Is Marc D. Sarnoff Corrupt Or The Most Corrupt Miami Politician?

His Excellency
Marc D. Sarnoff

In researching the long history of the E.W.F. Stirrup House, one name that never came up was Marc D. Sarnoff, unofficial Emperor of Coconut Grove. 

However, that changed once I started investigating the current state of Coconut Grove. The name “Marc D. Sarnoff” started cropping up with some regularity. The more I uncovered of Gino Falsetto‘s real estate deals, the more I saw the Sarnoff name. When I
started looking into the Coconut Grove Playhouse, I encountered the
Sarnoff name again. It didn’t matter where I turned, Sarnoff always
seemed to be RIGHT THERE. On one level that’s not surprising; Sarnoff is the Commissioner for Miami’s District 2, which takes in Coconut Grove. 

However, it was how his name kept coming up that intrigued the journalist in me. Whenever I read about a new development, I would read about how Marc D. Sarnoff was supporting it, often against neighbours’ objections. The Sarnoff name also came up often when interviewing people on deep background about the history of the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums behind the E.W.F. Stirrup House in Coconut Grove. The prevailing opinion seems to be that if you are a developer, Marc Sarnoff is on your side. If you live in White Coconut Grove, Marc Sarnoff can be your best friend. If you live in Black Coconut Grove, Marc Sarnoff is the invisible man.

Nothing illustrates this better than last week’s hastily scheduled Town Hall meeting on Trolleygate. Sarnoff only called for this community meeting once the shit hit the fan, not when this diesel bus garage was still on paper. Trolleygate can be a complicated story if one gets too deeply into the weeds. However, clearing away the clutter — and narrowing the focus to a single issue — it is easier to see what’s at stake. In a nutshell:

Diesel bus disguised
as an old-tyme trolley.

On one hand: Marc Sarnoff claims Astor Development complied with all legal requirements and had every right to build a diesel bus garage in the middle of West Grove. 


On the other hand: Lawyers for West Grove say that the Miami21 Plan specifically prohibits a “government vehicle maintenance facility” along Douglas; therefore, building permits never should have been issued. 

They both can’t be right.

True to form, residents say, Sarnoff couldn’t be bothered to look for any reasons to deny a developer, even though West Grove lawyers say many exist. The courts will now sort this mess out, at a cost to all Miami taxpayers (the West Grove lawyers are working pro bono). However, Sarnoff clearly thought his time and energy would be better spent working with the developer, as opposed to the neighbourhood groups that came out against the diesel bus garage.

By his own admission: Once he decided that Astor had every right to build a diesel bus garage on Douglas, that’s when Super Sarnoff sprang into action to get the best possible deal for the neighbourhood. To that end, he claims, he convinced the developer to change the exterior of the building to give the diesel bus garage a Bahamian feel. Sarnoff also claimed that he convinced Astor to donate $200,000 to improve the football field at Armbrister Park. Sarnoff insists the developer did this because “[t]his particular developer, his wife is very charitable. He’s very charitable,” according to what he told the Miami Herald. Of course, it has nothing to do with the fact that Astor Development stands to make several millions of dollars developing the current diesel bus garage property in Coral Gables.

Google Street View showing 3 of the 4 tax-paying buildings along Douglas Road (at Oak Avenue) destroyed to make way for the Coral Gables diesel bus garage, which won’t be paying taxes. Nor will the buses be picking up passengers in Black West Grove. That might allow them to get to Coral Gables, which is 98% White.

West Grove neighbours describe Sarnoff’s bad faith:

But
residents say when he encountered opposition, Sarnoff simply moved on
to another group. In April, he attended a meeting of the Coconut Grove
Ministerial Alliance and, in October, a gathering of football coaches at
Armbrister Park, according to those in attendance.

“He wanted us
to say it was a good project and we were behind it, considering they
were going to renovate the playing facility,” said Rondy Powell, a coach
at the park for 20 years. “I kind of figured when they came, it was
kind of like a back-room deal.”

