Jet-set Miami developers entangled in legal drama over private jet

05/18/2013 6:40 PM

05/19/2013 8:32 AM

For sale: a $12.6 million Bombardier Challenger jet presumably grounded at the Opa-locka Airport.

At a price around $7.5 million, it comes stocked with china glasses, monogrammed hand towels and pillows, a mini-bar, and a lap top of navigational charts.

It also carries some awful hefty baggage.

The private aircraft is the source of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy case and a long-running legal battle featuring some of Miami’s flashiest developers. Allegations include sham lawsuits, fraudulent financials, physical threats and shadowy legal tactics by a felonious, disbarred attorney — all exposed amid a turncoat romance.

The dispute over the jet, revealed in years worth of court filings, led to a bitter breakup between Miami high-rise developer Ugo Colombo, Design District mogul Craig Robins, and the Fontainebleau hotel’s Soffer family. Once partners and friends in the upper echelon of Miami real estate, the trio is now embroiled in litigation as Colombo and Robins fight over the jet, with the Soffers in the middle.

“I truthfully, looking back at this whole thing, made a mistake getting myself involved in this lawsuit in the first place,” Jeffrey Soffer said in a deposition three years ago.

Before things went sour, Colombo and Soffer were close friends. In the 1990s, they partnered on the Porto Vita towers in Aventura. They also shared a flair for thrill-seeking and would race boats together. Soffer introduced Colombo to sky-diving.

Robins wasn’t a business partner, but he was friendly enough to split a $22 million jet Colombo had purchased through UC Challenger LLC in mid-2007. They leased the plane to their respective companies, Robins’ Dacra and Colombo’s CMC Group, and hired the Soffers’ Turnberry Management to manage the aircraft.

For a short while, Robins and Colombo shared the jet happily. Robins flew the jet around the world.

But in late 2008, a $200,000 bill came due that Robins refused to pay, and after one month Turnberry sued.

One of Colombo’s attorneys, Jim Robinson, said the litigation began and continues because Robins made an investment he couldn’t afford.

“Our position in the lawsuit is clear: Mr. Robins bit off more than he could chew,” said Robinson. “As a result, he just walked out on Ugo. That’s the reality here. He walked out on Ugo and left him stuck with the plane.”

Robins says the opposite: Colombo agreed to buy out Robins’ ownership of the plane in 2008 only to renege after the economy collapsed — and after racking up a renovation bill that he tried to stick on Robins.

“Ugo is in breach of his agreement with us,” he wrote to Turnberry. “I would suggest you not embroil Turnberry in this dispute.”

When Turnberry sued, Robins countersued. The case toiled for a year. And then things got twisted.

On Dec. 15, 2009, Jeff Soffer signed a settlement agreement with Robins in which he said Colombo had already paid the bill at the heart of the lawsuit. Turnberry agreed to pay Robins $300,0000 and to cooperate with any investigation by Dacra.

That night, Samuel Burstyn, an illustrious former defense attorney who advises Colombo — or allegedly runs his legal affairs behind the scenes — emailed a Turnberry attorney. “I think we are about to enter the Twilight Zone,” he said.

Following the settlement, Jeffrey Soffer, his sister Jackie Soffer and their employees explained in depositions and affidavits that they’d sued Robins as a favor to their friend, Colombo. They said Colombo also secretly funded the litigation and had Turnberry reverse bookkeeping entries to keep his involvement off the record.

The aim: force Robins to continue paying half the debt on the plane while Colombo kept it for his sole use.

Jackie Soffer swore in an affidavit that Colombo was panicked when he learned Turnberry was quashing their lawsuit.

“Ugo told me that if we settled the lawsuit we were not his friends — we were his enemy,” she said. “During one of these conversations, Ugo changed the subject and asked whether I was worried about unpaid contractors at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach physically hurting my brother, Jeff.”

Further, Turnberry alleged the “architect of Colombo’s secret prosecution,” was Burstyn, formerly a prominent criminal defense lawyer and business partner of Colombo’s. Burstyn went to federal prison in 2006 after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice for aiding a marijuana smuggling ring, and he permanently resigned from The Florida Bar.

Invoices from Turnberry’s hired representation Kluger Kaplan showed Burstyn had made at least a dozen appearances on conference calls and reviews. Emails turned over as part of the settlement with Robins also showed correspondence from Burstyn.

Colombo denies the allegations, said Robinson. His attorneys have argued that Burstyn doesn’t practice law for Colombo, but rather is “a trusted advisor” who is “involved in risk management and assists CMC in dealing with lawyers and firms.” And while Colombo acknowledges discussing buying out Robins’ half of the plane, he says there was no signed agreement.

Colombo’s attorneys also said Jackie Soffer was now chiming in because she was dating Robins, who they said was “in bed with Turnberry.”

“We believe this is all just a sideshow and shows desperation from the other side,” Robinson said.

In 2011, with litigation still running strong, Robins stopped paying his debt payments on the jet to Bank of America.

With the loan now in default, Colombo signed a forbearance agreement to sell the jet by the end of the year. But that didn’t happen, and Bank of America sued Colombo. In March, Colombo’s CFO took UC Challenger LLC into bankruptcy court.

With the jet’s value plummeting to $12. 6 million, Colombo’s attorneys argue their client had no other choice but to sell it through bankruptcy. They said Robins had not only stopped paying his loan, but also refused to agree to any sale of the jet, as required.

Not so, said Robins, who argued that Colombo took the company into bankruptcy in order to halt their litigation in state court.

In an opening statement last week, Robins’ attorney, Dennis Richard, said Colombo turned down multiple offers in the $10 million range that had received a nod from Robins. He said Colombo then tried to sell the jet for $8 million to his own company through a court-approved broker.

Richard cited emails and letters between the broker of the sale, Bank of America representatives and Colombo’s CFO, Art Murphy. A second forbearance agreement between Robins and the bank after bankruptcy proceedings began also shows he “cured” his defaults on the jet loan.

In the meantime, Robins now says Colombo is now unsuccessfully going after his $300 million design district development in court.

“Ugo made it clear he’d continue to pester me with these nonsense lawsuits in the design district unless I agreed to sell him the airplane at a substantial discount,” he told The Herald.

And Turnberry and Colombo have been at odds over his attempts to win a $1 billion Miami Beach convention center redevelopment, though a Turnberry attorney said the opposition to the project is “completely unrelated” to the plane litigation.

As for the jet, it remains unsold. Bankruptcy proceedings are ongoing and the state court case is going to trial on September 30.

Said Richard: “Judgment day is coming.”

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