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Former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina pleads not guilty to tax evasion

Former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina sounded Friday like he was on the campaign trail again — not a defendant newly indicted on charges of tax evasion and lying to federal agents.

Robaina, who finished second in the 2011 Miami-Dade County mayoral race, appeared in a federal courtroom and pleaded not guilty to charges he defrauded the U.S. government by failing to report potentially millions of dollars in income, including cash payments on high-interest loans he made to a convicted Ponzi schemer.

Minutes later, Robaina stood with his wife, Raiza, who was charged along with him, and thanked about 30 friends who turned out in solidarity.

“We’re proud and humbled by the amount of support that we have received from phone calls, emails, texts, family, friends,” Robaina said outside the courthouse. “My wife and I are extremely humbled by it. We thank everyone.

“Today is the first step of a process,” he continued. “We believe in the justice system. We know that when the facts are told in our day in court, that we will be vindicated, our name will be cleared and we will continue to help in this community.”

Then Robaina, practiced in facing the cameras, politely declined to answer any questions from the media.

His wife did not enter a plea Friday because it remains to be seen whether her husband’s lawyer, David Garvin, can represent her, too. Garvin told federal Magistrate Judge Barry Garber that Robaina wants him to represent both of them because they filed joint tax returns, but the judge said there could be a conflict of interest that must be resolved.

A week ago, the Robainas were wearing shackles on their ankles and wrists after surrendering and making their first appearance in court. If convicted, they each face up to five years in prison.

A federal grand jury indicted Robaina, 48, and his wife, 39, on charges of failing to report receiving cash payments on loans totaling more than $1 million, and other business income. Both also are charged with lying to federal agents about Robaina’s involvement in his wife’s two lending businesses — a potential source of conflict in their defense —and he alone was charged with lying about receiving the undisclosed cash.

The couple is accused of receiving the cash as interest on personal loans they made to friends, including convicted businessman Luis Felipe Perez, who borrowed $750,000 at what he says was a 36 percent interest rate.

The loans were doled out as part of an informal banking system operating below the radar in Hialeah, and came to light during Robaina’s unsuccessful bid for county mayor.

The main conspiracy charge in the indictment, filed by prosecutors Richard Gregorie and Michael Davis, accuses the Robainas of overstating losses on their businesses and understating gains on their personal income between 2005 and 2007.

It further charges that 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.

In 2010, Robaina’s longtime friend “Felipito” 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 (now the city’s mayor), Hialeah Chamber of Commerce head Daniel Hernandez, and Manny Alfonso, a board member of the charity La Liga Contra el Cáncer.

The Internal Revenue Service 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 may be subject to taxes.

Perez, who cooperated with prosecutors as part of a plea agreement and hopes to receive a sentence reduction, maintains that he paid Robaina a combined interest rate of 36 percent. Perez said half the payments were made in checks and the other 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 in 2011, according to sources. Roberto Blanco, who also borrowed money from Robaina, received immunity from prosecution, the sources said.