An artist’s view of Bahamian-influenced diesel
bus garage on the same corner of Douglas and Oak.

If I were Marc Sarnoff’s Day Timer, I would know how much time Marc Sarnoff spent on Trolleygate, both before and after it became a controversial project. I would also know how much time Sarnoff spent negotiating with Astor Development and how much time was spent negotiating with West Grove residents. However, maybe Marc Sarnoff doesn’t put down all his meetings with developers in his Day Timer because the most often used adjective when discussing Marc D. Sarnoff appears to be “corrupt.” 


How long has Marc Sarnoff been corrupt?

That’s up for debate. According to Sarnoff’s own biography at the City of Miami web site, bad grammar and all:

In 1987 I made the big move to paradise: Miami. I settled in Coconut Grove and established my practice as an Aviation Attorney, specializing in representing passengers’ families and airline staff, and pilots, who were wrongfully killed or suffered life threatening injuries in airline crashes. In 1991 I had the honor of representing Eugene Hasenfus, the former Marine whose C123 Maulewas shot down over Nicaragua while delivering guns to the Contras. I also had the honor of representing, Kassenee Sawyer, who was the widow of the pilot in the Hasenfus plane. For those too young to know, this downing was the beginning of the Iran Contra Affair.

While I think we can all agree that even the worst criminals deserve a defense, this was not a defense. Hasenfus was suing because, after he got caught, his CIA handlers and the government cut him loose. Regardless, Sarnoff seems inordinately proud of his association with the criminal Hasenfus, who was serving a 30-year sentence before being pardoned by Nicaurguan President Daniel Ortega. I wonder why Sarnoff doesn’t mention that he lost that case

It might not be a good idea to put much credence in Sarnoff’s official biography. It used to be longer, but he was forced to remove the section where he claimed General David Sarnoff was his grandfather, after the real Sarnoff family said it wasn’t true. 

Then there’s the Marc D. Sarnoff Memorial Dog Park and Traffic Circle

The Marc D. Sarnoff Memorial Dog Park and Traffic Circle can be seen from space.

If you are one of those North Grove residents lucky enough to live near His Excellency Marc D. Sarnoff, then you will have no doubt seen your property values rise due to improvements right across the street from where he lives, and used to do business. According to recent reports the city is spending ANOTHER $190,000 on Blanche Park (that’s the name of the Marc D. Sarnoff Memorial Dog Park on paper, but the dogs know who to thank). The bulk of this cost is to replace the grass with astroturf. Back in my day dogs shit on the grass and liked it.

The Marc D. Sarnoff Memorial Dog Park
Photo by author Feb 6, 2013

How was Marc Sarnoff able to take a small park dedicated entirely to children and turn 2/3rds of it over to dogs? No one is quite sure because all the formalities seem to have not been followed. The same way that no one is quite sure how The Marc D. Sarnoff Memorial Traffic Circle circle came to be located in the middle of the intersection of Shipping Avenue and Virginia Street, right next to the Marc D. Sarnoff Memorial Dog Park. When you’re the Emperor of Coconut Grove good things drop into your neighbourhood, just like a real life version of Sim City. This will be the third time good money has been thrown after bad; Blanche Park appears to undergo regular upgrades. 

Illegal offices and bar closing hours

The Marc D. Sarnoff Memorial Dog Park
Feb 6, 2013

To be fair: it’s just within the realm of possibility, of course, that Sarnoff’s corner really needed a traffic circle. Any increased traffic, however, might have been due to Sarnoff’s illegal law office, located right next to his residence. And, from beginning to end, the story of the illegal law office provides another taste of Sarnoff Scandal.

