Offshore corporations: The secret shell game
Where did a mystery man from Argentina get nearly $65 million to spend on ultra-luxury Miami condos, New York apartments and South Florida strip malls?
That’s what Argentine prosecutors want to know, especially because Sergio Todisco doesn’t seem to have a fortune of his own — and because he once acted as an offshore corporate front-man for a top aide to former president Néstor Kirchner.
The controversy again shows how Miami’s gleaming condos attract secret and potentially illicit money from around the world.
$10.7 millionPrice paid for a unit at the Regalia condo tower
Between 2010 and 2015, Florida companies registered in the names of Todisco and his now ex-wife, Elizabeth Ortiz Municoy, a real estate agent in Miami and Buenos Aires, spent about $21 million on luxury condos at some of South Florida’s best-known towers, including Icon Brickell, St. Regis, Turnberry Ocean Colony, Apogee Beach and 900 Biscayne. The crown jewel was a $10.7 million, four-bedroom unit at the Regalia in Sunny Isles Beach. The companies later sold most of the units.
Other companies that listed Todisco and Municoy as officers invested $30 million in South Florida bank branches and a pharmacy, as well as a $13 million unit at Manhattan’s stately Plaza Hotel.
Only two of the transactions involved mortgages, according to public records, meaning the other deals were likely for cash.
In Argentina, major corruption investigations are swirling around ex-president Kirchner, who died in 2010, and his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who also became president. Now, an Argentine federal prosecutor has opened an inquiry to determine if Todisco and Municoy were laundering money for Kirchner associates — or even the Kirchners themselves, although they’re not yet an official target of the investigation.
At the very least, there’s compelling evidence that Todisco and Municoy were buying properties for people who wanted to keep their identities hidden.
“The tax position of Todisco and Municoy revealed by documents obtained [by the prosecutor’s office] makes it impossible to associate them with the million-dollar transactions carried out abroad,” reads a complaint filed as part of the investigation into the Todisco affair.
Here’s why Argentine law enforcement is so suspicious: At the same time Todisco was snapping up luxe Miami condos, he acted as the director of Gold Black Limited, an offshore company based in the British Virgin Islands. Gold Black’s stated purpose was “real estate investment” in the United States, according to documents in the massive leak of confidential offshore files known as the Panama Papers.
The company’s owners? Néstor Kirchner’s personal secretary and close friend, Héctor Daniel Muñoz, who died of cancer earlier this year, and Muñoz’s wife, Carolina Pochetti.
A lawyer for Fernández de Kirchner did not respond to questions and Pochetti could not be reached.
The president’s shadow
Muñoz had been a debt collector at the Kirchners’ law firm before they came to power.
During his time in government, he served as Kirchner’s “body man,” a sort of valet and jack-of-all-trades who answered the president’s phone, handled his medication and stayed by his side when he was hospitalized. Kirchner affectionately called him el gordo (“fatty”) and, according to a press account, once slapped him during an argument. The pair was also fond of play-wrestling. When Kirchner couldn’t sleep, he would wake up his friend to keep him company.
One profile described Muñoz as having more pull than any cabinet minister. To get to Kirchner, you had to go through el gordo.
After Kirchner’s term ended in 2007 and Fernández de Kirchner was elected to replace him, Muñoz joined her staff. But he resigned two years later following accusations he used his post to enrich himself. In 2013, he was investigated on suspicion of money laundering for allegedly flying bags of cash around the country for the Kirchners. He was cleared by a judge.
While offshore companies have many legal uses, their secrecy appeals to lawbreakers.
The corporate structure of Muñoz’s offshore was so opaque that not even Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm handling its affairs, seemed to know who the real owner was.
The firm withdrew when it found out in 2015 that the offshore belonged to Muñoz, according to leaked emails. A compliance officer was concerned that past corruption accusations meant working with him could violate global anti-money laundering rules, even though Muñoz had never been convicted of wrongdoing.
When a team of global journalists that included the Miami Herald published its findings on the Panama Papers in April, Muñoz’s secret offshore company was revealed. The Argentine website BorderPeriodismo then uncovered Todisco’s connection to nearly $40 million worth of South Florida real estate.
(The Panama Papers reporting effort was led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The Herald and its parent company, McClatchy, were the only U.S. newspaper outlets to participate in the initial series. The Herald’s series showed how money from people accused of corruption helps fuel Miami’s real estate boom.)
