Ivan Valdes, who rose from cutting grass to managing a large maintenance division at Miami International Airport, pleaded guilty on Wednesday in federal court to running a racket that stole millions from a light-bulb procurement program.
Arrested last month, Valdes was charged with steering nearly $9 million worth of high-tech bulb sales to a Miami-Dade Aviation Department vendor and a distributor in cahoots with him.
Valdes and a retired airport executive pocketed $2.2 million from the inflated sales, prosecutors said in a factual statement filed with the defendant’s plea agreement.
Valdes, 46, faces up to seven years in federal prison on the theft conviction at his sentencing in early January, according to his defense attorney, Sam Rabin. He said the defendant's related bribery offense in state circuit court would ultimately be incorporated into the same punishment.
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“Mr. Valdes is sincerely remorseful for his conduct in this matter, and for that reason he chose to admit his guilt and accept the consequences of his actions,” Rabin said after his client’s plea hearing.
Valdes regularly collected grocery bags full of kickback money in an airport parking lot, according to charging documents. And while he earned $98,000 at his county job, he owned a Porsche, rented sky boxes for concerts and wore hand-tailored Sartori Amici suits.
MIA, a county-owned airport with a budget of $1 billion, promoted Valdes in 2015 to director of terminal maintenance with 100 employees in what federal prosecutor Jeffrey Kaplan said would also be the final year of a scam that began in 2010.
Valdes was apparently able to thwart the county’s inspector general at MIA by conspiring with both a light-bulb seller and a supplier who manipulated wholesale prices to keep other vendors out of the procurement process.
Valdes oversaw 20 bulk bulb purchases over five years, and prosecutors said each contract went to a Miami company that was part of the scheme: Global Electrical & Lighting Supplies, owned by Rolando Perez.
Global Electric bought its bulbs from Municipal Lighting Systems, a local distributor for General Electric. Municipal Lighting's Roy J. Bustillo was also charged in the scheme. Prosecutors said he gave inflated quotes to Global Electric competitors in order to keep honest vendors from winning the MIA contracts that Valdes supervised.
In all, MIA purchased about 9,000 LED bulbs through Global Electric, lights used to illuminate the pick-up and drop-off areas outside the terminals and parking garages. The airport paid $8.8 million for LED lights. They were worth only about $3.5 million, so Valdes and the other co-conspirators defrauded the county’s aviation department of almost $5.2 million, according to the factual statement filed with his plea agreement.
Federal prosecutors filed conspiracy charges against Valdes, Bustillo, 37, and Perez, 57, along with a fourth co-conspirator, Jose Barroso, 51. He was a former MIA executive alleged to have helped Valdes arrange the scheme in 2010, three years after retiring from the county.
Charging documents filed in state circuit court describe Valdes summoning Barroso back to the airport that year for a meeting about MIA's interest in replacing thousands of bulbs. Barroso said Valdes brought up a new lighting contract, and asked: “What's in it for me?”
Barroso served as the middle man in the transactions, according to prosecutors, delivering as much as $50,000 cash in grocery bags to Valdes, who would take a break from work to meet him in an airport parking lot.
Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this article.