That Sarnoff had an illegal law office appears to have been an open secret. While references can be found to it on blog comment threads, the home office was never reported to the City of Miami until Coconut Grove bar owner John El-Masry decided to exact a little revenge on Sarnoff. El-Masry, owner of Mr. Moe’s, was angry because Marc Sarnoff had rammed through a new law, which only affected bar closing hours in Coconut Grove. Whereas bars in the City of Miami could stay open until 5AM, suddenly all bars in “Center Grove” were forced to close at 3AM. An active nightlife in downtown Coconut Grove dried up overnight. In addition to launching a lawsuit against the city, El-Masry reported Sarnoff’s illegal law office to City of Miami staff. City of Miami staff promptly ignored the complaint, tipping off Sarnoff in the process. 

Possibly the Miami Department of Code Enforcement viewed Sarnoff as their boss and didn’t want to rattle any cages at City Hall. However, long-time-Sarnoff foe and Miami Muckraker Al Crespo wasn’t going to let the complaint go, and neither was (then) Coconut Grove Village Councilor Stephen Murray. In a letter to City Manager Carlos Migoya, dated August 31, 2010, Murray reminded the city manager of his duty:

I understand you are a public service rookie, so I’d like to take the time to explain something critical to you. Unlike in the private sector, where you have a clear-cut executive, Board of Directors, and stockholders who need to be answered to, as the City Manager you are a public servant. A public servant has one real boss – the public. You, as a public servant, took an oath to protect the residents of the City of Miami. You did not take an oath to allow yourself nor your subordinates to protect crooked politicians who believe they are above the law.

When I recently asked Stephen Murray if he would go on record for this article, Murray replied:

The only on the record thing worth saying is the following: “Commissioner Sarnoff is a scumbag corrupt piece of shit that doesn’t give two fucks about the people of the West Grove.”

It’s easy to find people who agree with that assessment, especially these days. 

Sarnoff eventually moved his illegal office and Mr. Moe’s eventually won its lawsuit against the city, which was forced to fork over $10,000 of taxpayer money to cover the costs of El-Masry’s lawsuit. Mr. Moe’s remains the only bar in “Center Grove” allowed to stay open until 5AM.

The calm before the meeting. Sarnoff preparing
to meet with the community on Trolleygate.

Dog parks. Traffic circles. Bar hours. Illegal offices. This shows how much power Commissioner Sarnoff wields in Coconut Grove, power that he’s not afraid to use openly to his own benefit. While Sarnoff controls just about everything that happens in the Grove, he claims there is no way he could have stopped the building of the Trolleygate garage.


My first Sarnoff encounter

As mentioned above, the name Marc D. Sarnoff kept popping up once I started investigating the recent history of the E.W.F. Stirrup House. According to (unconfirmed) reports Sarnoff worked closely with Aries Developers, and owner Gino Falsetto, in getting the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums built. This apparently included meetings and accommodations by the developer to mollify neighbourhood concerns. One of those concerns was what would happen to the historic 120-year old E.W.F. Stirrup House, which would be dwarfed by the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums. Whatever promises were made by Gino Falsetto and Aries Developers concerning the Stirrup House, to both the neighbourhood and Commissioner Sarnoff were broken. [See my ongoing series on the E.W.F. Stirrup House.]

This explains why Marc D. Sarnoff was already on the very periphery of my radar. That all changed a few weeks ago while I was interviewing a West Grove resident about the E.W.F. Stirrup House and Sarnoff’s name came up again. The resident asked, “Did you hear what he did this time?” While he described the broad outline of Trolleygate to me, the story sounded very similar to what had happened with the E.W.F. Stirrup House (Stirrupgate?): A redevelopment project is proposed, neighbours complain, Sarnoff steps in to help the developer, in the end the developer gets what it wants, the immediate neighbours get the shaft.

Trolleygate diesel bus garage; Feb. 6, 2013

I discounted this story almost immediately. While the pattern sounded familiar to what I had discovered in my E.W.F. Stirrup research — not to mention my research into the Coconut Grove Playhouse — I thought, “No one can be that nakedly stupid, can they?”

