When two condo owners went to the Miami-Dade police department to complain that their signatures had been forged during an election of the board of directors at The Beach Club in Fontainebleau Park, they ran into a wall.
“They took my statement, but they did nothing,” said Paola Silvestri, who alleged that her mother’s signature turned up in a ballot even though she did not live in the United States.
Silvestri and more than 80 other Beach Club owners complained that their signatures were falsified in condo election ballots. But while falsifying a signature is usually a crime, that does not appear to be the case with condos.
State laws on condos, listed under Chapter 718, don’t mention falsifying signatures. That, and other omissions, limit the possibility of investigating condo crimes, such as electoral fraud, according to police and prosecutors.
A proposed law now making its rounds in Tallahassee and backed by Miami-Dade legislators seeks to turn forgery, manipulation and stealing of ballots for board elections and other condo abuses into crimes, some as third degree felonies that could bring prison time for violators. The bill is advancing in the House (HB 1237) and Senate (SB 1682).
The reforms seek to update and strengthen an archaic system of regulations that offers little protection to condo owners, according to dozens of cases documented by el Nuevo Herald and Univision 23 in the series Condos de Pesadilla (Condo Nightmares).
However, lawyers who specialize in Chapter 718 say that state lawmakers should clarify or eliminate parts of the proposed bill that might have unintentional consequences.
“We fully agree that there is a need to strengthen the laws and to hold accountable directors and officers who commit crimes,” said William Sklar, a member of the Florida Bar Association who recently testified on the issue before the state Senate Judiciary Committee. “What we are opposed to is creating new crimes under the condominium act.”
Penalties for any crimes related to condominiums and their board of directors, such as theft of funds and forged signatures, should be enforced under existing laws, Sklar said.
“Theft, document fraud, embezzlement, are criminal offenses that should be fully prosecuted according to the Florida Statute, regardless of whether they are committed by condominium directors or administrators,” he said. “What we propose is that references to existing law be added to the condominium act.”
Theft, document fraud, embezzlement, are criminal offenses that should be fully prosecuted according to the Florida Statute...
William Sklar, attorney
Sklar’s clarifications may reassure condo owners who had interpreted his statements to the Senate as opposing criminal sanctions.
Condo owners have told el Nuevo Herald and Univision 23 that they generally disagree with lawyers who work for condo associations, because they represent the interests of the boards of directors who hire them and not the interests of all the owners.
It’s not easy work, said Yeline Goin, a lawyer with Becker & Poliakoff, which represents hundreds of condo owners’ associations in Florida. She’s also executive director of the firm’s Community Association Leadership Lobby (CALL).
“We represent associations, not individual members of the board, but we do get our directions from the board members,” said Goin. “We believe there must be a legislative balance between giving power to owners and not tying the hands of the directors to manage their associations.”
Goin said that’s why she opposes a proposal that would allow criminal charges for the intentional denial of access to condo records, which owners have an established right to inspect.
“They are trying to punish the members of the board of directors, who are volunteers, for something that is often the responsibility of the management company. It’s the managers who generally handle the records,” Goin said. “On the other hand, sometimes the directors make honest mistakes because they don’t fully understand the law. We don’t want the laws to be used to punish people who make unintentional mistakes.”
We don't want the laws to be used to punish people who make unintentional mistakes.
Yeline Goin, attorney
Maryin Vargas, a condo owner and coordinator with Reform Florida, a recently created group that is lobbying in favor of the proposed criminal sanctions, disagreed with Goin.
“I don’t think it would be that easy to punish anyone for a mistake, because you would have to show that the person did this intentionally and repeatedly,” Vargas said. “Board members who aren’t doing things wrong and don’t have anything to hide don’t have anything to worry about.”
Board members who aren’t doing things wrong and don’t have anything to hide don’t have anything to worry about.
Maryin Vargas, condo owner
The proposed language says that “any director or member of the board or association who knowingly, willfully, and repeatedly [more than twice in one year]” denies access to association records that owners are entitled to inspect, could be charged with a misdemeanor. If it’s proven that the records were withheld with the intent to hide a crime, those responsible could be charged with a third degree felony.
Another disagreement between owners like Vargas and some lawyers is the proposed eight-year term limit for serving on condo association boards. Directors could continue in their posts if they win a super-majority of the votes.
The differences between groups like CALL and Reform Florida is not new.
When Republican state Sen. Rene Garcia, sponsor of the current reform effort, proposed similar changes in 2006, the move sparked clashes between CALL and Cyber Citizens For Justice (CCFJ), a central Florida group fighting for legal changes that they said would give more power to condo owners. Garcia’s proposals in 2006 were not approved by the state legislature.
El Nuevo Herald and Univision 23 published a series of stories, starting in March of last year, that highlighted elections fraud, abuses of power, denials of access to records and many other irregularities in South Florida condos.
Democratic state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, who is co-sponsoring the latest reform proposals, said lawmakers are considering the lawyers’ proposals to clarify some aspects of the reforms. But he stressed that the criminal sanctions are an essential part of the reforms.
“The proposal is not perfect,” Rodriguez said. “We’re working ... to find a better way to implement the sanctions, not to eliminate them.”
Follow Brenda Medina on Twitter: @BrendaMedinar