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Centners pull out of contentious land deal with Miami, deposed in corruption investigation

Wealthy Miami donor couple David and Leila Centner (left) in 2019.
Carl Juste
Miami Herald
Wealthy Miami donor couple David and Leila Centner (left) in 2019.

Updated on 3/15/24 at 3 p.m.

A wealthy Miami couple pulled out of a controversial land deal with the City of Miami on Thursday just before the commission voted to kill the proposal.

The actions came the same day that WLRN learned that the couple — David and Leila Centner — were deposed and offered immunity last year by Broward prosecutors investigating public corruption charges against former city commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla, who championed for approving the land deal.

At Thursday’s city commission meeting, David Centner said he and his wife, who own the private school chain Centner Academy, were fed up with the loud opposition to their planned $10 million sports complex at Biscayne Park in downtown Miami.

READ MORE: Miami-Dade school board supports plan to terminate controversial land deal

"We’ve been defamed, and trolled and attacked and villainized trying to do a good thing," he told commissioners.

After the Centners announced that they were pulling out of the park deal, the city commission voted 5-0 to kill the sports complex project.

The deal involving city-owned land had drawn sharp criticism in part because it was pushed by Díaz de la Portilla, who was arrested last year on public corruption charges related to money he received from a lobbyist for the Centners.

Critics of the Centner plan argue the park land should instead go to expand the public school iPrep Academy.

Following the decision by Centner and the city commission, WLRN learned the couple was offered immunity to answer questions by the Broward State Attorney’s Office in connection with their investigation of Díaz de la Portilla’s criminal case — something David Centner said he did not ask for before it was offered. The investigation also centers on attorney and lobbyist, William W. Riley, Jr.

The Centners hired Riley to help persuade the Miami city commission to give them a portion of the city-owned Biscayne Park to build the indoor sports complex. The complex was planned to be across from the downtown Miami campus of their private school, Centner Academy.

The Broward State Attorney’s Office launched a criminal case in cooperation with the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust against Díaz de la Portilla late last year.

The commissioner was arrested on Sept. 14 and charged with bribery, money laundering and official misconduct, among other charges. He was later suspended from office by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

According to one investigator whispering to a Broward prosecutor on the deposition recording, Riley’s work to lobby Díaz de la Portilla created a “mess.”

Díaz de la Portilla charged over contributions

Prosecutors allege Díaz de la Portilla accepted $245,000 in campaign finance contributions from Riley on behalf of the Centners. Riley also allegedly paid for catering, dinners and hotel stays for the former connection. Díaz de la Portilla then championed the controversial Biscayne Park deal with the City of Miami, and prosecutors allege a connection between the payments and Diaz de la Portilla’s legislative action.

The couple, who have not been charged with any crime, appeared at Thursday's city commission meeting, to publicly state they were not involved in any attempt to bribe Díaz de la Portilla.

“The commissioner who became the champion of this project, Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla, has been alleged to have done some wrongdoing with some political contributions, specifically from us,” David Centner said in a video played before the commission. “I can’t reiterate enough for the thousandth time that the Centners, David and Leila Centner, are not involved in that at all.”

READ MORE: DeSantis suspends Miami commissioner following arrest on corruption charges

In a statement posted to their website last September, the Centners wrote that the Broward prosecutors asked them not to comment on the case and told them they were not accused of any wrongful acts.

The Broward State Attorney’s Office told both Centners that because they were served with an investigative subpoena, they would not be prosecuted for any dealings that come up in the state’s probe.

“The purpose of this subpoena is, among other things, to give you the assurance of immunity so that you can speak freely. Immunity protects you from prosecution about things that are within the scope of our investigation,” Broward prosecutor Janine Louise Rice told David Centner in a Sept. 11, 2023 deposition.

Mugshot of a man in an orange jumpsuit
Miami Dade County Government
Mugshot of Miami Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla after he was was arrested on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, on numerous felony charges relating to money laundering, misuse of his public office and campaign finance violations.

The deposition recordings were taken three days before Díaz de la Portilla was arrested.

After publication of this story, David Centner told WLRN that he had no idea about the immunity offer until he walked into the September deposition. He said there was no negotiation, and that he and his wife did not testify under the condition of immunity.

"We were called into the prosecutor's office back in September to provide statements under oath about our knowledge of any wrongdoing. As a matter of course, when you are subpoenaed to make a statement to the prosecutor, you automatically get immunity from whatever you speak about," Centner said via text message.

In the deposition, he told prosecutors he had almost nothing to do with any financial transactions related to Riley or his lobbying activities. Prosecutors showed him multiple invoices from Riley to various Centner-controlled business entities, including invoices specifically labeled for “work on political initiatives regarding Alex's DLP campaign.”

Several invoices asked for reimbursement for dinners and meals, including an $8,000 request from 2020 for rooms and catering at the East Hotel — that included a bill for “20 pastrami sandwiches” according to the recording.

David Centner repeatedly said that he did not recognize any of the invoices, and was not involved in signing off on them.

“My wife is much closer to the financial operations of the organization than I am. I'm a strategy, creative guy,” he told investigators.

Leila Centner similarly denied connection to the payments made to Riley. She said she had no recollection of invoices he might have sent for approval, because she approves many invoices on a regular basis.

“I have literally thousands of invoices every month and thousands of checks. That's why I have to just skim it fast,” she said in the deposition.

Joshua Ceballos is WLRN's Local Government Accountability Reporter and a member of the investigations team. Reach Joshua Ceballos at jceballos@wlrnnews.org
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