He’s nowhere near as notorious as Wall Street’s Bernie Madoff or Fort Lauderdale’s Scott Rothstein.
But as Ponzi schemers go, Luis Felipe Perez was still a very high roller, running a $40 million investment scam fueled by loans from Hialeah’s “shadow banking” industry and some of the city’s biggest power brokers. And while Madoff and Rothstein are destined to die behind bars, Perez now finds himself a free man.
“I lost 54 months of my life,” Perez told the Miami Herald in his first in-depth interview since being released from prison in December. “It’s something I will have to live with the rest of my life. But I think I deserve an opportunity to rebuild and move forward.”
Perez, known as “Felipito,” insisted that he aims to pay back his victims, who are mostly from Hialeah where he grew up but might now be considered persona non grata. One-time friends now consider him a “thief” and a “liar,” including two Hialeah mayors, Julio Robaina and Carlos Hernandez, who together had lent him almost $1 million but did not get back all of their money. Perez even broke ranks and testified against Robaina at a federal tax-evasion trial that ended with the ex-mayor’s acquittal.
“It is my absolute desire and wish that I can make a ton of money and pay everybody back,” Perez said.
Spoken like the natural-born salesman that Perez claims to be. But this time around, raising that kind of dough — he’s now wearing a business suit and working in sales for a Miami-Dade medical supply company he did not want to name — might take winning the lottery.
Hialeah’s mayor, Hernandez, who lent $180,000 to Perez and was repaid $126,000 in interest, scoffed at the convicted Ponzi schemer’s promise.
“I would like to know by what date he will be paying back monies owed to me,” Hernandez said in an emailed statement to the Herald. “I can only hope that in order to pay back all of us that have suffered monetary losses, he doesn’t swindle, lie and steal again, in effect creating new victims.”
$16 million owed
The 43-year-old Perez, convicted of securities and bank fraud charges in 2010 for operating the investment scam through his jewelry business, owes a grand total of $16 million to his victims.
And most of that money is owed to Wachovia, now Wells Fargo, which lent millions to several of Perez’s 30 investors. They had lied about their income to qualify for the loans and then sank the borrowed money into his promised but ultimately undelivered high-yield jewelry deals.
But Perez’s initial circle of investors came from Hialeah’s shadow banking trade, populated by such political figures as the city’s former mayor, Robaina, and current mayor, Carlos Hernandez. Perez was introduced to them by the late Rolando Blanco, who treated him like a son and had the reputation of a political godfather in Hialeah.
“I met them at Rolando’s house,” he said. “I helped them with their campaigns.”
The Cuban-born Perez worked for his father’s medical supply company after high school and then started his own jewelry venture. He said he was making such a killing during the last decade’s boom that finding lenders to help expand his business was not difficult.
Everybody wanted a piece of the action, said Perez, who was paying 36 percent interest on the money he borrowed from Robaina, Hernandez and others, including celebrity hairdresser Samy Suarez, who court records show lent him $2 million.
‘They came to me’
The high loan rate was a violation of Florida’s usury or “loansharking” laws, which cap interest rates depending on the amount of the loan. No one was charged with illegal lending, partly because the statute of limitations had run out.
Perez said the lenders flocked to him because for several years the returns on their investments in his jewelry sales were dizzying. “I never sought them out for the money,” he said. “They came to me.”
Perez said he struck up a relationship with a certified public accountant, Berta Sanders, who also brought him investors. She packaged false loan applications for his investors so they could borrow money from Wachovia and put it into his business, according to court records. Sanders, who got a 10 percent cut on each loan, would eventually go to prison on fraud charges — along with several others who had borrowed millions from Wachovia.
“It was a legitimate business at first; I didn’t start out to steal all of this money from these people and go party,” said Perez, a twice-divorced father of three. In 2006, he purchased a $3.2 million Coral Gables mansion and also owned a fleet of luxury foreign cars, including a Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz.
But as he borrowed more and more money before the “Great Recession” hit in 2008, he said he wasn’t able to turn the same fat profits on the jewelry sales out of his Brickell Avenue office and showroom. He said that as he plunged deeper and deeper into debt, he could not keep up with the heavy interest payments on the loans.
“What happened in the end was I got sidetracked by the pressure to commit to these loans and to the glitz and glamour of the lifestyle,” said Perez, admitting that “greed was a big part of the equation.”
‘Spun out of control’
He said he could not face his lenders because many of them were friends from Hialeah. “I wanted to pay them back, but it spun out of control,” he said.
By early 2009, Perez said he could no longer stomach the harm he was doing to his investors, himself and his family. He said the birth of his third child, who had to undergo open heart surgery, pushed him over the edge.
“I was feeling terrible, I was having sleepless nights,” he said. “It was a bad, turbulent time.”
At that point, he said he made a “conscious decision” to go see his lawyer, Alvin Entin, who would eventually discover that his client had crossed the line from civil to criminal intent with his investment deals.
Entin, a prominent Fort Lauderdale defense lawyer, arranged for Perez to cooperate with the U.S. attorney’s office and federal agents — in the hope of reducing his inevitable incarceration.
“I knew what I had done was wrong,” Perez said. “I faced the music, but I turned myself in.”
During his imprisonment in a South Carolina and downtown Miami detention center, Perez said he worked as an orderly, taught Spanish and read a couple of hundred books, including his favorite, Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. He also met with authorities to provide them with insider knowledge.
Federal prosecutor Richard Gregorie used Perez as a witness in two trials, one dealing with bank fraud; the other with tax evasion.
Last year, Perez took a star turn in the federal trial of Robaina, the former Hialeah mayor who later lost a bid for Miami-Dade County mayor, and his wife, Raiza, who worked as his campaign treasurer. They were accused of failing to report $2 million in joint income, including Perez’s 36 percent interest payments on the $750,000 that he had borrowed from the couple.
Perez testified that Robaina received secret cash payments from him — income that the couple did not report on tax returns, according to Gregorie. But Perez, portrayed as a lying swindler by the defense, did not sway the jury, which acquitted the couple of tax evasion charges.
Perez did not want to comment on the Robainas, saying he had no intention to “bash” anyone during the interview at the Fort Lauderdale office of his civil lawyer, Joshua Entin, who is Alvin Entin’s nephew and law partner.
At Robaina’s trial, Hialeah’s current mayor, Hernandez, testified that he, too, lent Perez $180,000 at 36 percent interest. Hernandez also swore under oath that he received more than $100,000 in interest payments from Perez before he stopped making them.
Hernandez’s testimony, however, got him into trouble with the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.
In January, the ethics commission charged Hernandez with lying — first in Spanish, then in English — at a 2011 news conference about his 36 percent interest loans to Perez. He declared that Perez only paid back the “principal” on his loans, not interest.
But at the Robainas’ trial, Hernandez testified as a witness for prosecutors that he received only “interest” payments on his loans to Perez, contradicting his defiant statements at the 2011 news conference while he was running for mayor.
Hernandez, a two-term Hialeah mayor and former police officer, faces up to a total of $1,500 in potential fines for the two civil charges.
Perez has been subpoenaed to testify at the mayor’s trial before the ethics commission, possibly this summer.
Asked about Hernandez’s public position that he was only paid back the principal on his loans, Perez said the mayor received “interest only” just like everybody else. “I think it’s an absurd statement that would be an insult to anyone’s intelligence.”