Miami Gardens gives sweet deal to developer who is under federal indictment
City manager says he learned of fraud charges after Top Golf vote
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – The city of Miami Gardens purchased a 15-acre piece of land near the Golden Glades Interchange in 2009 -- near the bottom of the real estate crash -- for $7.3 million.
Recently, the city sold that land to a developer, in order for it to be used as a $25 million entertainment mecca called Top Golf. The facility is slated to be a 65,000-square-foot, three-level structure that will feature restaurants, bars and, of course, golf.
The city voted in December to sell the land at a $3 million loss.
"I think we got a good deal," City Manager Cameron Benson, who negotiated the sale, said.
Benson cited future tax revenues from the project, which are estimated at $200,000 a year, and potential revenue-sharing on a billboard or cell tower that might be built on the site, though that revenue is only expected to generate about $200,000 over the next 10 years.
Benson also said the development will provide an economic engine and bring much-needed jobs to the city.
"The fact that Top Golf has come to Miami Gardens and they are putting that investment into the city speaks volumes about where we have come as a city," he said.
But someone else was cut into the deal -- a middleman developer from Massachusetts named James Levin.
It was Levin's firm, Urban Property Holdings, that purchased the land at the bargain price and is leasing it to Top Golf.
As an attorney and developer, Levin bought the land from the city and leasing it to Top Golf.
What wasn’t mentioned when the council made the final vote to approve the deal in December was that Levin, at that time, was already under federal indictment on felony fraud charges related to alleged corruption in another city.
Levin was indicted by federal prosecutors last August for allegedly conspiring with a former housing official in Worcester, Massachusetts, to swindle $2.3 million in government housing dollars. That former housing official, Jacklyn Sutcivni, also faces fraud and conspiracy charges in the case.
The federal government is also seeking to forfeit $2.3 million from the pair. Numerous calls to the Top Golf media relations office for this story were not returned.
Benson initially said he learned about the indictment in October or November, which would have been well prior to the vote. But then he insisted that he didn't learn of the indictment until after the vote and said the city wouldn't have gone forward with the deal with Levin involved had it known he'd been indicted.
Later, the city claimed in an email that Benson had actually learned of the indictment in January, a month after the vote, and that he informed the council of the indictment at the time he learned of it.
"After finding out, I said, 'Hey, listen, we have a bad egg in this deal,'" Benson said.
But council members contacted for this story gave conflicting accounts on whether they had ever been notified Levin was under indictment.
Mayor Oliver Gilbert said he had been notified after the vote, but said he couldn't pinpoint the date. Councilwoman Lisa Davis, however, said she wasn't notified of the indictment until last week, after the Local 10 News interview with Benson.
Councilwoman Lillie Odom initially said she'd never been informed of it at all then said she couldn’t remember and then appeared to say that she had in fact been notified at a previous date.
It's not known if Levin used any of the allegedly ill-begotten housing funds to purchase the land -- something that could backfire on the city.
"The government wants over $2 million returned from this individual. Are you concerned that this project might come under the purview of the federal government?" Local 10 News reporter Bob Norman asked Benson.
"I hope not," he said. "Certainly, that would not be a good thing for us."
The city's due diligence also missed the fact that one of Levin's companies filed for bankruptcy in 2015, had been delinquent on paying property taxes and missed news stories about his involvement in alleged corruption in Worcester with Sutcivni.
"Red flag after red flag after red flag. How did the city miss this?" Norman asked Benson.
"We didn't do anything on purpose," Benson said.
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