As the Miami Heat rebounded from a rough first half to take the win during Tuesday’s first game of the Eastern Conference Finals, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez basked in the national TV spotlight, seated courtside, where a ticket to the game costs $20,000 and up on the resale market.
Was it a freebie from a friend? A personal extravagance?
The county ethics code mandates that gifts exceeding $100 must be reported in quarterly financial disclosures. No one is saying the ticket was a gift. No one is saying it wasn’t a gift. Neither the mayor nor his underlings were talking Wednesday.
Suarez’s presence was a departure from typical courtside celebrities like DJ Khaled — who recently soothed coach Erik Spoelstra with a surprise in-game shoulder rub — Flo Rida or even the opera singer in a Heat gown, Radmila Lolly.
The mayor sat alongside Sean Wolfington, a Key Biscayne resident who has built technology companies that have sold over $2 billion worth of vehicles over the internet, according to his LinkedIn profile. He also produces films. Wolfington did not respond to requests for comment.
Suarez has more than one source of income. In addition to his mayoral duties, he works as an attorney at Quinn Emanuel, a national law firm. Suarez previously worked at Greenspoon Marder, where he specialized in “corporate and real-estate transactions,” according to his LinkedIn profile.
Though he has repeatedly declined requests from the Miami Herald to provide his full client list, Suarez has insisted he would disclose any conflicts of interest with the city. Past disclosure forms have offered windows into the mayor’s legal work on two occasions, and the Herald has also uncovered lobbying efforts on behalf of Fisher Island.
Last year, he took yet another gig at a private equity firm, Coral Gables private equity firm DaGrosa Capital Partners, which he said would also not conflict with his duties as mayor. Suarez earns a $97,000 base salary as mayor, part of an overall compensation package of $130,600 that is set by the city commission.
Post-game selfies on Instagram showed Suarez with Wolfington and local real estate specialist Andres Asion. When contacted by the Herald on Wednesday. Asion said he was friends with Suarez but said he had no idea how the mayor got his ticket. “Does it matter?” he asked.
Anthony Alfieri, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, said it does.
“Good municipal governance requires openness and transparency and accountability,” Alfieri said. “Our highest elected officials should aspire to the highest standards of ethical disclosure and reporting.”
Former Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who held office from 2009 to 2017 and faced a county ethics investigation that dealt, in part, with Miami Heat tickets, said it is inappropriate for the current mayor to sit courtside at a playoff game, whether the ticket was gifted to Suarez or he purchased it himself.
During his tenure as mayor, as the Heat won two national titles, Regalado never attended a Finals game in the arena, he claimed.
“To me, it really looks wrong and it looks like a slap in the face for all the poor people in Miami,” said Regalado, never a fan of his successor. “It’s a very difficult thing to explain, and the explanation is not, ‘Oh, the Miami Heat is our team and I was rooting for our team.’ Guess what? You can do that from a sports bar in Brickell or watching TV at home.”
But he did sometimes go to regular season games, and in 2011 was probed by the county ethics board over his attendance at a December Heat game in an official capacity — on account of the fact that he also asked for a ticket for his son. The mayor was cleared.
Regalado said the way he avoided having to declare game attendance as a gift was to attend city-organized charity events and leave in the first quarter before taking a ticketed seat.
City officials hanging around the expensive seats is not unprecedented. A previous city manager, Joe Arriola, went to all the games, and he once literally fouled out, getting tossed out of his seat for bellowing too crudely at the officials.
The Herald’s headline the next day: “Refs call a foul on Arriola’s mouth.”
Miami Herald staff writers Nicholas Nehamas and Joey Flechas contributed to this report.