The combination of a close Kirchner ally and tens of millions of unexplained dollars in American real estate piqued the interest of prosecutors in Argentina.
Juan Manuel Pettigiani, a federal prosecutor from Todisco’s home city of Mar del Plata, opened an investigation in May. He says Todisco’s bank records show a monthly income of about $2,000. It seems impossible he and his wife had the funds to buy so many properties, Pettigiani wrote in the complaint.
“My initial hypothesis, based on financial records, was that this was an association to launder money for corrupt public officials,” he told the Herald. “Now I believe [Todisco and Municoy] might have used this know-how to launder money from other sources as well.”
There could be a simpler explanation: Concerned about their safety and privacy, foreign buyers often keep their names out of public records in the United States, even if they have violated no laws. It is possible Todisco was dealing on behalf of a legitimate but publicity-shy investor.
But efforts to reach Todisco by phone and email did not elicit a response.
The investigation is still in its initial stages pending approval by a special financial crimes unit before it can proceed.
In an April interview with Argentine newspaper La Nacion, Todisco said he agreed to serve as the director of Muñoz’s offshore company, Gold Black, because they were friends. He said he wasn’t involved in the company’s day-to-day operations.
Reached on her cell phone, Municoy, who owns Surfside-based realty firm Municoy International Properties, said she knew nothing about the multimillion-dollar transactions or the offshore. She said she divorced Sergio Todisco “a long time ago” and that she had “nothing to do” with the properties.
“How could I know?” she responded, when asked where the money had come from.
She would not specify when she ended her marriage to Todisco and declined to provide proof of the divorce. She said that two of the properties — a unit at Icon Brickell and another at Apogee Beach — belong to companies she owns, and that her name appeared on business records associated with some of the other properties only because she was married to Todisco at the time. “I have no knowledge of his personal business or that of his family,” she said. “You are associating my companies, which have nothing to do with this, with the companies of people I don’t know.”
Her firm’s small office in Surfside, sandwiched between a wig store and a frozen yogurt shop, boasts advertisements for some of South Florida’s most luxurious, pre-construction condo towers, including Armani/Casa, Turnberry Ocean Club and Fendi Château.
You are associating my companies, which have nothing to do with this, with the companies of people I don’t know.
Elizabeth Ortiz Municoy
There’s another striking connection between the Miami properties and Muñoz’s offshore, Gold Black.
In 2015, Todisco and Municoy resigned as directors for many of the Florida companies that held the real estate. They were replaced by a woman named Perla Resendez, who lists her address in corporate records as Miami law firm Roca Gonzalez.
At roughly the same time, Todisco resigned from Muñoz’s offshore company. There, too, Resendez stepped in as the new director.
“I think there’s intent in this,” said Pettigiani, the Argentine prosecutor. “It’s not a simple coincidence.”
In Pettigiani’s eyes, the resignation of Todisco from both Gold Black and the Florida companies was designed to “make it impossible to uncover who the people behind the financial transactions are.”
Like Gold Black, several of the Florida companies have names that evoke the precious metal: North Golden, South Golden, West Golden, Harbor Golden, Ocean Golden and Dream Golden Enterprises.
Roca Gonzalez acts as the registered agent for most of the Florida companies. It also represented Muñoz and his offshore company, according to leaked emails in the Panama Papers.
In an email, attorney Antonio Roca of Roca Gonzalez said he could not say who owned the properties without violating attorney-client privilege. In a brief message, he wrote: “We never represented Sergio Todisco. At the time we represented Mr. Muñoz, there were no pending investigations or charges against him.”
Resendez, he said, was the director of the corporate entity that owns the properties. He said he has never met her and does not know whether she lives in the United States.
Under Resendez, the Florida companies bought another unit each at Turnberry Ocean Colony and Icon Brickell, bringing the total spent by the companies to about $70 million.
She could not be located by the Herald.
Wealth through power
It’s not unusual for new governments in Latin America to pursue corruption charges against past leaders. And there’s no doubt the knives came out for the Kirchners after they became private citizens. But even for a region that ranks poorly in global corruption measures, the scale of the Kirchners’ alleged graft appears astounding, some experts say.
