Former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina and wife surrender to authorities on tax evasion charges

05/16/2013 12:53 PM

05/21/2013 3:34 AM

In 2010, while peeling back the layers of Hialeah’s “shadow banking’’ industry, federal prosecutors pressed the city’s mayor about allegations that he had collected exorbitant cash interest payments on more than $1 million in loans he made to friends and acquaintances.

Julio Robaina’s answer? Not true.

On Thursday, Robaina’s words came back to haunt him, when a federal grand jury indicted him and his wife on charges of conspiring to evade income taxes, making loans at sky-high interest rates, failing to report secret cash payments — and lying to federal authorities.

He made the statements at issue in August 2010, while preparing an unsuccessful run to become Miami-Dade County mayor.

Robaina, 48, and his wife Raiza Villacis Robaina, 39, who operated two loan companies, are accused of receiving the undisclosed cash payments as interest on the personal loans they made to friends, including convicted Ponzi schemer Luis Felipe Perez. The loans were doled out as part of an informal banking system operating below the radar in Hialeah.

The indictment alleges the couple tried “to enrich themselves by concealing, disguising and failing to report the true and correct amount of their income to the Internal Revenue Service.”

Husband and wife surrendered to authorities early Friday and made their initial court appearance later in the day, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrea Simonton.

Julio Robainas got a $250,000 personal surety bond; is wife a $100,000 bond. They will be released Friday afternoon and their arraignment is set for next Friday.

The Robainas were shackled at ankles and wrists.

They proclaimed their innocence through Julio Robaina’s defense attorney on Thursday.

“Obviously, both Mr. and Mrs. Robaina are disappointed by today’s news,” said attorney David Garvin. “However, they look forward to having their day in court.

“They are anxious to clear their good names,” he added. “We are confident that they will prevail and will ultimately be vindicated.”

In addition to tax evasion, both Robainas were indicted on charges of filing false tax returns that understated their income. According to an indictment, the couple’s reported income swung wildly from a loss of $62,015 in 2006 to a gain of $1,023, 672 in 2007, when they knew their “total income was greater than reported” in both years.

The indictment also accused the couple of lying to federal agents. Robaina is charged with making a “false statement” in August 2010, when he told IRS agents that he had “no involvement” in his wife’s loan businesses, MR Holdings and RVR Holdings, when the defendant knew “he had negotiated and agreed to the terms of the loans made” by those companies, the document states.

He also is charged with making another false statement to agents that month when he said “he never received cash interest payments from L.F.P., when in truth and in fact, the defendant knew he had received cash interest payments from L.F.P” — a reference to Ponzi schemer Luis Felipe Perez.

Robaina’s wife is charged with making a false statement to agents in September 2010, when she said her husband had “no involvement” in the operations of the loan companies in her name.

In Hialeah, reaction to the indictment was varied.

Former Hialeah Mayor Julio Martinez said the indictment was a long time coming.

“To have a mayor who is also a money-lender didn’t look good for this city. He had no need to be doing that, considering that he made more than $270,000 per year in salary and perks,” Martinez said.

Robaina’s longtime political consultant, Sasha Tirador, spoke respectfully of the former mayor.

“Julio Robaina is a decent family man,” she said. “He was an excellent public servant, and I’m proud to call him my friend.”

Perez’s mother, who was preparing Thursday for a trip to North Carolina to visit her son in prison, said she was surprised to hear the news.

“I’m shocked,” she said. “It’s true that Felipito made a mistake and he’s paying for it. But I didn’t know that all of this was happening.’’

In 2010, Perez was convicted of directing a $45 million Ponzi scheme that duped dozens of investors and lenders, including Robaina, celebrity hairdresser Samy Suarez, Hialeah Council President Carlos Hernandez, Hialeah Chamber of Commerce head Daniel Hernandez, and Manny Alfonso, a board member of the charity La Liga Contra el Cáncer.

The IRS began investigating Robaina’s finances while authorities were making their case against Perez, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence.

Under federal law, if a person receives an interest payment on a loan, that income must be reported to the IRS and it may be subject to taxes.

“Our citizenship comes with many privileges, but also with attendant duties and responsibilities,’’ Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said in a statement. “Among those duties, each of us — regardless of station or position — is required to pay our fair share of taxes.’’

Perez, who cooperated with prosecutors as part of a plea agreement, maintains that he paid Robaina a combined interest rate of 36 percent, with half the payments in checks and half in cash, until he ran out of money in 2009.

He said he directed his drivers to deliver the cash in envelopes — with the mayor’s name or initials written on them — to the home of the late Rolando Blanco, their mutual friend who had matched them up.

Blanco’s son, Roberto, testified about the alleged payoff arrangement before a federal grand jury in Miami, according to sources. Roberto Blanco, who also borrowed money, received immunity from prosecution, the sources said.

In an interview Thursday, Roberto Blanco said he believed Robaina “had turned his back on the Blanco family, which helped him advance in his political career.”

Hialeah’s unofficial “shadow banking’’ system flourished from the Blanco’s home to City Hall.

Some of Robaina’s borrowers, including Perez and Blanco family members, gave thousands of dollars to the two-term mayor’s campaigns and a political action committee that supported him, public records show.

In a 2011 interview, Robaina denied any wrongdoing, saying he reported all interest income from loans on his personal and corporate tax returns, before and after he became mayor in 2005, and stressed that he had no conflict of interest with his public position.

“I have made certain that all investments, while in public service, are in no way a conflict of interest to avoid even the perception of impropriety,” Robaina said. “It is also important to note that the investments were with individuals I considered friends and/or acquaintances.”

The Robaina companies — RVR Holdings and MR Holdings — sued delinquent borrowers from 2008-10, seeking about $1.4 million in unpaid principal, plus interest. That litigation came under greater scrutiny when Robaina launched his candidacy for Miami-Dade mayor in 2011. He lost to Carlos Gimenez.

In 2010, when the feds first asked Robaina about the $750,000 in loans he made to Perez, the mayor told federal prosecutors Richard Gregorie and Andrew Levi that the deals were done through his wife’s companies.

The mayor maintained the same position in late January 2011 when he spoke with The Miami Herald about the loans to Perez. “I’m not trying to blame her. I’m just saying she’s the one who handles these things,” he said.

Later, Robaina said he and his wife together packaged the loans to Perez.

El Nuevo Herald reporter Melissa Sanchez contributed to this report.

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