Billionaire treated Mayor Suarez to $30K Grand Prix weekend. Miami says he’s paying it back

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Mayor Francis Suarez watched the Miami Grand Prix from a star-packed viewing party as the personal guest of Florida’s wealthiest person, Citadel CEO Ken Griffin. Citadel has lobbyists registered in the city as the company pursues various Miami development projects, including a $1 billion Brickell tower.

Florida ethics laws prohibit elected officials from taking expensive gifts — including valuable complimentary admissions — from anyone with business in front of their city.

Citadel spokesperson Zia Ahmed told the Herald Griffin gave Suarez and his wife Gloria tickets to the Formula One Paddock Club, where the billionaire hedge funder hosted a private viewing party for 50 of his friends. The exclusive track-side venue reportedly charged around $14,000 per person for general admission.

After a reporter told him the mayor’s acceptance of such largess would likely violate Florida ethics laws, the spokesperson pivoted a week later and said Suarez covered the cost of the events. He refused to say when Suarez paid or how much.

Neither Citadel, which is not subject to public records laws, nor the city, which is, would provide documentation confirming the payment.

The mayor has called attention to his own attendance at expensive events, from courtside Miami Heat playoff tickets to the World Cup to this year’s Grand Prix, by habitually posting on social media, raising questions about who pays.

READ MORE: Here are the rules for politicians accepting gifts, contributions, side jobs

An elected official can face formal reprimands and fines and even potential removal from office if found to have taken a gift from a lobbyist in their city — or someone who employs the lobbyist. Anyone with business in front of the city who gives a city official an expensive gift can also be fined and banned from lobbying in the city for up to two years.

To comply with Florida gifts law, Suarez would have to cover the full cost of his and his wife’s Formula One weekend within the 90-day grace period for repayment. Discounted admissions are still considered gifts under the law.

“Oftentimes, lobbyists and other prohibited donors can give a sweetheart deal or an extremely reduced rate for a thing of value,” Caroline Klancke, executive director of the Florida Ethics Institute and former general counsel for the state ethics commission.

In a statement to the Herald Monday, Griffin said Suarez “appropriately covered the cost” for both himself and his wife and any insinuations that the mayor did not pay would be “troubling, irresponsible, and misleading to readers,” likening them to a “misplaced conspiracy theory.”

Citadel attorneys sent a formal letter advising that the Herald “not recklessly publish false and damaging statements or implications.”

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, left, interviews Citadel CEO Ken Griffin at an event organized by the Economic Club of Miami at Miami Dade College in 2022.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, left, interviews Citadel CEO Ken Griffin at an event organized by the Economic Club of Miami at Miami Dade College in 2022.

Citadel did not provide information about how much Griffin paid to host the gathering in the Hard Rock Stadium track’s Paddock Club, which offers “desirable trackside viewing above the team garages, gourmet cuisine, and free-flowing champagne” with customizable private suites available for large parties like Griffin’s at an “additional cost.”

As part of the weekend’s festivities, Griffin attended the Carbone Beach after-party along with Suarez and his wife, where the host, Major Food Group, charged a cover of $3,000 per person.

Lumped together, the two events would cost the mayor at least $34,000 — a figure calculated from the price for each venue, assuming no additional VIP upgrades.

“Mayor Suarez is covering the costs of the Formula 1 tickets and dinner at Carbone,” said the mayor’s communications director, Stephanie Severino, in an email last week. “Therefore, there have been no gifts received from Citadel.”

Under Florida’s public records law, the Herald formally requested any records held by the mayor or anyone else at the city memorializing payments from Suarez to Griffin. City Attorney Victoria Mendez declined the request, saying such records did not exist.

She did not respond to a Herald attorney who inquired whether she was contesting the Herald’s claim to the records or if the mayor has no record of a payment at all.

The Formula One invitation came as the mayor’s office put out positive messaging about Griffin’s move to Miami from Chicago, his former headquarters. In February, Soledad Cedro, another spokesperson in the mayor’s office, wrote an article in the Spanish-language publication infobae praising Griffin without disclosing her role with the city. Suarez has also spoken favorably of Griffin’s projects, including an effort to move a historic mansion off of his waterfront estate and open it to the public, which requires approval from the Historic Preservation Board and the city commission.

A political supporter of the mayor, Griffin has contributed $1 million to a PAC affiliated with Suarez, who recently announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.

Ahmed, the Citadel spokesperson, said that Griffin has never asked the mayor for special treatment, and will go through proper channels when seeking approvals for its upcoming development projects around the city.

“Mayor Suarez’s policies have created jobs, improved community safety, and ensured our citizens have the freedom and opportunity to pursue the American dream. Over the past five years, his leadership has helped transform Miami into one of America’s most vibrant cities,” Griffin said in a written statement to the Herald. “I was happy to have the Mayor and his wife Gloria among the 50-plus guests I invited to enjoy the Formula 1 race with me.”

Suarez announced his run for the Republican nomination in June amid increased scrutiny over his private business relationships — in particular, a $10,000-a-month consulting job for a developer that came under state and federal investigation last month after Herald reporting showed the mayor’s office intervened on a zoning issue.

The mayor, who makes $130,000 a year for his part-time city job, reported a net worth of $3.4 million in a disclosure this month, more than doubling the previous year’s figure.

Ahmed said neither Griffin nor Citadel have any business, financial, or employment relationship with Suarez.

Suarez, a real estate attorney who refuses to disclose a comprehensive list of his private clients, has generally ignored questions about who foots the bill for high-end sporting events and international travel — questions that arise after photos of his attendance are posted across social media.

In May, when the Herald first asked Suarez who gave him passes to the Miami Grand Prix after he was tagged in Instagram posts by other guests at the exclusive viewing club, the mayor refused to answer.

He has never answered questions about who paid his way into the Formula One races the previous year, or how he came to be in Qatar alongside David Beckham at the 2022 World Cup semifinal match. Beckham successfully lobbied the city on behalf of plans to build a professional soccer stadium on a public golf course.

Suarez did not report the events to the ethics commission.

Under Florida law, if the ticket was a gift from someone with no business before the city, it must be reported to the ethics commission — unless the gift was from a family member. If the ticket was a gift from someone lobbying the city, the gift itself would be an ethics violation.