Con man Luis Felipe Perez testified Tuesday that he cooked up his first deal with Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina on a Caribbean cruise in the summer of 2006, while they were traveling with family and friends.
Perez said he pitched Robaina on the idea of investing in his business of buying and selling jewelry, and the mayor agreed to lend him the first of a series of high-interest loans that would eventually total $750,000 — to be repaid half in checks and half in cash.
“I sent it to him in cash,” Perez, now serving a 10-year prison sentence, told jurors in Miami federal court Tuesday. “We came to an agreement that I would drop off the money.”
Robaina is standing trial on charges that he did not report Perez's secret cash payments on his income-tax returns — money that the convicted Ponzi schemer said he or his drivers delivered to a Hialeah power broker’s home, where Perez said the mayor picked it up every month.
Last year, a federal grand jury indicted Robaina, 49, and his wife, Raiza, 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, failing to report about $2 million.
On Tuesday, the Robainas’ defense attorney, David Garvin, wasted no time on cross-examination ripping into Perez, portraying him as a liar who swindled about $40 million from investors, including the Robainas, current Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez and well-known hairdresser Samy Suarez. Garvin rattled off Perez’s former fleet of luxury vehicles (Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Ferrari, Mercedes, Cadillac) to dramatize how he blew through the victims’ stolen money.
“Every bit of that was greed, right?” Garvin said, accusing Perez of lying repeatedly to investors. Perez replied, “yes.”
“In part, that’s what you’re doing right now, isn’t it?” Garvin prodded, claiming Perez would say anything for the prosecution to get his prison sentence reduced. “You’re selling yourself to the jury right now.”
“If that’s your opinion,” said Perez, remaining unflappable.
On Tuesday, Perez, the prosecution’s star witness, said he came to know Robaina more than a decade ago through Rolando Blanco, a now-deceased Hialeah businessman known as the “godfather” of the city’s “shadow” banking industry and political world. At the time, Robaina was a rising political star in Hialeah and earning substantial money by converting apartments to condominiums during the real estate boom.
Prosecutors displayed photographs of the two-term mayor in happier times with Rolando Blanco, “Felipito” Perez and other friends at Blanco’s Hialeah home, Perez’s wedding, and on a trip to Las Vegas and a cruise from Miami to Cozumel, Mexico.
It was on that July 2006 cruise that Perez said he struck his first loan deal with Robaina, borrowing $200,000 at a rate of 36 percent. Perez testified that he wrote up a dozen checks for $6,000 each to pay off the interest for an entire year and sent them to Robaina’s home. But he said the mayor’s wife, Raiza, returned them, saying that Perez had paid too much because she thought the terms were for 18 percent.
“I assumed she was not on the same page with her husband,” Perez testified before the 12-person jury.
Perez said he called Robaina, and the mayor asked him to repay the $200,000 loan under these terms: $3,000 monthly check payments, at a rate of 18 percent, to be sent to the Robainas’ home; and $3,000 monthly cash payments, at the same rate, to be delivered to the Blanco’s residence.
“I didn’t question it,” Perez said. “It was his money.”
Perez also said Robaina wanted him to stop writing the checks payable to him, and instead make them out to two lending companies set up by the mayor’s wife. One was called RVR Holdings and the other MR Holdings.
During his testimony, Perez described other loans negotiated by Robaina, including a deal struck during a backyard barbecue at the mayor’s home. The loan paperwork was prepared by a future Hialeah City Council member Vivian Casals-Muñoz, who was a Robaina ally and owned a title company.
Prosecutor Richard Gregorie showed the jury check stubs that Perez turned over to Internal Revenue Service agents, reflecting both check payments and cash withdrawals for Robaina, the Blancos and others who loaned him money at interest rates up to 36 percent.
Said Perez: “On various occasions, I took the cash myself’” to the Blanco residence, where he said Robaina would pick up cash stuffed in envelopes, with his name or initials on them.
On Monday, Roberto Blanco, son of Rolando Blanco, testified that Robaina regularly came by his parents’ home to collect the cash payments from his father or him.
Both Perez and Blanco testified that they dealt very little with Robaina’s wife, Raiza, who prosecutors described as a “front” for the mayor so he could hide his cash income from the IRS.
Garvin, the Robainas’ lawyer, countered that the loans to Perez were for 18 percent and paid by check only to the wife’s two lending business so the mayor could avoid a conflict of interest. Robaina, however, never disclosed the loan payments on his financial disclosure forms as mayor.
Garvin further challenged Perez about the cash payments dropped off at the Blanco’s residence, suggesting that Rolando Blanco pocketed the money as a “finder’s fee” for introducing Robaina to him. But Perez said he knew of no such arrangement.
Perez testified that as his Ponzi scheme began to unravel — he borrowed millions of dollars from newer investors to pay off older ones — his check payments started bouncing in 2009.
“No one complained until I stopped paying,” Perez testified.
In April 2009, Perez, who had an office on Brickell Avenue, wrote a check to himself for $9,000 and withdrew the money from his account at U.S. Century Bank.
Then, Perez said he drove to Robaina’s home and delivered the cash to him. “I personally handed it to him,” Perez testified. “This was at the end when I ran out of money.”
The following year, before Robaina would announce his 2011 bid for Miami-Dade County mayor, his wife’s lending companies sued Perez, demanding he make good on the loans. Perez had already repaid him $600,000 — all in interest.