Nurse Virgilia Corcés is certain she did not vote in the election for the board of directors of her condominium, The Beach Club at Fontainebleau Park in northwest Miami-Dade. She was busy those days, taking care of her father who is ailing with cancer.
Nevertheless, a vote with her signature turned up in the ballot boxes at a ballroom on Flagler Street where the election was held — as did the votes of dozens of apartment owners who now claim their signatures were falsified.
“That’s not my signature,” said Corcés. “That’s a fraud.”
Four days earlier and 10 miles away in Hialeah, an election at the Los Sueños condo resulted in an unprecedented tally: 115 percent of the owners voted.
Another Hialeah complex, Bella Venezia, didn’t even hold an election in 2014. The reason, given to one owner by the company that administers the apartments, was to “save money.”
“Sometimes, in an effort to save money (and BV needs every penny) we commit violations,” the administrator wrote to an owner who had complained about the lack of an election.
The allegations of electoral irregularities at The Beach Club, Los Sueños and Bella Venezia are just part of the hundreds of complaints submitted in 2015 by condo owners in Miami-Dade and Broward to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR), the state agency that supervises condo operations.
With nearly 1.6 million condos in Florida — 38 percent of them in Miami-Dade and Broward — the state has long faced many difficulties combating fraud and bribes to members of the board of directors and the administrative companies that they hire. For decades, there have been efforts to strengthen the state laws, but the application of those laws has been inconsistent. And since the Great Recession, when the budgets for the state and local regulatory agencies and state prosecutors faced massive cutbacks, the challenges have been increasing.
The condo market is now booming again in South Florida. Giant cranes dot the horizon along Biscayne Bay, the beaches and growing cities like Doral, which have approved several new mega-projects. But will Florida be able to respond to the demands for growth while protecting condominium owners?
Frustrated condo residents say they have few options. Local police agencies say that most of the complaints do not involve criminal activities and can be handled in civil courts. Prosecutors say police or the DBPR are responsible for enforcing the laws, but the state agency argues that it cannot investigate complaints about actions that fall outside its jurisdiction or that lack sufficient evidence.
After receiving several complaints in recent months from residents alleging financial mismanagement, lack of transparency and electoral fraud in condominiums, el Nuevo Herald and Univisión 23 launched an investigation.
Their findings included at least 84 fraudulent signatures on ballots for the board of directors at The Beach Club.
From the more than 500 complaints filed with the DBPR by condo owners in Miami-Dade in 2015, the investigative team focused on the 81 cases still under state investigation.
Of those, 27 involved alleged irregularities in elections to boards of directors — people who approve lucrative contracts for the condos and 31 involved a lack of access to information that owners have a right to obtain under state laws. Another nine cases involved allegations of financial mismanagement. The rest involved the unauthorized use of reserve funds, disputes over fines and other issues.
Miami-Dade recorded the highest number of complaints of irregularities and fraud in the administration of condos of any county in 2015, according to the DBPR. Out of 1,908 complaints received statewide, 566 were filed in Miami-Dade.
Elections at Fontainebleau
The alleged electoral fraud at The Beach Club may be one of the biggest scandals under investigation by the DBPR.
After the votes were counted on Nov. 24, Wilfredo Zayas, Guillermo Merique and Ivonne Andrade were declared the winners.
El Nuevo Herald tried to contact the three directors several times during the last three weeks of February. Zayas and Andrade did not reply to requests for interviews. Merique said only that the problems at the condo stemmed from previous boards of directors, but declined comment on possibly fraudulent signatures on the November ballots.
The lawyer for the owners’ association, Hector Martinez, declined comment because of attorney-client confidentiality.
Zayas was first elected to the board in November of 2014. Shortly afterward, the board entered a contract with Florida’s Property Management Group Corp. (FPM), a company that in recent years has been accused of bad management by owners of other condos. State records show the company was declared inactive in November of 2015.
But before it was deactivated, FPM vice president Juan Awais created Sunshine Management Services, LLC, which assumed several of the FPM contracts, including those of the Beach Club and Los Sueños condominiums, said Sunshine administrator Juliet Siglier.
Sunshine stored all the documentation on the controversial election at The Beach Club at its Miami Lakes office. At least four condo owners went to the office in December and January to review the documents.
“I asked for access to the documents because by law they are required to preserve them for only one year … and to be honest I was convinced that there had been fraud in the balloting,” said Katherine Castro, a resident who was a candidate in the election. She was ruled to have lost. “I asked for the envelopes and made about 2,000 photographs, and you could clearly see that there were fraudulent signatures.”
El Nuevo Herald and Univision 23 contacted 92 of the more than 500 owners recorded as having voted. Eighty four of them expressed concern after confirming that their signatures had been blatantly falsified on the ballot envelopes submitted for the condo elections.
Among the owners who said their signatures were faked was Pamela Silva Conde, host of Primer Impacto, a Univisión news program, and political campaign consultant Sasha Tirador.
Tirador said that on the night of the election she was alerted that two votes with her signature had turned up in the ballot boxes. She immediately went to the party room where the ballots were being counted.
“There was one ballot that said Sasha Tirador, but it was not my signature,” said Tirador. “Unfortunately, the institutions where we can report these types of crimes do not investigate them.”
On the night of the election, one key witness documented the irregularities: Tomás Rementería, a monitor appointed by the DBPR’s Office of the Condominium Ombudsman.
Rementeria reported to the Ombudsman’s office that 542 votes had been received from the owners of 712 apartments.
From that seemingly massive turnout, 103 votes were thrown out, including 57 because there were two ballots from the same owner and 26 for adulterations confirmed by the voters themselves. The remainder came from open envelopes or from people not authorized to vote.
