Courtesy of The Miami Herald
Flor and Brenda Medina
Published March 16, 2016
In 2015, Miami-Dade recorded the highest number of
complaints of irregularities and fraud in the administration of condos of
any county in Florida
El Nuevo Herald and Univision 23 launched its own investigation after
allegations of fraudulent ballots at several South Florida condominiums
At one Hialeah condo, a 2015 vote received 115%
participation of owners; at The Beach Club at Fontainebleau Park, dozens of
apartment owners claim their signatures were falsified
Nurse Virgilia Corcés is certain she did not vote in the election for the
board of directors of her condominium, The Beach Club at Fontainebleau
Park in northwest Miami-Dade. She was busy those days, taking care of her
father who is ailing with cancer.
Nevertheless, a vote with her signature turned up in the ballot boxes at a
ballroom on Flagler Street where the election was held — as did the votes
of dozens of apartment owners who now claim their signatures were falsified.
“That’s not my signature,” said Corcés.
“That’s a fraud.”
Virgilia Corces, an owner of a condominium at The
Beach Club at Fontainebleau Park, shows a copy of her forged
signature from a condominium board election that took place in
Four days earlier and 10 miles away in Hialeah, an election at the Los
Sueños condo resulted in an unprecedented tally: 115 percent of the owners
Another Hialeah complex, Bella Venezia, didn’t even hold an election in
2014. The reason, given to one owner by the company that administers the
apartments, was to “save money.”
“Sometimes, in an effort to save money (and BV needs every penny) we commit
violations,” the administrator wrote to an owner who had complained about
the lack of an election.
The allegations of electoral irregularities at The Beach Club, Los Sueños
and Bella Venezia are just part of the hundreds of complaints submitted in
2015 by condo owners in Miami-Dade and Broward to the Florida Department of
Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR), the state agency that
supervises condo operations.
With nearly 1.6 million condos in Florida — 38 percent of them in Miami-Dade
and Broward — the state has long faced many difficulties combating fraud and
bribes to members of the board of directors and the administrative companies
that they hire. For decades, there have been efforts to
strengthen the state laws, but the application of those laws has been
inconsistent. And since the Great Recession, when the budgets for the state
and local regulatory agencies and state prosecutors faced massive cutbacks,
the challenges have been increasing.
The condo market is now booming again in South Florida. Giant cranes dot the
horizon along Biscayne Bay, the beaches and growing cities like Doral, which
have approved several new mega-projects. But will Florida be able to respond
to the demands for growth while protecting condominium owners?
Frustrated condo residents say they have few options. Local police agencies
say that most of the complaints do not involve criminal activities and can
be handled in civil courts. Prosecutors say police or the DBPR are
responsible for enforcing the laws, but the state agency argues that it
cannot investigate complaints about actions that fall outside its
jurisdiction or that lack sufficient evidence.
After receiving several complaints in recent months from residents alleging
financial mismanagement, lack of transparency and electoral fraud in
condominiums, el Nuevo Herald and Univisión 23 launched an investigation.
Their findings included at least 84 fraudulent signatures on ballots for the
board of directors at The Beach Club.
From the more than 500 complaints filed with the DBPR by condo owners in
Miami-Dade in 2015, the investigative team focused on the 81 cases still
under state investigation.
Of those, 27 involved alleged irregularities in elections to boards of
directors — people who approve lucrative contracts for the condos and 31
involved a lack of access to information that owners have a right to obtain
under state laws. Another nine cases involved allegations of financial
mismanagement. The rest involved the unauthorized use of reserve funds,
disputes over fines and other issues.
Miami-Dade recorded the highest number of complaints of irregularities and
fraud in the administration of condos of any county in 2015, according to
the DBPR. Out of 1,908 complaints received statewide, 566 were filed in
Elections at Fontainebleau
The alleged electoral fraud at The Beach Club may be one of the biggest
scandals under investigation by the DBPR.
After the votes were counted on Nov. 24, Wilfredo Zayas, Guillermo Merique
and Ivonne Andrade were declared the winners.
