The longtime operator of the Rickenbacker Marina was subject of a “shake down” by Miami Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla, according to a lawsuit filed by a former state representative.
The lawsuit, filed by lobbyist Manuel Prieguez, claims Diaz de la Portilla would not support Aabad Melwani’s redevelopment plan unless he took on one of the commissioner’s associates as a partner.
Melwani, president of Rickenbacker Marina and a prominent Key Biscayne resident, is not a party to the lawsuit. He did not return calls for comment.
“I did give him the heads up sometime last week that it was coming, and he was unhappy about it,” said Prieguez, who served in the state House from 1998 to 2004. “He just wanted to keep that in the past and just look toward the future. He did not have anything to do with his lawsuit.”
Prieguez represented Melwani in the redevelopment of the marina and neighboring parcels. The civil lawsuit filed Tuesday was first reported by the Miami Herald.
Melwani, whose family has operated the marina for 40 years, formed a partnership to offer a plan of what he says on his webpage would create “new public spaces, enhanced waterfront access and world class amenities for boaters and pedestrians.”
Prieguez no longer represents Melwani.
The re-development of Rickenbacker waterfront remains mired in litigation. In February, a circuit judge ordered the city to hold a new referendum on two other plans, ruling that commissioners used favoritism to award Melwani the contract.
A referendum for voters to approve Melwani’s project failed in November 2021.
The City has appealed the ruling in a lawsuit that was filed by a competitor to Melwani.
The new lawsuit could add more chaos into the mix. “When public officials begin to abuse their office in order to financially benefit their friends and allies, the public can no longer trust the government,” wrote Prieguez’s attorney Juan-Carlos Planas.
The suit alleges attorney Anibal Duarte-Viera and former commissioner Humberto Hernandez approached Prieguez with the quid-pro-quo: have his client take on Duarte-Viera as a partner and receive Diaz de la Portilla’s support.
“This lawsuit is not necessarily about the Marina per se,” Prieguez said. “I filed this lawsuit because our commissioner and two co-conspirators tried to make me and my client enter into an illegal scheme.”
Diaz de la Portilla, Duarte-Viera and Hernandez are named as defendants that accuse them of bribery and conspiracy. The commissioner did not return a phone call or email seeking comment.
The lawsuit does not accuse him of directly asking for any compensation from Melwani for his support. It also does not provide any documentation to corroborate the alleged oral statements of coercion.
Duarte-Viera’s law firm did not have a way to leave him a message. Hernandez told the Herald the lawsuit was “frivolous, non-meritorious and defamatory in nature.”
Diaz de la Portilla is up for re-election this November and Prieguez said he hopes the lawsuit will result in him losing his seat.
“Hopefully, other people will come out that I know for a fact have had similar things occur to them,” Prieguez said.