“It seems from my research that [the Kirchner administration] was a fairly structured enterprise to take as much money from the state as possible and put it into their personal coffers and the coffers of their closest supporters,” said Douglas Farah, a national security analyst and former journalist who has criticized the Kirchners in the past.
The Kirchners got into power with the goal of getting rich.
Ricardo Monner Sans, anti-corruption activist
“The Kirchners got into power with the goal of getting rich,” said Ricardo Monner Sans, an Argentine lawyer and anti-corruption activist. “They understood the logic that in order to have power you had to have money, and in order to have money you had to steal.”
The Kirchners certainly grew wealthy in La Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace. Asset declaration forms give a glimpse of their rising financial status. The forms say their declared wealth increased more than 800 percent, to roughly $4.8 million, during the 12 years they spent in office.
Today, prosecutors are investigating whether the Kirchners and their associates skimmed money from public works contracts.
In June, police arrested a former public works secretary under Kirchner and Fernández de Kirchner. Neighbors of a religious convent outside Buenos Aires were alarmed when they saw the ex-official, José López, hurling plastic bags over a wall onto the property, according to the Washington Post. Summoned to the scene, officers discovered the bags contained at least $8 million in cash, as well as luxury watches and a semiautomatic rifle.
López allegedly tried to bribe police and was arrested, the Post reported. He was later charged with corruption, although he said the money had been meant as a donation for the nuns.
And an internal investigation by Argentina’s road construction agency recently concluded that the agency had been used as a vehicle to funnel public funds to the Kirchners and their associates, according to local press reports.
The agency found that it overpaid by as much as 64 percent for public works projects awarded to the construction company of a close Kirchner associate, Lázaro Báez.
Báez was arrested in April on money-laundering charges, and prosecutors claim he embezzled money from construction projects and moved millions into offshore accounts using a web of shell companies.
One former Báez associate, who admitted helping him launder money, testified in court that Báez and Néstor Kirchner carried out “a systematic plan whose purpose was to empty government coffers through [the approval of] public works.”
(Argentina’s current president, Mauricio Macri, has also been linked to an offshore company in the Panama Papers. A judge has ordered an inquiry into his tax returns.)
Charles Intriago, a former federal prosecutor and anti-money-laundering expert, said criminals often seek to invest stolen money in real estate.
“Real estate is the major open territory for criminals, corrupt public officials and money launderers,” he said. “The rewards are too great and the risks of being caught are too low.”
Safe place for cash
Todisco and Municoy didn’t content themselves with fancy homes in Miami.
In 2011, a Todisco company spent $13 million on a condo at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, which overlooks Central Park and offers residential units in addition to hotel rooms. (The company had earlier paid $1.85 million for another unit in the same building. The man listed as running the company at the time, Osvaldo Parolari, could not be contacted for comment. Todisco took over the company, Free Experience Inc., soon after the first deal.)
In South Florida, companies registered to Todisco and Municoy bought up commercial real estate, too. The buildings they acquired are leased to big corporate names: A CVS pharmacy in Little Havana for $12.1 million. A TD Bank in Miami Shores for $5.5 million. Another TD Bank in Kendall for nearly $7 million. A BankUnited branch in Pompano Beach for $5.8 million.
A recent federal crackdown on money laundering in Miami real estate focused only on residential properties. But commercial real estate might deserve a harder look, too, said Jack McCabe, a South Florida real estate analyst.
“There hasn’t been much scrutiny placed on commercial because there’s so many buyers in the residential market,” McCabe said. “But I think we’re seeing potentially laundered money being funneled into commercial real estate as well. … In commercial real estate, the transactions are much larger. It gives the buyer potential to move greater sums of money in fewer transactions.”
Companies registered to Resendez and Municoy still own about $45 million worth of real estate, including all the commercial properties and units at the Regalia, Icon Brickell, Turnberry Ocean Colony and Apogee Beach. The other units were sold for a total profit of about $5 million.
It’s not clear if Muñoz’s offshore company is still active.
After Mossack Fonseca resigned, another offshore services provider agreed to work with Gold Black. But before that, MF’s Miami representative, Olga Santini, argued against dropping Muñoz.
Santini said his lawyer had told her the charges were unproven. “Nothing is concrete,” she wrote in a leaked email.
When asked for comment on the investigation into Todisco and Muñoz, her lawyer responded by sending the Herald a cease-and-desist letter.
Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer contributed to this report