'Another day in the office,' say planners who met with mystery developer

Jeffrey Schweers Jeff Burlew
Tallahassee Democrat

A mystery man who may have been working undercover on an FBI corruption probe of City Hall met with city and county planners twice last summer, discussing development ideas for several large commercial properties on South Monroe Street.

A business card was left behind by "Mike Miller" who said he was with an Atlanta development company seeking to do business in Tallahassee.

Mike Miller of Southern Pines Development of Atlanta met last July and again in September with members of the Tallahassee-Leon County Planning Department, after a referral from County Administrator Vince Long.

To staff members, the meeting at the city's Renaissance Center in Frenchtown was routine.

 “It’s just another day in the office,” said senior planner Devan Leavins, who attended the meetings.

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Applicants come in at least a couple times a week with development ideas, said Jeremy Floyd, the principal planner at DesignWorks, the planning department’s in-house urban design team. It's their job to help make those plans better, he said.

“We will sit down with them, get an idea of what they’re looking at and give them ideas about what’s appropriate for that site, how to meet code requirements and reduce deviations and variances,” Floyd said.

Last year Miller met with prominent county government officials including Long and County Commissioner Nick Maddox, who chairs the Community Redevelopment Agency under FBI scrutiny. Like those, the ones with the planning staff were set up by Unconventional Strategies, a Tallahassee lobbying firm run by Adam Corey.

Leon County Commissioner Nick Maddox

Corey has political and personal ties to Mayor Andrew Gillum and is owner of the city-subsidized Edison restaurant. He is one of several people named in a federal subpoena seeking records related to their business dealings with the city’s redevelopment agency. 

Gillum declined to comment on whether he met with Miller. City Commissioners Nancy Miller, Curtis Richardson and Gil Ziffer said they had not met with the erstwhile developer. 

When shown Thursday a photo of Miller, obtained by the Tallahassee Democrat, Commissioner Scott Maddox said he was taking the advice of City Attorney Lew Shelley to not comment on any aspect of the investigation.

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Miller was introduced in all his Tallahassee meetings as a developer. But sources representing people of interest in an FBI investigation into the city and CRA say Miller was actually an FBI agent or informant, sent to town with one or two others to root out public corruption.

FBI Special Agent Evan Hurley did not return a call seeking comment. An FBI spokesman said the FBI declines to confirm or deny the details of any investigation.

Most who met with Miller recalled him being introduced as a developer from Nashville. But at his meetings with planners he handed out a business card with an Atlanta address, 2727 Paces Ferry Rd. The address is the site of a twin tower office complex that rents out executive suites.

The card lists Miller’s title as president. A Southern Pines Development LLC at the same address was created in July 2015 and has been renewed each year since. Attempts to reach Miller and registered agent Terry Davis were unsuccessful.

A business card was left behind by "Mike Miller" who said he was with an Atlanta development company seeking to do business in Tallahassee.

An internet address links to a website that describes Southern Pines as "an industry leader in real estate development and investment." It talks about a highly skilled team of professionals, but no names are mentioned on the website. 

Four planners who met with a Democrat reporter Thursday identified a dark-haired man with a beard in a photo with two other men as Miller. They said nothing seemed unusual or out of the ordinary about him or their meetings.

“The only thing remarkable about the meetings is they were totally unremarkable,” said Barry Wilcox, chief development resources officer for Leon County who was comprehensive planning manager at the time of the meetings.

The first meeting, held July 28, was set up and attended by Cody Schwarz, a lobbyist with Corey's firm, and Chris Leandri, who works at the firm and for Corey’s restaurant company, Tallahassee Hospitality Group.

“I don’t have any comment on it,” Schwarz said when asked if he had any reason to believe Miller was anything other than a legitimate businessman.  “There a lot of rumors going around about Mike Miller, and I don’t want to comment. I’m in the dark as much as you are.”

Miller told planners he was interested in developing about 8 acres of commercial property in the 1800 block of South Monroe Street owned by the Joan H. Fregly Revocable Trust. Joan Fregly, the trustee and president of Commercial Consultants Corporation, did not return a call seeking comment.

The property had commercial urban zoning that allows multi-family housing of up to 45 units per acre as well as retail and commercial uses, and building heights up to five stories.

The planners said the location had a lot of potential because of its proximity a block away from the campus of Florida A&M University. But Miller didn't mention the obvious opportunities for affordable or student housing.

City of Tallahassee staffers met with the mystery man Mike Miller about a development in town.

“They wanted to do a mixed use,” Floyd said. “They didn’t have any specific ideas.”

Schwarz set up the next meeting, too, for Sept. 9. But this time also present was Nick Lowe, a former Tallahassee police officer who left Unconventional Strategies around the time the federal subpoenas were served in mid-June. The purpose of that meeting was to go over a sketch-up of the development.

“We sent them an email saying we had time to look at everything and got the potential sketch of what things might look like,” Floyd said.

Planning manager Cherie Bryant said they conducted a “massing model” which is a 3-d projection of the actual height and size of the buildings and how they would look in relation to neighboring structures.

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Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, Bryant said, because the ideas were in keeping with what the city has in mind in its action plan for the South Monroe corridor.

Local planners have not heard from Miller and his cohorts since.

“They said, ‘This is great. Thanks,’ and took the drawings saying they would talk things over,” Floyd said.  “That’s how pretty much every conversation ends.”

City of Tallahassee staffers met with the mystery man Mike Miller about a development in town.

Sometimes, developers come back with plans that are very close to what city planners gave them, Wilcox said. Other times, nothing.

“Sometimes they just disappear into the ether,” he said.

The planners said they have not been contacted by or talked to the FBI “that we know of,” Wilcox said.

He said he was shocked when he read recent coverage in the Democrat about the possibility of Miller working for the FBI. 

“It’s a good cover if he is (FBI) because developers come from all walks of life,” Wilcox said. “Anybody could walk in and say they’re a developer, and I don’t think we would flinch.”

Contact Schweers at jschweers@tallahassee.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers