Seven years after Raul Masvidal was accused of pilfering public money for a giant watermelon statue, the well-known Miami civic leader has quietly triumphed.
A Miami-Dade judge on Friday dismissed fraud and theft charges against Masvidal, who had been accused in 2007 of using $150,000 in county funds to buy the melon statue, known as Mars, for his own personal use.
Defense attorneys argued that the statute of limitations on most of the charges had run out — and that the disputed money did not actually belong to the county.
Friday’s decision capped a long-running legal saga first detailed in the Miami Herald’s 2006 House of Lies series, which exposed corruption within Miami-Dade’s Housing Agency. Masvidal, 72, had been charged with grand theft and organized scheme to defraud.
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After court Friday, Masvidal — a former banker, philanthropist one-time Miami mayoral candidate — hugged his lawyers, Henry Bell and John Priovolos,
“It’s been a long hard slog for him. It’s been very humbling, very very difficult and I’m glad for him that the judge ruled in his favor,” Bell said.
Friday’s decision was second and final blow to the prosecution’s case. In October 2011, the same judge, Dennis Murphy, threw out the case against Juan Delgado, a well-known construction magnate, and his company, Delant Construction.
Delgado and company were accused of submitting three phony invoices for work never done on the project, and providing Masvidal the phony receipt that allowed him to hide purchase of the watermelon art.
Masvidal, who ran for mayor in 1985, has been an influential figure in Miami-Dade County. He was one of the founders of the Cuban American National Foundation and was chairman of Miami Savings Bank — which collapsed in 1989.
He also was a trusted adviser to former Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, who recruited Masvidal to lead the campaign to build the AmericanAirlines Arena. He also was on the board of Miami-Dade’s Public Health Trust, which governs Jackson Memorial Hospital.
The entire fraud and theft case revolved around Masvidal’s company, Hometown Station Ltd., which had contracted with the county to build a $25 million office building for the housing agency in South Miami. Miami-Dade kicked in $5 million for the publicly-funded project.
The building was never completed and the county canceled the project. Auditors later accused Masvidal’s company of misspending at least $3.2 million of the project’s money.
Masvidal and the county still are embroiled in a long-running civil lawsuit over the failed project.
Prosecutors accused Masvidal of dummying up bills to hide the purchase of a $150,000 watermelon statue, allegedly bought with money from the Hometown Station deal. He later used the melon as collateral on a $125,000 loan from Arizona Federal LLC.
The state alleged that Masvidal hid the art purchase in a bill that included a sculpture called Space Station, a 22-foot stack of coffee cups that was supposed to be displayed at the new office building.
Masvidal insisted he was being smeared by Mars sculptor Julio Larraz, a childhood friend, and Larraz’s art dealer, Ron Hall of Dallas. The pair gave statements to prosecutors that led to Masvidal’s arrest.
Masvidal later was charged with misspending an additional $800,000 in additional funds from the same pot of county money.
But his attorneys countered that the money Masvidal’s Hometown Station used was no longer the county’s, but actually the company’s, dispersed through Bank of America. Miami-Dade County has given the $5 million to Masvidal’s company, through the bank, as “an investment” in the project.
In the end, Masvidal’s lawyer told the judge, the matter was a civil dispute that did not belong before a criminal court judge.
“The theory of the ownership of the money was flawed and the judge recognized that,” Bell said.
Prosecutors are mulling an appeal.
“Right now, we are evaluating all of our potential options before we make our decision,” said office spokesman Ed Griffith.