After a whirlwind 36 hours, North Miami Mayor Lucie Tondreau flew back to Miami to turn herself in and face charges on mortgage fraud — then emerged from the federal courthouse late Tuesday to declare her innocence.
Confronted by a throng of media, Tondreau pledged to her constituents that she would beat the charges — but ducked questions about Gov. Rick Scott’s order suspending her from office.
“I’m innocent, and I’m sure my attorneys and my community will be with me,” the 54-year-old politician said. “All I have to say is, North Miami stand tall.”
As she came out of the courthouse, Tondreau — North Miami’s first female Haitian-American mayor — was greeted by a group of supporters, including a man in a wheelchair who came from Broward County to lend his backing. “I look at her as a strong-willed woman and leader,” said Ezekiel Alexis, adding that he appreciated her support of the Haitian community. “She’s never done anything bad.”
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Shortly before Tondreau left the courthouse, Scott ordered her to be removed from office effective immediately, which is customary for elected officials charged with a crime. Tondreau declined to comment on her removal as mayor, a position that would have to be filled by special election. Vice Mayor Philippe Bien-Aime will serve as acting mayor in the meantime.
After her brief encounter with reporters, Tondreau rushed off into an awaiting car, ignoring further questions.
The now-suspended mayor, who had been in Las Vegas on city business at a convention early Monday when FBI agents came to her home to arrest her, is scheduled to be arraigned on June 30 on conspiracy and wire fraud charges.
Tondreau is accused of collaborating with three other defendants to recruit “straw” borrowers to purchase 20 South Florida homes while defrauding $8 million from various mortgage lenders between late 2005 and 2008 — well before she was elected mayor of North Miami last year. She is accused of using her Creole-language radio programs to help a mortgage broker promote his business and recruit borrowers for their mortgage scheme.
Charged along with Tondreau are Karl Oreste, 56, of Miramar, owner of KCM Mortgage Corp., and two other defendants, Okechukwu Josiah Odunna, 49, a disbarred Lauderdale Lakes lawyer, and Kelly Augustin, 57, a former North Miami recruiter for Oreste’s mortgage firm.
Oreste was granted a $50,000 bond after his arrest Monday. The other two defendants are considered fugitives: Odunna is believed to be in Nigeria; Augustin, in Haiti.
Tondreau, who surrendered at the FBI’s regional office early Tuesday, appeared in Miami federal court with her wrists and ankles handcuffed. That is standard procedure for defendants while they are in custody and appearing for the first time in court.
About 30 Tondreau supporters filled four rows in the courtroom and watched silently as a federal magistrate judge allowed Tondreau to be released on a $50,000 bond co-signed by her daughter. Magistrate Judge John O’Sullivan ordered Tondreau to turn over her passport and to stay away from the other defendants and witnesses in the case.
Tondreau’s defense attorney Ben Kuehne declared her innocence in front of the federal courthouse Tuesday afternoon, before his client was released.
“We await an opportunity to fight these charges to demonstrate her actual innocence,” Kuehne, standing with co-counsel Michael Davis, told reporters. “The circumstances are very questionable, and with a lot of work her legal team intends to obtain her vindication.”
Clarice Pierre-Paul cried on the courthouse steps after the bond hearing. She said the mayor was a family friend.
“This is like my child. To see her shackled like that, it hurts,” she said. “I know one thing, she will be freed.”
As news of Tondreau’s pending arrest spread through the Haitian community, some Haitian radio hosts and Tondreau supporters took to the AM airwaves to rally behind North Miami’s first Haitian-American female mayor.
Nelson Voltaire, the provocative host of Piman Bouk radio show, asked listeners to stand by Tondreau no matter what. He implored listeners to descend upon the federal courthouse in downtown Miami to show their support. Voltaire said on his program that Tondreau was actually helping Haitians achieve the American dream of home ownership when she teamed up with Oreste, one of her co-defendants.
“Today, I’m asking all Haitians for solidarity,” he said in Creole.
Lamercie Francois-Filius heeded Voltaire’s call. A resident of Miami’s Little Haiti community, she showed up at the courthouse to support Tondreau.
“I don’t have to live in North Miami to support the mayor,” said Francois-Filius. “This is a Haitian cause. In good times and in bad times, we have to support Lucie.”
The narrative on Haitian radio among Tondreau supporters is that this federal case is a conspiracy to topple a Haitian-elected official and to cast the growing Haitian community at-large in a negative light.
But some said Tondreau and her supporters are using race and ethnicity to incite passionate responses from listeners and detract from the criminal allegations against her.
“This is a mental game that has been played for years in the Haitian community. It’s manipulation,” said Rotschill Anderson, who hosts an English and Creole-language radio show.
“They say it’s the white man trying to bring Haitians down. Pastors are trying to grow their church by saying they will pray for Lucie,” he said. “It’s all nonsense and it’s a way to distract people from the real news.”
Earlier in the day, State. Rep. Daphne Campbell could barely contain her emotions when she called the Piman Bouk radio show. She pleaded with listeners to stand by Tondreau, just as the African-American community stood by former Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones when she faced bribery and grand theft charges while in office. Spence Jones was acquitted.
Campbell, who sounded as if she were crying, said she was distraught over the federal probe of her close friend.
“I’m dying . . . this hurts so much,” she said in Creole. “Let us pray, let us pray. . . Let us ask everyone to pray.”