South Florida

Florida governor approves condo law reforms

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has approved state condominium law reforms that seek to punish voter fraud and theft in condo associations, clarify the definition of conflicts of interest and promote transparency.

Amendments to chapter 718 of the state law will take effect on July 1.

“I am very happy that we have finally achieved some of what is needed to stop fraud and abuse toward condominium owners,” said Maritza Escobar, owner of a condo unit in Hialeah Gardens. “In the future we have to make more changes to stop the abuse from management companies and boards.”

The reforms were presented in Tallahassee as a signature bill by the bipartisan Dade Delegation during the legislative session that ended in May. It was sponsored by Rep. José Félix Díaz and Senators José Javier Rodríguez and René García, and unanimously approved by the state House and Senate.

“That [the governor] signed the law is a victory and one that does not always happen,” said Díaz, whose district encompasses the Fontainebleau neighborhood in west Miami-Dade.

Díaz, who is vying for a Senate seat, said the delegation’s action and community engagement were key to the reforms getting passed.

“There are so many people in this county who have so many problems and do not raise their voices,” he said. “This is an example of when the government responds to the advice and suggestions of the public.”

The bill came a year after the publication of the “Condo Nightmares” series by el Nuevo Herald and Univisión 23. The investigation highlighted cases of electoral fraud, forged signatures on ballots, conflicts of interests, misappropriation of funds and rigged bids.

In February, a grand jury appointed by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office published a report supporting the findings unveiled by the “Condo Nightmares” series. The jury recommended changes to the law regulating condos as well as reforms to the state agency responsible for enforcing that law, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR).

The reforms cover only part of the problems uncovered by the investigative reports.

The original proposal to create new criminal offenses was opposed by groups of lawyers from condominium associations and the Florida Bar Association, who said it opened the door to potential punishment for innocent actors.

Lawmakers made several amendments to the bill, which eventually included a felony punishment for withholding or altering documents from associations if it was shown that they were concealed to commit or cover up crimes.

Among the actions that are now considered crimes are the falsification of signatures on ballots for board elections, theft of ballots and the disappearance of votes. Under the reforms, punishment for such actions could lead to imprisonment.

Law enforcement officials have yet to investigate complaints of electoral fraud in the condos, because according to them, their hands are tied, since there were no references to criminal punishment in chapter 718.

Follow Brenda Medina on Twitter: @BrendaMedinar

New condominium law requirements, effective July 1:

▪ Condo associations with 150 or more units will publish financial reports on a web page, accessible with passwords. If it’s proven that documents were denied to owners in order to hide fraud, those responsible could face felony charges under a clause that takes effect in July 2018.

▪ Directors will be limited to eight years on the board of homeowners associations. But they will be able to continue in office if they win a super-majority of the votes from owners in subsequent elections.

▪ Directors are forbidden from receiving payments from the association or hiring their relatives. Currently, directors can be paid for services such as cleaning, painting and repairs as long as all other directors are informed of the arrangement.