wrote in a text.

Menendez was not served, and said that the case is being dismissed.

Menendez said Baños has brought “tactics that are seen in other municipalities” into Coral Gables.

“I am focused on my campaign and connecting with my fellow residents up until Election Day,” he said.

The Coral Gables runoff election for Group Two and Group Three commission seats is Tuesday, April 27. Early voting is Saturday, April 24 and Sunday, April 25.