Suspended Miami city commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla is a wily political veteran facing public corruption charges. His colleague, Sabina Covo, is a first-time elected official who proclaimed herself a corruption fighter on a billboard. Both collected substantial contributions from Miami real estate moguls for their reelection campaigns.
And the pair will now head to a runoff, after Diaz de la Portilla and Covo failed to win more than 50 percent of the vote for their district seats in Tuesday’s city election.
Diaz de la Portilla, despite being under indictment for multiple felonies and suspended from office by Gov. Ron DeSantis, won 39.6 percent of the vote in the District 1 race. On Nov. 21, he will face second-place finisher Miguel Gabela, an auto parts salesman who trailed the incumbent commissioner by fewer than 400 votes. Gabela also forced Diaz de la Portilla into a runoff in the 2019 city election.
Still, Gabela faces an uphill battle in dethroning Diaz de la Portilla, whose first-place finish shows that voters in his district — which includes Allapattah, a neighborhood experiencing a development boom — haven’t been turned off by the disgraced elected official’s criminal troubles.
In September, Diaz de la Portilla was charged with bribery, money laundering, criminal conspiracy, official misconduct, failure to report a gift, accepting a campaign contribution in excess of legal limits and unlawful compensation or reward for official behavior. He has denied any wrongdoing and has pleaded not guilty.
According to an arrest affidavit, two political action committees controlled by Diaz de la Portilla accepted $245,000 in illegal campaign contributions between 2020 and 2022 from Miami Beach-based power couple David and Leila Centner. The contributions were funneled through a Delaware entity controlled by the Centners’ lobbyist and lawyer, William Riley Jr., who was also criminally charged. He also pleaded not guilty.
In exchange for the donations, Diaz de la Portilla allegedly spearheaded giving the Centners a no-bid deal to build a $10 million recreation center at a city-owned park adjacent to one of their Centner Academy school buildings. Diaz de la Portilla failed to abstain from voting on matters involving the Centners and did not disclose his conflict, the affidavit states.
One Diaz de la Portilla PAC raised nearly a half-million dollars from real estate developers for his re-election effort. Donors included Miami-based NR Investments, led by principals Ron Gottesmann and Nir Shoshani. Affiliates of NR donated a combined $94,000 to the city commissioner’s PAC.
The company submitted an unsolicited proposal last year to redevelop 18 acres of city-owned property in Allapattah. The PAC also received donations from Neology Life Development Group, led by CEO Lissette Calderon, which is currently developing three multifamily projects in Allapattah. Neology affiliates contributed $20,000 to Diaz de la Portilla’s PAC.
In the District 2 race, Covo picked up 39.2 percent of the vote and will face second-place finisher, financial planner Damian Pardo, in her runoff. Pardo trailed Covo by 910 votes.
Covo won a special election in February to serve out the term of the previous District 2 city commissioner, Ken Russell. He was forced to resign due to a state law barring local politicians from holding their seats while running for higher office. Last year, Russell ran unsuccessfully for Congress.
A public relations consultant, Covo’s client roster includes Miami-based developers Melo Group and Newgard Development Group. More than half of the $573,372 Covo raised for her individual campaign committee and a PAC called Dream Miami came from developers, architects, land use attorneys and marina operators, campaign finance reports show. Melo and Newgard contributed $10,000 and $5,000, respectively, to Dream Miami.
Other donors to Covo’s reelection effort include Miami-based CMC Group, led by CEO Ugo Colombo ($25,000), Miami-based Crescent Heights, led by managing principal Russell Galbut ($10,000) and developer Michael Swerdlow ($10,000).