Miami-Dade County

July 20, 2013

Ethics commission reviews Doral mayor’s role in land deal

Public records show that Doral Mayor Luigi Boria’s family had not cut all financial ties to a development company seeking a zoning change before the city council.

Days after his son and daughter sold their half of a Doral development company, Mayor Luigi Boria approached the city attorney to ask if he could now vote on a zoning change crucial to getting the firm’s project off the ground.

But public records reviewed by El Nuevo Herald show that Boria’s adult children — Alexander and María Lorena Boria — had not cut all their financial ties to the development company, Grand Floridian at Doral LLC, and its owner, Juan Carlos Tovar. The records show they had loaned Tovar $3.6 million at about the same time they sold him their 50 percent stake in Grand Floridian.

Adding to the potential conflict of interest: Mayor Boria said he had given a total of $5 million to his adult children about the same time they bought their share of the land connected to the development project. Tovar also is a former business client of the mayor.

Boria, a millionaire who made his fortune exporting computer equipment to Venezuela, said he sees no conflict and has never voted on any matter related to the Grand Floridian project, a development plan to build a luxury gated community marketed toward wealthy families in Venezuela.

“What’s more, I don’t think my kids were obligated to sell because we’re in a capitalist country,” said Boria, a Venezuelan immigrant who financed his own mayoral campaign last year. “People should be able to invest their money here.”

Miami-Dade County’s Commission on Ethics & Public Trust is reviewing the matter, but has not indicated when it will render its opinion.

Meanwhile, the Grand Floridian project is in limbo, awaiting final approval from the city council on a proposal to rezone a new parcel into the planned 17-acre development.

Tovar believes any questioning of the land deals is politically motivated.

“We’re not political,” he said. “We have actually fled our country because of the political tension in Venezuela. It’s been an insult to go through this situation in Doral because we’ve never looked for preferential treatment in our investments.”

Tovar is part of the third generation of a Venezuelan family with business interests back home in the textile, hotel, computer and construction industries. He said he owns more than $15 million worth of real estate in South Florida.

Tovar has been a longtime client of Boria’s computer equipment company. He also donated $500 to the mayor’s campaign last fall.

Tovar and Boria’s children launched the Grand Floridian company on May 14, 2012, according to state records. A week later, Luigi Boria gave his son and daughter a gift totaling $3 million.

The company then bought 12 acres of vacant land on Northwest 107th Avenue at 68th Street — an area just a few blocks from a landfill.

The land had been rezoned years earlier for a residential development project, but had fallen into foreclosure along with another parcel in Homestead. In November 2012, Alexander Boria, in an interview with El Nuevo Herald, said Grand Floridian paid about $6 million for the properties.

This year, Mayor Boria gave another gift to his son and daughter after selling a Miami Beach condo for $3.6 million in April. The mayor said he gave them a total of $2 million from the condo sale.

Then in May, Boria’s kids and Tovar bought an adjacent parcel to the Doral property for $4 million in cash.

Boria said he knows nothing about his children’s investments.

“What they did with the money is their business,” said the mayor, who normally “gifts” his children $13,000 per year for tax purposes. “Once I give them the money, it’s theirs.”

The original Grand Floridian project called for the building of 41 homes. With the acquisition of the adjacent parcel, the Borias and Tovar expanded the project to 66 homes — a move requiring a zoning change on the new land.

The city’s council approved the change on first reading in February; Boria recused himself to avoid any conflict of interest.

In the months that followed, Boria’s tenuous alliance with Vice Mayor Sandra Ruiz disintegrated. Ruiz criticized the land deal for technical reasons, and Boria demoted her to the position of a regular councilwoman, accusing her of attempted extortion to get the city to hire a law firm of her choosing.

Meanwhile, the remaining three council members expressed doubts about the project. In private, they questioned how the city would ensure that building inspectors and other officials didn’t give the mayor’s son preferential treatment. The proposed rezoning was deferred for months.

At the end of May, Boria told then-city attorney Joe Jiménez that his adult children had sold their stake in Grand Floridian.

“He asked me, ‘Now that my son is no longer the owner, can I vote?,’ ”said Jiménez, who days later left his post for a job with the city of Miami Beach.

Jiménez never gave the mayor a legal opinion on the matter.

Tovar said he worries that the project’s connection to the mayor’s family “puts it at risk.”

“It was for that reason that I decided to buy, in the best interest of the project,” he wrote in an email to El Nuevo Herald from Venezuela. “Now we hope that this will allow the city council to weigh the merits of the project, separating the political problem that I have nothing to do with.”

Alexander Boria said he and his sister decided to sell “because we thought it was an attractive offer.”

Both Tovar and Alexander Boria would not disclose how much Tovar paid for the land, although Tovar stressed that there was no value added for the potential development.

According to Alexander Boria, the personal loan he and his sister made to Tovar for $3.6 million was part of the negotiated deal. The loan was recorded as a mortgage in Miami-Dade County’s civil court.

“Juan Carlos Tovar asked for a short-term personal loan, guaranteed with several rental properties, therefore avoiding financial ties to Grand Floridian,” Alexander Boria wrote in an email to El Nuevo Herald.

Tovar would not say who has paid for some of the other costs to promote the project, including four lobbyists, an architectural firm, and a publicity campaign.

The project, which is now called IVI Doral, is being advertised in magazines distributed on flights to Venezuela. The company has also set up a phone number in Venezuela to take reservations for the homes, which will cost from $1 million to $2 million.

In Doral, bus bench advertisements for the project say “99% Will Never Live This Well.”

Like her colleagues on the dais, Councilwoman Ana María Rodríguez says she has no major objections to the project itself. But she wants to wait until the Ethics Commission concludes its investigation before taking a final vote.

“What worries me about this are the ethical implications, whether the mayor or his family are directly profiting from this project,” she said. “As public officials, we should not be profiting from deals that we’re also voting on.”

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