The Florida Bar has opened an investigation into the actions of state lawmaker and lawyer Michael Grieco after it was reported that his office was the scene of what appeared to be payoffs to victims of an alleged robbery by NFL players in May, the Miami Herald has learned.
Grieco told the Herald on Monday that he had stepped down from the case but was “unaware of any Bar inquiry.” He’s served as a Democrat in the Florida House of Representatives for the past two years and sits on the Florida Bar’s committee for governmental and public policy advocacy.
Grieco’s also a former Miami Beach city commissioner, though he resigned in 2017 after he pleaded no contest to a criminal charge regarding a campaign-finance violation.
Grieco had previously been representing Seattle Seahawks cornerback Quinton Dunbar after he and New York Giants cornerback Deandre Baker, both South Florida natives, were accused of stealing money and jewelry from people at gunpoint at a Miramar house party on May 13.
Police said Dunbar was seen helping Baker, the Miami Herald previously reported. Victims conflicted on whether he was armed. Both pleaded not guilty.
Over the weekend, it was revealed that police believe four victims recanted after being paid a total of $55,000 in cash in Grieco’s office. The victims reportedly signed sworn affidavits alleging that Dunbar didn’t have anything to do with the robbery.
The allegations were first revealed by the New York Daily News on Friday night after the media outlet obtained a search warrant filed in Broward Circuit court. The Miami Herald has since also obtained the search warrant and Miramar police reports that show Grieco was under criminal investigation as of last month.
“Grieco’s office was the background that facilitated a cash transaction that later obstructed the integrity of an investigation,” said one of the police reports filed in early June. It said evidence is still being collected and “the final charging decision will rest with the Broward County State Attorney.”
A spokesperson for the Broward State Attorney’s Office declined to comment. The office is still considering whether to file formal charges against Dunbar and Baker.
As for the alleged payoff, it’s unclear if the victims extorted the NFL players for money or were bribed.
Bradford Cohen, Baker’s lawyer, said in a statement on his Instagram account that the incident in Grieco’s office was an extortion scheme and that his client never paid a cent.
“We have stated since day one that this was an extortion that we refused to pay, from these individuals. We reported the extortion scheme to authorities, including the state attorney’s office, immediately,” Cohen wrote. “This was an extortion tactic against a young black athlete with no prior offenses and that took a lie detector given by a nationally [known] examiner and was shown to be truthful.”
Behind closed doors
Grieco has not denied that a meeting took place in his office or that money had changed hands.
“These men fabricated a robbery story after waiting an hour to call police and then immediately began contacting the players demanding money,” he said. “My office obtained accurate and truthful affidavits consistent with the independent witness and my client’s account.”
Grieco did not answer when asked whether the reported meeting was a sting over the alleged extortion attempt. He also did not answer when asked if law enforcement was involved, and if not, why he hadn’t contacted the authorities.
The search warrant says closed-circuit TV footage shows a Miami man named Dominic “Coach” Johnson, who knew both players since they were young, and another identified person joining the four supposed victims at Grieco’s Miami office two days after the incident.
Johnson and the unknown person are reportedly seen in the footage taking the elevator up to Grieco’s office on May 15. The unknown person opened a “black bag” and “remove[d] money.”
One of the victims told detectives he was given $5,000 while inside Grieco’s office, according to one of the police records.
“The lawyer said, you know, I’m not supposed to be in any of this type of situation … so whatever you guys have going on … you know, that’s between you guys, I’m just here for the affidavit,” the victim said. Other victims confirmed the conversation had happened.
“He said that he was going to step out because he couldn’t take any part in it,” said another victim, according to a transcript of the interview that the Herald obtained.
A Miramar detective asked him if it was his impression that Grieco knew there was going to be a payoff. The victim said “yeah, that’s why he stepped out.”
One of the victims, who had a watch stolen during the robbery, said Grieco walked out of the office but quickly returned to “see what was going on.”
“He walked in and the money was like being just dumped out,” the victim said. “Coach asked him to leave the room.”
After everyone had left the meeting, a Miramar detective said he received a call from Grieco saying the accusers had changed their testimony, according to police records.
“This detective noted that Grieco was very giddy about the recanting and wanted the warrant quashed. Grieco then emailed me the sworn documents,” Miramar Detective Mark Moretti wrote in the police report.