However, after a few hours of working the phones, the answer came back “YES!” Commissioner Marc Sarnoff is stupid enough to use the same tactics to, once again, help a developer and screw the neighbourhood he represents. That’s when I decided to go to the emergency Town Hall meeting, which I describe it in my previous post The Trolleygate Dog and Pony Show. However, it was only after watching Sarnoff’s performance at that meeting that I decided I needed to do some research on Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff. I fired up the Googlizer and it’s not a pretty picture. Each headline just makes you want to shake your head that Sarnoff was ever reelected.

View of Trolleygate diesel bus garage from
its closest neighbour’s backyard; Feb. 6, 2013

My favourite two headlines are Marc Sarnoff: ‘Reid Welch Called Me a Cop Cock Sucker!’ and Marc Sarnoff (Allegedly) Told Reid Welch: ‘I’ll Kill You!’ These were just two of the dozens of headlines that arose out of a bizarre incident adjacent to the Marc D. Sarnoff Memorial Dog Park, just across the street from the Sarnoff’s residence.

I’m the first to admit there are two sides to every story. One side says the Commissioner jumped into his metaphorical phone booth, changed into Super Sarnoff, and flew into action, saving a neighbour lady from imminent harm. This is countered by the actual police report and the witness statements, which tell a very different story than the one Sarnoff told. In fact, witnesses allege Sarnoff sucker-punched Reid. Francisco Alvarado, of Miami New Times, makes the undeniable point:

Call us crazy. But if two people saw Banana Republican approach someone, sucker punch him or her, and then pin our victim to the ground, chances are we’d be taking a ride down to Miami-Dade County jail. In fact, any Joe Schmo would have been arrested for assault or battery. But Marc Sarnoff is no regular citizen. He is a Miami city commissioner who has apparently gotten away with beating up his former pal and current nemesis, Reid Welch. 

Sarnoff was never charged in that incident. However, it’s almost as if the Sarnoff Beat is a full time job for Alvarado. Among other stories he’s written about Sarnoff:

Some other random headlines I discovered include some other random Sarnoff scandals:

Cast of Burn Notice. Left to right: Sharon Gless as Madeline
Westen, Bruce Campbell as Sam Axe, Jeffrey Donovan
as Michael Westen, Gabrielle Anwar as Fiona Glenanne.

And, don’t even get me started on Sarnoff’s whacky intervention in the “Burn Notice” lease, which produced weeks of international headlines. The USA Network’s hit show is shot in Coconut Grove and uses the former Convention Center (where Jim Morrison whipped it out) for its production offices. The controversy that Sarnoff instigated, not the Commission, made Miami look small-time and bush league. More specifically Marc D. Sarnoff came off like an uninformed jerk. He even attempted to write the last “Burn Notice” episode. The producers were forced to explain to him, slowly I assume, that they don’t really blow shit up on tee vee when they blow shit up on tee vee. Consequently, Burn Notice wouldn’t accommodate the city and blow up the Convention Center for the show’s finale.

To his credit, Sarnoff was able to squeeze more money out of “Burn Notice.” I’m sure it felt more like extortion on the other end. Why would any other Hollywood production want to locate in Miami if this is the treatment they get? Especially since the weather is not local to Coconut Grove.

Developers Win; Miami Taxpayers Lose

Everywhere you look it appears Sarnoff is acting against the best interests of his constituents and in the best interests of developers. And, in the end, it always seems to cost Miami taxpayers money to support the developer. Take Trolleygate, f’rinstance. Miami taxpayers have already footed the bill for the environmental study produced to justify building the diesel bus garage; a study ordered after the emergency Town Hall meeting had been called. Miami taxpayers also footed the bill for the preparation of Sarnoff’s part of the Trolleygate Dog and Pony Show in which he defended himself against charges from West Grove residents that he doesn’t do anything for them. There are also the various costs associated with holding an emergency Town Hall meeting, from the many police officers who were in attendance to the several City Hall employees who seemed to be there to run the fancy slide show. The biggest expense is yet to come. Now Miami taxpayers have the privilege of paying lawyers to defend Astor Development against the lawsuit launched by West Grove residents.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff is free to befriend new developers and to create more mischief.


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Headly Westerfield
Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.