While he ran for Miami-Dade County mayor and later faced criminal charges, Julio Robaina insisted he wasn’t involved in his wife’s lending business, never made loans higher than 18 percent and didn’t accept cash payments from borrowers.
On Monday, a central witness in Robaina’s tax-evasion trial contradicted all those claims — dealing a clear blow to the former Hialeah mayor’s defense.
Roberto Blanco, whose family was close to Robaina, testified that the politician regularly picked up cash payments from him or his father on loans as high as 36 percent that Robaina made to a jewelry investor.
Roberto Blanco testified that Robaina came to his father’s Hialeah home to collect the cash stuffed in envelopes as payments on loans to Luis Felipe Perez, who would later be convicted of running a Ponzi scheme.
Asked by a prosecutor who gave the cash payments to the former two-term mayor, Blanco testified under oath: “Myself or my father. … I would call him or text him and tell him to come and pick it up.”
Blanco also testified that he “never discussed” the loans to Perez with Robaina’s wife, Raiza, who is also standing trial on tax-evasion charges.
Blanco, testifying for the prosecution, received immunity from the U.S. attorney’s office.
Last year, a federal grand jury indicted Robaina, 49, and his wife, 40, on charges of conspiring to evade paying taxes between 2005 and 2010. The main conspiracy charge in the indictment accuses the Robainas of overstating losses on their businesses and understating gains in their personal income, according to the indictment.
In opening statements on Friday, prosecutors accused the couple of hiding about $2 million in income on their tax returns, saying they cheated “on purpose.”
The Robainas’ defense attorney, David Garvin, tried to discredit Blanco as a liar, saying the former Hialeah mayor only made loans up to 18 percent and never accepted cash, just checks. He said that Blanco turned with a vengeance on Robaina after he sued him for failing to pay back a $300,000 loan.
“Isn’t it true that you took all the cash?” Garvin questioned Blanco on the witness stand. “No, sir,” Blanco answered.
Garvin also suggested that Blanco’s father, Rolando, a now-deceased Hialeah power broker who matched up Robaina with Perez in loan deals, collaborated with the son.
“You and your father pocketed the cash?” Garvin said. “Not true,” Blanco responded.
Perez, the convicted Ponzi schemer, took the witness stand late Monday, testifying that he borrowed money at a 36 percent rate from Robaina and his successor as Hialeah mayor, Carlos Hernandez. But Perez did not get the opportunity to elaborate. His testimony is scheduled to resume Tuesday morning.
An indictment alleges the Robainas’ reported income swung wildly from a loss of $62,015 in 2006 to a gain of $1,023,672 in 2007, when they knew their “total income was greater than reported” in both years.
Both Robainas also are charged with lying to federal agents about his involvement in his wife’s two lending businesses, and he alone is charged with lying about receiving the undisclosed cash.
On Monday, Blanco testified that in 2006 he met with his father, Rolando, and Julio Robaina to arrange the loans with Perez, a longtime friend of the Blanco family. Rolando Blanco, who died in 2007, was known as the “godfather” of Hialeah’s “shadow” banking industry and political world.
Perez, who invested in jewelry and pawn shops, borrowed money at high interest rates from the Robainas and nearly 40 other investors to prop up his $45 million investment scam and lavish lifestyle. He would promise 18 percent interest on check payments, and an additional 18 percent interest on cash payments to certain investors such as the Blancos and Robaina.
Perez borrowed a total of $850,000 from the Robainas, including a $100,000 loan deal with Rolando Blanco.
On Monday, Roberto Blanco testified about his family’s $100,000 loan to Perez and Robaina’s separate $100,000 loan to the jewelry investor through a company known as MR Holdings. The “M” stood for Roberto Blanco’s wife, Mercy, and the “R” for Robaina’s wife, Raiza.
Yet in his testimony, Roberto Blanco said he “never discussed” any loan arrangements with Raiza Robaina — only her husband, who has always claimed that she ran their two lending businesses so that he would not have a conflict of interest as mayor.
Asked by prosecutor Richard Gregorie about the terms of those two loans, Roberto Blanco testified that the total interest was 36 percent — half paid by Perez in checks and the other half paid in cash.
“It was his request,” Blanco testified, referring to the way Robaina wanted to be paid by Perez. “No receipt, no documents.”
“My father took his part, I took my part and I delivered the other part” to Robaina, Blanco testified. Blanco said he and his father would receive $750 in cash and Robaina would receive the same sum, on a monthly basis.
As for Robaina’s wife, Blanco said: “I never discussed the conditions of the loans with Raiza.”