Experts weigh in
So is what Grieco allegedly did illegal? It depends.
David Weinstein, a former state and federal prosecutor, said it “certainly gives the appearance of potential impropriety if you are at a certain location where this was knowingly taking place.”
If Grieco knew what was happening and took part, he could be charged with witness tampering, Weinstein told the Herald. But he doesn’t think the evidence he’s seen so far shows beyond a reasonable doubt that Grieco did know and participate in the scheme.
“There didn’t appear to be any sound with the video,” Weinstein said. “It may be something where it gives the appearance of impropriety, but we don’t know what he knew or didn’t know.”
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which was assisting with the Miramar Police Department’s investigation, did not believe Grieco’s actions rose “to the level of criminal behavior,” the police reports say. If police can’t prove he was aware of the situation, Weinstein thinks the Florida Department of Law Enforcement probably came to the appropriate conclusion.
But even if nothing illegal happened, the optics don’t look good for Grieco, Weinstein said.
“I think a lawyer has an obligation to zealously represent their client,” he said. “But a lawyer needs to be careful when they’re zealously representing their client that they don’t overstep the boundaries and give off the appearance that something more sinister happened.”
And if Dunbar and Baker were truly being extorted, Weinstein said they should have gone to the police (which Baker’s lawyer said he did) instead of meeting with the extortionists.
“The appropriate response is not to give them the money and then go running to the police after the fact,” Weinstein said. He said the appropriate response would be to reach out to authorities beforehand.
He added that the victims changing their statements erodes their credibility and could lead to problems down the road if the case is brought to trial.
“Based on everything that I’ve read and seen, I’m not really sure what happened at that party,” Weinstein said.
Anthony Alfieri, the director of the University of Miami School of Law’s Center for Ethics and Public Service, was alarmed by the allegations against Grieco.
“This alleged conduct once again raises deeply troubling questions about Michael Grieco’s professional conduct as a lawyer, questions that go to his violation of the Florida rules of professional conduct and to the possible violation of federal and state criminal laws,” he told the Herald.
He pointed to several sections of the Florida Bar’s rules on professional conduct that Grieco might have broken.
“Did he know or would a reasonable lawyer have known that what was going on in that office was criminal or fraudulent? If so, he’s violating section 4-1.2,” Alfieri said.
Section 4-1.2 states that a lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage, or help a client, do something that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is criminal or fraudulent.
The Florida Bar’s investigation into Grieco is currently at the staff level, which means a lawyer who works for the Bar is looking into it, according to a spokesperson.
If the investigator finds evidence of wrongdoing, the case will be sent to the grievance committee, which is composed of six lawyers from the community and three non-lawyers, she said.
The grievance committee will then conduct its own investigation. It can take certain consequential actions like requiring a lawyer to take a course on a subject or it can refer the case to the Florida Supreme Court, which can suspend or place the lawyer on probation.
This investigation isn’t Grieco’s first run-in with the Florida Bar.
He is also facing a formal complaint from the Bar and allegations of “lying to the public” from the Miami-Dade ethics commission over a fundraising scandal during his failed run for Miami Beach mayor in 2017.
He had been raising secret funds for a political action committee to aid his campaign — denying any involvement — despite a significant amount of evidence indicating otherwise, the Miami Herald previously reported.
State anti-corruption prosecutors later alleged that he had committed a crime by receiving campaign funding from a Norwegian real estate investor. Grieco pleaded no contest to a first-degree misdemeanor campaign-finance violation.
Nearly a decade earlier, in 2008, Grieco was publicly reprimanded by the Florida Bar’s Board of Governors for his work at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, according to a public notice on the Bar’s website.
During the investigation of an assault case, Grieco, who was friends with one of the alleged perpetrators, met with the detectives who were assigned to the case. They thought Grieco, a prosecutor, was involved in the criminal investigation and provided him with information that they would not have otherwise.
Grieco asked the detectives not to arrest his friend as there was “a lack of probable cause,” the notice says. He instructed his friend to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights. The perpetrator was eventually arrested and charged with a crime.
During the case, Grieco asked officials to give special attention to his friend, again misleading others to think that as an acting assistant state attorney, he would be representing the interests of the accused, the notice says.
Miami Herald staff writers Nicholas Nehamas and David Ovalle contributed reporting.