Former defense attorney and prosecutor butt heads at Robainas’ tax-evasion trial

A defense attorney who once represented Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina and his wife while they were under federal investigation in 2010 testified Tuesday that neither former client lied to authorities about the husband’s involvement in his wife’s loan businesses.

Attorney Rick Diaz said Julio and Raiza Robaina did not make “false statements” — one of the charges against them — when each was separately asked whether the husband took part in the wife’s lending companies.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Gregorie, the lead prosecutor in the Robainas’ tax-evasion case, pressured Diaz on the witness stand, strongly suggesting that Julio and Raiza Robaina each told investigators that Julio had “no part” in her high-interest loan businesses.

“No, he did not say that with those words,” said Diaz, who was present at the separate meetings with his clients at the U.S. attorney’s office.

“That’s not the way she said it,” he testified about Raiza Robaina.

“You’re absolutely sure about that?” Gregorie asked. “Hundred percent,” Diaz responded.

The testy exchange marked the beginning of the defense’s case at the Miami federal trial of the former Hialeah mayor and his wife, who are charged not only with conspiring to hide $2 million in income from the U.S. government in 2005-10 but also with lying to authorities.

Julio Robaina — who was gearing up to run for Miami-Dade County mayor in 2011 when he was already under investigation —is also charged with making false statements when he told authorities he did not receive cash payments from high-interest loans to a Hialeah jeweler.

Before presenting a defense, attorney David Garvin asked U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro to acquit his clients, saying the government had not presented enough evidence to go to the jury. The judge denied the motion.

Last week, an Internal Revenue Service agent testified for the prosecution that he was present for the separate meetings with Julio and Raiza Robaina in August and September 2010. IRS special agent Leo Benavente testified that he, other federal agents and prosecutors asked Julio and Raiza Robaina whether the husband was involved in her two loan businesses, MR Holdings and RVR Holdings.

“He said he was not involved in his wife’s business transactions,” Benavente testified. Asked whether Robaina qualified his response in any way, the IRS agent said: “No, he did not.”

Asked why he did not follow up with more questions, Benavente said: “Because he said he wasn’t involved.”

The IRS agent also told authorities that during the August 2010 meeting Robaina said “he never received any cash payments” from loans to the Hialeah jeweler and convicted Ponzi schemer, Luis Felipe Perez.

Benavente added that when Robaina’s wife met with investigators the following month, she said her husband “was not involved” in her two loan businesses. Authorities did not ask her about the cash payments because she did not know about them, according to trial evidence.

Last week, Perez, now serving a 10-year prison term, testified that he borrowed $750,000 from Julio Robaina. Perez said he negotiated a series of loans with Robaina at a yearly rate of 36 percent, with half the interest payments in checks and half in cash. Perez said he paid about $600,000 in interest to MR Holdings and RVR Holdings in 2006-2009, but always thought the loan deals were with the mayor, not his wife.

Perez testified that he took the cash payments to the Hialeah home of Rolando Blanco, who matched him up with Robaina, so that the mayor could pick them up. He also said that he arranged for his drivers to take envelopes of cash with the mayor’s initials on them to the Blanco residence. The drivers also testified that they delivered the envelopes there.

The late Rolando Blanco’s son, Roberto, also testified that Robaina picked up the cash payments from his father and him.

On Tuesday, Diaz, the former defense lawyer, testified that Julio and Raiza Robaina each explained to federal investigators at the 2010 meetings that they jointly put their savings into her loan companies and that she was responsible for the daily operations of the lending businesses. The couple insisted the loan terms were always 18 percent for Perez and other borrowers.

Diaz said Julio Robaina, by design had his wife manage the loan companies so that he could avoid any “conflict of interest” as Hialeah mayor.

But Gregorie, along with prosecutor Michael Davis, argued that the wife was a “front” for the husband.

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