El Nuevo Herald tried to contact the three directors several times during
the last three weeks of February. Zayas and Andrade did not reply to
requests for interviews. Merique said only that the problems at the condo
stemmed from previous boards of directors, but declined comment on
possibly fraudulent signatures on the November ballots.
The lawyer for the owners’ association, Hector Martinez, declined comment
because of attorney-client confidentiality.
Zayas was first elected to the board in November of 2014. Shortly afterward,
the board entered a contract with Florida’s Property Management Group Corp.
(FPM), a company that in recent years has been accused of bad management by
owners of other condos. State records show the company was declared inactive
in November of 2015.
But before it was deactivated, FPM vice president Juan Awais created
Sunshine Management Services, LLC, which assumed several of the FPM
contracts, including those of the Beach Club and Los Sueños condominiums,
said Sunshine administrator Juliet Siglier.
Sunshine stored all the documentation on the controversial election at The
Beach Club at its Miami Lakes office. At least four condo owners went to the
office in December and January to review the documents.
“I asked for access to the documents because by law they are required to
preserve them for only one year … and to be honest I was convinced that
there had been fraud in the balloting,” said Katherine Castro, a resident
who was a candidate in the election. She was ruled to have lost. “I asked
for the envelopes and made about 2,000 photographs, and you could clearly
see that there were fraudulent signatures.”
El Nuevo Herald and Univision 23 contacted 92 of the more than 500 owners
recorded as having voted. Eighty four of them expressed concern after
confirming that their signatures had been blatantly falsified on the ballot
envelopes submitted for the condo elections.
Among the owners who said their signatures were faked was Pamela Silva Conde,
host of Primer Impacto, a Univisión news program, and political campaign
consultant Sasha Tirador.
Tirador said that on the night of the election she was alerted that two
votes with her signature had turned up in the ballot boxes. She immediately
went to the party room where the ballots were being counted.
“There was one ballot that said Sasha Tirador, but it was not my signature,”
said Tirador. “Unfortunately, the institutions where we can report these
types of crimes do not investigate them.”
On the night of the election, one key witness documented the irregularities:
Tomás Rementería, a monitor appointed by the DBPR’s Office of the
Rementeria reported to the Ombudsman’s office that 542 votes had been
received from the owners of 712 apartments.
From that seemingly massive turnout, 103 votes were thrown out, including 57
because there were two ballots from the same owner and 26 for adulterations
confirmed by the voters themselves. The remainder came from open envelopes
or from people not authorized to vote.
The fraud was so evident that Dolores Fernandez, one of the four people in
charge of counting the votes, told El Nuevo Herald that she saw that her own
signature had been falsified.
From fraud to apathy
On Nov. 20, the election at the Los Sueños condo in Hialeah saw 115 percent
of the owners participate. That is, 457 votes were cast in a complex of 396
units — in an election where each unit had only one vote. Half the 457 votes
were thrown out, including 174 that were duplicate votes, according to
Monica Hidalgo, a monitor contracted by the owners’ association.
The tally gave Arelys López her seventh year as president of Los Sueños, a
condo that like The Beach Club is administered by Sunshine.
After the astonishing vote tally, the group of owners that lost the election
filed a complaint to the DBPR.
José Guerrero and María Porras, owners who challenged the López presidency,
declined comment on the alleged falsification of signatures. But attorney
Guillermo Mancebo, who represents Guerrero, alleged in the complaint that
the election was fraudulent.
“The association falsified ballots as well as sworn declarations designed to
disqualify the votes of members who oppose the persons elected as
association directors, in an inappropriate manner, and critics of the
(Sunshine) administration company,” said Mancebo.
When an el Nuevo Herald reporter asked López if she was comfortable with her
victory in an election where 115 percent of the eligible voters cast
ballots, she replied that holding a new election would only “spend more
money,” and added that the fraud was carried out by the candidates that
At the other extreme, the Bella Venezia condominium did not hold elections
in 2014, arguing that it wanted to “save money” even though that violated
state laws and the condo’s own regulations.
