The Florida Commission on Ethics has officially opened an investigation into Miami Mayor Francis Suarez following a complaint regarding his acceptance of expensive tickets to sporting events like the Miami Formula One Grand Prix and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The investigation is based on a complaint made by local activist Thomas Kennedy, which raises questions about who paid for the various tickets worth thousands of dollars and whether Suarez complied with Florida ethics laws requiring the mayor to disclose the source of all gifts — including complimentary access — valued over $100. The laws also prohibit elected officials from accepting such gifts from city vendors, lobbyists or their employers.
The complaint points out that Suarez did not file a gift disclosure for his Formula 1 VIP access passes last year, as would be required if anyone other than the city or an immediate family member paid. Nor did he report his travel to Qatar for the World Cup, where he was pictured in a luxury box with soccer star David Beckham, a registered lobbyist for a Major League Soccer stadium being built on city-owned land.
“The current status of the complaint is ‘pending investigation,’” wrote Millie Fulford, the commission’s clerk, in an update sent to Kennedy on Wednesday. Fulford said the commission is in the process of appointing an investigator to the case.
Kennedy filed the same complaint with the county ethics commission but the case was dismissed on Sept. 15 due to a clause in the county code requiring the complainant have substantial personal knowledge of the alleged violation. State ethics rules contain no such requirement.
The assignment of an investigator in the state case suggests the complaint was determined to be legally sufficient under state rules. Ethics investigators will now conduct interviews and subpoena records showing who paid for each event to determine whether there have been any violations.
“It’s good to see the Florida Ethics Commission taking this matter seriously as residents deserve clear and objective answers,” said Kennedy. “It’s become clear they won’t get them from the mayor or his administration.”
Central to the complaint was Suarez’s five-figure Grand Prix weekend, during which he watched the races from the Paddock Club, Formula 1’s most exclusive viewing suite. His wife joined him for at least two of the days and the couple also attended a $3,000 per-plate dinner called Carbone Beach.
Through a spokesperson, billionaire hedge-funder Ken Griffin previously told the Herald he invited the mayor and his wife to the dinner and the Sunday race — events with a total value of $14,000. After the Herald raised questions about the legality of such gifts from Griffin — who is lobbying the city as he moves the headquarters of his company, Citadel, to Miami — Griffin’s spokesperson told the Herald Suarez had covered the costs of the tickets.
Suarez has not provided receipts documenting the repayment. He declined to answer the Herald’s questions regarding when he repaid Griffin. He also would not say who provided his Paddock Club tickets on Friday and Sunday. Social media posts show him present and that his wife also joined on Saturday. Three day passes to the Paddock Club cost $14,000, according to Bloomberg.
In an interview with CBS4’s Ivan Taylor, Suarez said he also attended Carbone Beach on Friday night to give remarks at the event’s opening in Miami Beach. He said he did not stay long and did not bring his wife. The mayor also attended Once Upon a Kitchen, a $6,000-per-person pop-up event on the Grand Prix party circuit at the invitation of the Gr8 Experience, the hospitality group hosting the event. Suarez mingled with event coordinators and headlining chef, Massimo Bottura, although he did not stay for dinner, according a spokesperson for the Gr8 Experience.
But the gifts law still applies whether he attended an event for five minutes or five hours, said Caroline Klancke, executive director of the Florida Ethics Institute, a nonprofit formed to “protect and advance the cause of ethics in government.”
“The ethics laws recognize that gifts may include admissions to events, skyboxes and tickets and it does not put in a time frame wherein the gift becomes substantial enough,” said Klancke, who spent over a decade working at the Florida ethics commission, where she served as general counsel.
Suarez also told CBS4 that he had attended some of the Formula 1 events in his official capacity as mayor. But the mayor’s calendars obtained by the Herald through public records requests show the weekend blocked off as personal time.
Suarez has until the end of September to report the dinner tickets and any other yet-unknown sources behind his Grand Prix weekend that ran from May 5 to May 7. As of Thursday morning, no disclosure had been filed. He is not required to report tickets he paid for himself, or those fully reimbursed within 90 days of attendance.
The mayor’s office did not respond to the Herald’s requests for comment. Griffin declined to comment.
Suarez, a part-time mayor who has held 13 side jobs since the beginning of 2022, is under federal investigation over his $10,000-a-month work for a local developer with business before the city. The Herald reported that Suarez’s staff intervened to help the developer with a zoning issue.
Suarez told the Herald that he was contacted by the Securities and Exchange Commission, but had not met with investigators as of early September. He said he had not been contacted by the FBI.
The State Attorney’s Office and county ethics commission also opened a joint investigation into the matter.
In a recent round of media appearances, Suarez insisted the various investigations are old news.
“We’ve talked about this multiple times, again, this is the same story being recycled over and over again and I have been very clear and candid on this in which I had no influence whatsoever,” Suarez said to NBC6 reporter Steve Litz, who asked about his outside employment. He said he was “not included in any emails” and “did not in any way talk to anybody with the administration” about the zoning matter involving the developer that paid him as a consultant.
“I provided all of the documentation to whomever wants to see it,” he said.
The mayor’s office has not yet responded to the Herald’s request for those records.