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Panama Papers: ‘Secret’ deal for Little Havana pharmacy sparks lawsuit

Offshore corporations: The secret shell game

Offshore corporations have one main purpose - to create anonymity. Recently leaked documents reveal that some of these shell companies, cloaked in secrecy, provide cover for dictators, politicians and tax evaders.
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Offshore corporations have one main purpose - to create anonymity. Recently leaked documents reveal that some of these shell companies, cloaked in secrecy, provide cover for dictators, politicians and tax evaders.

A small piece of a scandal stretching from the halls of power in Buenos Aires to a secretive law firm in Panama City to an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands has wound up in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.

The lawsuit, which features two realty firms fighting over a commission for the sale of a CVS pharmacy building in Little Havana, could shed light on a money-laundering investigation in Argentina involving a now-deceased top aide to former president Néstor Kirchner.

The building that houses the drugstore was part of a $65 million South Florida real estate empire amassed by Elizabeth Municoy, the owner of a Surfside realty firm, and her ex-husband, Sergio Todisco, between 2010 and 2015. In addition to the CVS, companies managed by Municoy and Todisco spent tens of millions of dollars on luxury condos in Brickell, South Beach, Bal Harbour, Sunny Isles Beach and Manhattan, as well as on bank branches in Kendall and Pompano Beach.

$65 millionValue of South Florida properties bought by companies linked to a top aide to Argentina’s former president

The couple had little wealth of their own, according to financial disclosures in their native Argentina.

So where did they get the money?

A Miami Herald investigation into the Panama Papers — the massive trove of documents from the law firm Mossack Fonseca that exposed how the wealthy secretly move money offshore — provided one clue. (The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists led reporting on the leak.)

At the same time Todisco and Municoy were snapping up real estate in the United States, Todisco served as a director for an offshore company set up by Mossack Fonseca and secretly controlled by Héctor Daniel Muñoz, a top aide to the late Néstor Kirchner.

Kirchner’s widow, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who succeeded him as president, and Kirchner family associates are now at the center of high-profile investigations in Argentina alleging major corruption and graft. (Muñoz, like Kirchner, is dead.)

The connection between the South Florida properties and a top Kirchner confidant prompted a prosecutor in Todisco’s home city of Mar del Plata to open an investigation. The prosecutor, Juan Manuel Pettigiani, suspects that the South Florida properties were bought with money stolen in Argentina and laundered through Muñoz’s offshore company.

Secret sale

Landlords usually seek publicity when they want to unload a property.

But when Municoy tried to sell the CVS pharmacy building at 1177 SW Eighth St., she wanted to keep it a secret, according to a lawsuit filed last month. She didn’t want “the CVS property listed for sale ... [and] ... and wanted to keep the sale of the CVS property confidential,” according to a complaint filed by Ernesto Bustamante, a real estate broker who marketed the property on Municoy’s behalf.

Bustamante is now fighting with Municoy over a $1.3 million commission tied to the sale, which closed in July for $13.1 million. The Real Deal first reported on the suit.

The Miami-Dade lawsuit doesn’t reveal who Municoy’s client was.

But the charge that Municoy wanted to sell the CVS property covertly only adds to the suspicion that laws were broken, Pettigiani said.

“This could be another indication that they were trying to keep the money out of the reach of the state, both in the United States and in Argentina,” he said in Spanish.

(Todisco and Municoy’s company owned only the CVS building, not the pharmacy business inside.)

It is possible more details may leak out from the case.

$1.3 millionCommission from the sale of the CVS property

The drugstore building was purchased by a Delaware company that lists its address as CVS corporate headquarters in Rhode Island.

Bustamante wants a judge to rule that he can keep the entire commission from the sale. He says he doesn’t owe Municoy an agreed-upon 7 percent referral fee because Florida law prevents the payment of commissions to people without a real estate license. A search of state records shows Municoy does not hold a license but her business partner, Thomas Baker, and two of her employees do.

Municoy’s attorney, Javier Rodriguez, said that the suit has “no legal merit” and that his client’s firm, Municoy International Realty, has met licensing requirements. In August, he sent a letter demanding Bustamante pay the fee of $917,000.

Bustamante didn’t want to comment for this story. But his attorney, Michael Schlesinger, said “we are very concerned about Municoy’s involvement in Panama.”

A contradiction

The lawsuit also contradicts statements Municoy made to the Herald in the past.

The CVS property was owned by a Florida company called Mother Queen. Corporate records show Mother Queen was registered to Todisco and later to a woman named Perla Puente Resendez, who was also listed as a director of the offshore company set up by Kirchner’s aide, according to documents unearthed in the Panama Papers.

$12.1 millionPrice Mother Queen paid for the CVS property in 2012

Interviewed in July, Municoy said she had nothing to do with Todisco’s companies and had never heard of Puente. She said the Herald was wrongly associating her with her ex-husband’s activities.

That doesn’t seem to have been the case: The suit reveals she played a key role in real estate deals like the one for the pharmacy property that are now drawing scrutiny in Argentina.

She declined to comment when contacted again by the Herald.