Upbeat after his acquittal on tax-evasion charges, former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina says he has not ruled out a return to politics — but he won’t run against the city’s current mayor who testified for the prosecution, Carlos Hernández.
Hernández was called as a witness to testify that, like Robaina, he collected sky-high interest payments on loans made to a local jeweler who would be convicted of running a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme.
Robaina, in a recent interview after last week’s court victory, told el Nuevo Herald that he respects that Hernández testified for the government and believes he is performing well as Hialeah’s mayor.
“I believe [Hernández] is a good person who is doing a good job for the city of Hialeah,” Robaina, 49, said. “If he were a political friend and not doing a good job, I would say so too, but I insist he is doing a good job.”
In March, Hernández announced his intent to seek reelection in 2017. However, two weeks ago, he admitted under oath that he charged annual interest rates of 36 percent — considered “loansharking” under state law — to jeweler Luis Felipe Pérez, popularly known as Felipito. Pérez, convicted of securities fraud in 2010, is serving a 10-year prison sentence but hopes to obtain a reduction after testifying at Robaina’s trial.
Both Robaina and his wife, Raiza, were acquitted by the 12-person Miami federal jury of conspiring to defraud the Internal Revenue Service by hiding $2 million in income and filing false tax returns in 2006 and 2007. The Robainas also were acquitted of lying to federal agents about the former mayor’s involvement in his wife’s loan businesses.
When asked how he saw a city administration in the hands of a mayor who participated in such a business, Robaina said he respected Hernández for telling the truth.
“Carlos Hernández went there [to court], took the oath and told the truth. I respect that,” Robaina said. “He said what his business with Luis Felipe Pérez was, which was different from ours.”
According to his testimony, Hernández loaned Pérez $180,000 at 36 percent annual interest in 2007 and the jeweler paid him back with checks totaling $100,000 through 2009. But Hernández did not report the interest income on his tax returns for those years, and he did not disclose the series of loans on his financial statements as a Hialeah council member.
At Robaina’s trial, federal prosecutors alleged Robaina and his wife, Raiza, loaned Pérez $750,000 at 36 percent annual interest over the same period. But they accused the Robainas of collecting 18 percent interest in check payments and 18 percent interst in cash payments. Pérez testified that he paid back a total of $600,000 in interest — half checks, half cash — but prosecutors said the Robainas failed to report the cash payments on their tax returns.
David Garvin, the couple’s defense attorney, said no witness called by the prosecution had direct knowledge of the alleged cash payments to Julio Robaina. He was accused of picking up those payments at the home of Hialeah power broker, Rolando Blanco, who matched up the then-mayor with Pérez .
Sasha Tirador, political consultant to Hernández, said Robaina’s announcement that he will not run for mayor in 2017 is a reflection of Hernández’s successful tenure.
“Julio Robaina doesn’t plan to run for Hialeah mayor out of loyalty to Carlos Hernández, but because he doesn’t think things are bad in Hialeah, where he lives,” Tirador said. “If Julio believed that the city was poorly handled, he would run against Mayor Hernández or any other mayor.”
Tirador said Robaina might have his sights set on another run for Miami-Dade County mayor, after losing to Carlos Gimenez in the 2011 special election. “Maybe Julio Robaina does not find that things are going well in Miami-Dade County,” Tirador said.
Robaina also said he does not intend to run in the short term for a seat in the state Legislature. Rep. Eddy González, whose district includes part of Hialeah, is term-limited this year.
In an interview with El Nuevo Herald last Thursday, Robaina commented on various issues regarding the trial, including the testimony of his former real estate business partner, Martín Caparrós. Robaina said he still trusts him, despite having been hurt by his testimony.
Prosecutors Richard Gregorie and Michael Davis alleged that Robaina failed to report income taxes on a Ferrari sports car that was paid for by Prestige Builders Group. Garvin countered that Caparrós gave the luxury car to Robaina as a birthday present in April 2004.
The Robainas claimed it was a gift, and therefore they didn’t owe any taxes on it. Caparrós, however, testified that the Ferrari was not a gift but instead compensation to Robaina for selling numerous condominiums in their joint deals at Prestige.
“I consider Martín Caparrós a friend, a brother who made a mistake testifying something that was not accurate,” Robaina said. “But every family makes mistakes, and I can’t erase years of work, friendship and family sharing because of a big mistake he made.”
Robaina also criticized media coverage of his case, including the Miami Herald’s reporting on the prosecution’s claim that Robaina arranged to be paid partly in cash by Pérez because the former Hialeah mayor wanted to keep it secret from his wife. Before the trial began last month, prosecutors alleged in court papers that Robaina used the cash to spend on his mistress. However, the allegation never came up at trial.
“That was mean-spirited,” Robaina said. “I don’t think the coverage was balanced, never thought it would be in my favor, in our favor. And on that specific issue, it was mean-spirited.”