The fraud was so evident that Dolores Fernandez, one of the four people in charge of counting the votes, told El Nuevo Herald that she saw that her own signature had been falsified.
From fraud to apathy
On Nov. 20, the election at the Los Sueños condo in Hialeah saw 115 percent of the owners participate. That is, 457 votes were cast in a complex of 396 units — in an election where each unit had only one vote. Half the 457 votes were thrown out, including 174 that were duplicate votes, according to Monica Hidalgo, a monitor contracted by the owners’ association.
The tally gave Arelys López her seventh year as president of Los Sueños, a condo that like The Beach Club is administered by Sunshine.
After the astonishing vote tally, the group of owners that lost the election filed a complaint to the DBPR.
José Guerrero and María Porras, owners who challenged the López presidency, declined comment on the alleged falsification of signatures. But attorney Guillermo Mancebo, who represents Guerrero, alleged in the complaint that the election was fraudulent.
“The association falsified ballots as well as sworn declarations designed to disqualify the votes of members who oppose the persons elected as association directors, in an inappropriate manner, and critics of the (Sunshine) administration company,” said Mancebo.
When an el Nuevo Herald reporter asked López if she was comfortable with her victory in an election where 115 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots, she replied that holding a new election would only “spend more money,” and added that the fraud was carried out by the candidates that lost.
At the other extreme, the Bella Venezia condominium did not hold elections in 2014, arguing that it wanted to “save money” even though that violated state laws and the condo’s own regulations.
Elena Soutullo, who owns two apartments in the complex, there were also no elections held between 2010 and 2013.
Rosario Gonzalez, an official of Neighborhood Property Management, Inc., a Hialeah company that administers the complex, said that in those years there were fewer than five candidates for the five board of directors slots, so reelections were automatic.
Soutullo and other owners filed a complaint to the DBPR in August of 2014, but have received no reply. Soutullo then elevated her complaint to the Florida Inspector General in April of 2015. The investigation was reopened.
“The DBPR discovered that the condo had no (cash) reserves. Without consulting the owners, they had been using it (reserves) for daily expenses,” said Soutullo.
Amid the complaints, the condo held new elections on Dec. 7. Nineteen of the 72 owners participated and for the eighth year elected Aurelio Martinez, who declined to comment for this report.
Falsifications at The Beach Club
The investigation by el Nuevo Herald and Univision 23 of The Beach Club election found that at least 20 signed votes were mailed from the main U.S. Postal Service office in Miami on the same day, Nov. 19. Those envelopes had no return names or addresses.
One of those ballots was signed in the name of Mónica Espinosa, an accountant who that day happened to be vacationing in Venice, Italy.
“I never sent any vote by mail,” said Espinosa, who showed reporters her U.S. passport, with entry and exit stamps from the Rome airport, and some of her vacation photos. “On the 19th (of November) I was very happy, taking a tour on a gondola. What frustrates me is that my signature was falsified, and I think that whoever did this are criminals.”
Other questionable signatures were from owners who rent their apartment and do not usually participate in the condominium elections. Several live in Texas, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
“It’s the first time that something like this happens to me, and I imagine that it’s something that carries criminal penalties,” said Jose Mera, a businessman who lives in the Dominican Republic. He said he bought The Beach Club unit eight years ago to rent it and never participates in its elections.
At least one person, Paola Silvestri, filed a complaint about the fraudulent signatures with the Miami-Dade Police department. Silvestri said her complaint never got beyond a police report, even though under Florida law it’s a crime to falsify signatures.
“They did nothing!” said Silvestri. Her mother, Aliria Stoppa, owns the unit. She lives in Venezuela.
Under state law, falsifying a signature is a third degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $5,000.
“This is happening everywhere in the state, but Miami-Dade county is the capital of fraud in the (condo) associations,” said Julio Robaina, who led a fight in favor of condo owners when he was a state representative from 2002 to 2010. He now owns a condo administration company.
A DBPR spokesperson, in an email sent in November, said complaints are investigated “if there is a reasonable suspicion that a violation of the law took place.”
“In general, this means that the complainant provides evidence supporting the probability that a violation has taken place,” wrote Chelsea Eagles, DBPR director of communications. “If the complainant simply suspects that there’s something wrong or assumes that an illegal action has taken place, we urge them to access and review the official records of the association for evidence to support the complaint. In the absence of any evidence of a violation of the law, the complaint is closed without further action.”
That was not the first time that an election at The Beach Club had been marred by alleged irregularities.
In 2014, the monitor Rementeria reported that more than 100 votes had been thrown out, 36 of them because there were two ballots from the same owner.
“The number of double ballots was significant,” Rementeria wrote in the report he submitted to the state.
The report added that two of the owners who took part in the election found that someone else had already voted under their names. The two owners were able to verify that their signatures on the votes cast had been falsified.
“In both cases, the falsified votes came from the box of ballots submitted by Mrs. Carlín Castillo,” Rementeria wrote in his report.
Castillo told el Nuevo Herald and Univisión 23 that she was not responsible for the fraudulent ballots.
“Anyone interested in messing with the elections could have done it,” Castillo said. “We never learned who put in those double votes … I myself was not going to disgrace a process in which for the first time a monitor from Tallahassee was taking part in our election, and in which I myself picked up some of the ballots because we needed to change the board of directors and the administration company.”
Univisión 23 reporter Erika Carrillo contributed to this report.
Follow Enrique Flor and Brenda Medina on Twitter: @kikeflor y @BrendaMedinar