The magistrate judge, politely but persistently, pressed the uncomfortable question again and again to former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina and his wife Raiza, who both face an upcoming tax evasion trial in Miami federal court.
With allegations that the mayor had spent a secret stash of cash on a mistress, did the couple really think it was smart to share the same defense attorney?
A newly unsealed court hearing revealed that — despite the accusations raised by prosecutors — the ex-mayor and his wife maintained a united front, adamantly refusing to hire separate defense attorneys as they head to trial in April.
“Even if I had another attorney, I would not feel comfortable with that attorney going up and using this information — which I believe is false — to exonerate me and throw my husband under the bus, because I believe that this is a lie,” Raiza testified at the previously closed March 6 hearing.
Magistrate Judge Jonathan Goodman questioned the couple about prosecution plans to call two witnesses expected to testify that the one-time mayor had specifically requested secret cash payments on the couple's high-interest loans to a convicted Ponzi schemer. The reason: Robaina wanted to keep the unreported income from his wife so he could spend it on his girlfriend, according to prosecutors.
Goodman pressed the ex-mayor, asking whether he viewed the “dilemma” presented by the government’s evidence as a conflict of interest?
“Absolutely not,” Julio Robaina testified.
Details of the potential conflict of interest between the husband and wife emerged after the magistrate judge agreed Monday to unseal court documents and hearing records after keeping them from public view since last month.
Last May, the Robainas were charged with conspiring to evade paying income taxes, failing to report secret cash payments and lying to federal authorities about their joint business that made more than $1 million in loans to the convicted Ponzi schemer, Luis Felipe Perez, and other friends. They're also accused of under-reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars on their income tax returns in 2006 and 2007.
Federal prosecutors Richard Gregorie and Michael Davis have argued since the couple was indicted that the two needed separate lawyers to avoid potential conflicts of interest. But the Robainas have insisted they wanted to keep one defense attorney, David Garvin, to represent both.
The prosecutors raised the issue again last month — in a motion that was sealed as a “courtesy” to Garvin because it raised the subject of the mayor’s marital infidelity. Prosecutors have not named the alleged mistress but city hall is abuzz with gossip that she was a former Hialeah government employee.
At the closed hearing on March 6, the magistrate judge told the Robainas: “That information, if true, would generate a conflict.” He also said that, if Perez and another government witness, testified about the under-the-table cash payments at trial, the evidence could potentially hurt Robaina but help his wife.
But the Robainas both testified that they wanted to keep the same defense lawyer, regardless of the alleged affair and its implications.
“Do you understand the dilemma that Mr. Garvin would be placed in?” Goodman asked Julio Robaina.
“I don’t think it’s a dilemma; I think it’s part of the trial,” Robaina testified. “We’re dealing with someone [Perez] who scammed over 40 individuals out of over $40 million and who has lied repeatedly.”
“My wife and I have signed the tax returns as a couple,” he continued. “We have done everything as a couple. And we have participated in all of our ventures as a couple.”
Goodman asked if the former mayor understood his question.
“I understand your question and understand exactly what you’re asking and my answer is no different,” Robaina said.
Robaina’s wife then interrupted the exchange, saying she did not need a different lawyer because the couple’s defense attorney, Garvin, planned to attack Perez’s veracity on the witness stand.
“I believe he is a liar,” Raiza Robaina told the judge. “He stole my money. I have no mercy for him.”
As a result, the magistrate judge accepted their waiver of a conflict of interest — despite suggesting to the couple that using the same defense attorney might prove “foolish.”
Prosecutors claim that Perez, who is now serving a 10-year sentence, agreed to pay the couple 18 percent interest on more than $850,000 in loans.
Perez claims he made those payments in checks to the Robainas, but that he also had a side deal with the husband. He is expected to testify at their upcoming federal trial that, at Julio Robaina's request, he arranged to pay an additional 18 percent interest in cash to the former mayor.
Perez claims he arranged to send the cash-filled envelopes with the initials “J.R.” written on them to the Hialeah home of the politician's benefactor, Rolando Blanco. Perez claims he went to these lengths because Robaina did not want his wife, Raiza, to know about the cash payments.
Blanco, who also loaned money to Perez, died in 2007. But Perez claims he continued to have the cash delivered to the Blanco residence after his death. Blanco's son, Roberto, is also expected to testify that he handed the cash payments to Julio Robaina, and that the former mayor used the extra dough to spend on his girlfriend.
At the closed-door March 6 hearing, the magistrate judge asked the former mayor's wife if the couple's lawyer, Garvin, would also portray Blanco as a "liar" even if his testimony might help her at trial.
Said Raiza Robaina: "I believe that he's lying."