Elena Soutullo, who owns two apartments in the complex, there were also no
elections held between 2010 and 2013.
Rosario Gonzalez, an official of Neighborhood Property Management, Inc., a
Hialeah company that administers the complex, said that in those years there
were fewer than five candidates for the five board of directors slots, so
reelections were automatic.
Soutullo and other owners filed a complaint to the DBPR in August of 2014,
but have received no reply. Soutullo then elevated her complaint to the
Florida Inspector General in April of 2015. The investigation was reopened.
“The DBPR discovered that the condo had no (cash) reserves. Without
consulting the owners, they had been using it (reserves) for daily
expenses,” said Soutullo.
Amid the complaints, the condo held new elections on Dec. 7. Nineteen of the
72 owners participated and for the eighth year elected Aurelio Martinez, who
declined to comment for this report.
Falsifications at The Beach Club
The investigation by el Nuevo Herald and Univision 23 of The Beach Club
election found that at least 20 signed votes were mailed from the main U.S.
Postal Service office in Miami on the same day, Nov. 19. Those envelopes had
no return names or addresses.
One of those ballots was signed in the name of Mónica Espinosa, an
accountant who that day happened to be vacationing in Venice, Italy.
“I never sent any vote by mail,” said Espinosa, who showed reporters her
U.S. passport, with entry and exit stamps from the Rome airport, and some of
her vacation photos. “On the 19th (of November) I was very happy, taking a
tour on a gondola. What frustrates me is that my signature was falsified,
and I think that whoever did this are criminals.”
Other questionable signatures were from owners who rent their apartment and
do not usually participate in the condominium elections. Several live in
Texas, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
“It’s the first time that something like this happens to me, and I imagine
that it’s something that carries criminal penalties,” said Jose Mera, a
businessman who lives in the Dominican Republic. He said he bought The Beach
Club unit eight years ago to rent it and never participates in its
At least one person, Paola Silvestri, filed a complaint about the fraudulent
signatures with the Miami-Dade Police department. Silvestri said her
complaint never got beyond a police report, even though under Florida law
it’s a crime to falsify signatures.
“They did nothing!” said Silvestri. Her mother, Aliria Stoppa, owns the
unit. She lives in Venezuela.
Under state law, falsifying a signature is a third degree felony punishable
by up to five years in prison and a fine of $5,000.
“This is happening everywhere in the state, but Miami-Dade county is the
capital of fraud in the (condo) associations,” said Julio Robaina, who led a
fight in favor of condo owners when he was a state representative from 2002
to 2010. He now owns a condo administration company.
A DBPR spokesperson, in an email sent in November, said complaints are
investigated “if there is a reasonable suspicion that a violation of the law
“In general, this means that the complainant provides evidence supporting
the probability that a violation has taken place,” wrote Chelsea Eagles,
DBPR director of communications. “If the complainant simply suspects that
there’s something wrong or assumes that an illegal action has taken place,
we urge them to access and review the official records of the association
for evidence to support the complaint. In the absence of any evidence of a
violation of the law, the complaint is closed without further action.”
That was not the first time that an election at The Beach Club had been
marred by alleged irregularities.
In 2014, the monitor Rementeria reported that more than 100 votes had been
thrown out, 36 of them because there were two ballots from the same owner.
“The number of double ballots was significant,” Rementeria wrote in the
report he submitted to the state.
The report added that two of the owners who took part in the election found
that someone else had already voted under their names. The two owners were
able to verify that their signatures on the votes cast had been falsified.
“In both cases, the falsified votes came from the box of ballots submitted
by Mrs. Carlín Castillo,” Rementeria wrote in his report.
Castillo told el Nuevo Herald and Univisión 23 that she was not responsible
for the fraudulent ballots.
“Anyone interested in messing with the elections could have done it,”
Castillo said. “We never learned who put in those double votes … I myself
was not going to disgrace a process in which for the first time a monitor
from Tallahassee was taking part in our election, and in which I myself
picked up some of the ballots because we needed to change the board of
directors and the administration company.”