CUBA

Exile activist arrested in alleged fraud

 

jtamayo@ElNuevoHerald.com

Antonio “Tony” Calatayud, a well-known Cuban exile activist and Miami radio commentator, has been arrested in a fraudulent scheme to buy distressed real estate that allegedly bilked the buyers of $1 million.

The 74-year-old Calatayud tried to hide his face with his hands during his bond hearing Tuesday and said that he was “humiliated” by his arrest on July 4 but looking forward to a trial where he will prove his innocence.

Bond was set at $95,000 for the Bay of Pigs veteran and former news director of WQBA “La Cubanísima” (1140 AM) in the early 1990s. Until his arrest, he hosted an anti-Castro program weekdays 8-9 pm on WHIM (1080 AM).

Retired Miami architect Rafael Huguet Sr. testified at the bond hearing, in support of a prosecution request that it be set at $1.5 million, that he alone lost $500,000 to a scam run by Calatayud, Humberto Gamez and Tom Bennett.

Ramon Perez, 48, a mechanical engineer, said outside the courtroom that he lost $212,000. Miguel Diaz Cisneros, 77, a retired industrial engineer, said he lost $30,000. Huguet identified two other victims as Former Miami Beach manager Jose Garcia Pedroza and Angel Mederos, and said the group’s loss totaled more than $1 million.

Defense attorney Ed Martinez said Calatayud was himself a victim of the real estate scam.

Calatayud was arrested in 2003 on charges that he bilked the state of Florida out of more than $290,000 by submitting 1,300 fraudulent Medicaid prescription bills from his pharmacy, Primera Farmacia Latina at 300 SW 107th Ave., He pleaded no contest to 13 counts of grand theft and Medicaid fraud and was on probation until November of 2013.

Huguet said the scam that victimized him was based on the several programs launched by the U.S. government in 2008 in an attempt to dispose of distressed real estate properties after the collapse of the market.

Calatayud and the other fraudsters met with Huguet at offices portrayed as belonging to Miami-Dade County to discuss buying up distressed properties in Miami, Miami Beach and Monroe County at steeply discounted prices, the architect said.

Some of the fraudsters falsely identified themselves as having links to County Commissioners Rebeca Sosa, Javier Souto and Joe Martinez as well as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fl., Huguet said.

“This was a conspiracy of professional con artists,” attorney Erick Prado, who represented Huguet, told the bond hearing before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Maria Elena Verde.

Huguet said his group realized the deals were fraudulent and went to the police when El Nuevo Herald reported the arrests of Gámez, Bennett and Manuel Mulet on Oct. 23, 2013. Gámez allegedly passed himself off as a Sosa employee and claimed he had inside information on properties seized by the county, according to the newspaper report.

The three men were accused of defrauding nine buyers of $230,000 and were charged with 10 counts of organized fraud, money laundering, grand theft and acting as real estate agents without licenses. They are scheduled for trial next month.

Martinez said he opposed the $1.5 million bail request because his client would not be able to afford it and it would effectively amount to no bond. Calatayud said he receives $1,100 per month from Social Security and lives alone in an efficiency apartment.

Huguet testified that he was afraid of physical retaliation by Calatayud, as well as the possibility that the defendant would commit more fraud because the scam on his group took place in 2012, when Calatayud was still on probation for the 2003 case.

“I am afraid of him,” said Huguet, adding that if freed the defendant could “take advantage of the circumstances to find new victims on which to perpetrate new frauds. Your honor, please don’t let that happen.”

Verde indicated that she did not believe Calatayud was a high flight risk but made it clear that he must not have any contact with his accusers — not even mention them on any radio program — and set stringent conditions on his release.

He will have to wear an ankle monitor and must stay at home except for visits to his doctor and church. He will have to show that his bond money did not come from the fraud scam and regularly report his income and bank account balance to court officials.

In the 2003 case, Calatayud initially faced charges of organized fraud and grand theft that carried a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine. Each of the 12 Medicaid fraud charges carried a maximum of five years and/or a $5,000 fine.

“The identities of some of our most vulnerable citizens were used for ill-gotten gain and state funds were obtained through fraudulent means,” Charlie Christ, then Florida Attorney General, said at the time. “These practices will not be tolerated in our state.”

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