Miami-Dade County

Documents meant to combat fraud in condo elections raise more questions

Notary public Carmen Aslan, who works for the FM Law Group, refuses to respond to questions from the media.
Notary public Carmen Aslan, who works for the FM Law Group, refuses to respond to questions from the media. eflor@elnuevoherald.com

The 15th of November must have been an exhausting day for notary public Carmen Aslan.

On that Sunday last year, Aslan notarized the signatures of 68 condominium owners at The Beach Club at Fontainebleau Park on affidavits certifying that the owners voted in the condo association’s elections at the end of that month, citing their ballot numbers as proof of their vote. She would have had to meet with every person who signed the affidavits.

That same day, Aslan appears to have had time to meet with an owner of a Los Sueños condo in Hialeah to notarize her affidavit for an association election in that complex.

Aslan, who works for the FM Law Group, where lawyer Hector Martinez represents several condo associations, kept up her busy schedule for the next eight days, apparently notarizing the signatures on 236 affidavits by owners at The Beach Club and Los Sueños.

But 23 owners at the two condos told El Nuevo Herald and Univision 23 in recent weeks that they never signed those declarations before any notary. They also say they never showed their driver’s licenses to Aslan, as she certified in the 236 documents. And 22 of the 23 say they never met Aslan.

“She's the notary?” a surprised Horace Sinclair, a resident of The Beach Club, said when reporters showed him a photo of Aslan. “I've never seen her in my life.”

Representatives of Sunshine Management Services, which manages the complexes, said it implemented the new system of securing affidavits to prevent electoral fraud. The company has said residents have repeatedly complained about falsified signatures on the ballot or ballot envelopes in elections of association boards.

But an investigation by El Nuevo Herald and Univision 23 showed that the affidavit system put in place by the company has substantial irregularities.

Florida law requires that a notary confirm the identity and witness the signature of the person on a document that is being notarized. Failure to do so is a third-degree felony.

Aslan has denied any wrongdoing. “Any document that I have notarized complies with all notary requirements. At this point I have no further comments. Please do not contact me again,” she wrote in an April 12 email to reporters.

However, several owners of apartments at The Beach Club and Los Sueños contradict her story.

Ana Pla Rodriguez, 57, a Cuban business person who lives in Puerto Rico, said she was on the island and did not sign an affidavit on Nov. 18, when Aslan notarized her signature on the document. On that same day, Aslan also notarized the signatures of another 33 owners at The Beach Club and Los Sueños condos.

“That signature that appears on that affidavit is not mine and I do not know that notary,” Pla said in a telephone interview from Puerto Rico. “The last time I went to Miami was in June of last year when my father died, and I stayed for two weeks,” she said. “And that woman never came to Puerto Rico to notarize the affidavit that I supposedly signed. All of that is false.”

Pla added that sometime in November she received a package with ballots for the association election at The Beach Club, where she owns three apartments. She filled in the ballots and returned them to the address of Carlin Castillo, a resident who was supporting the reelection of the condo board.

A previous investigation published in March by el Nuevo Herald and Univision 23 showed that the signatures of at least 84 owners on ballots for that election — the one that the affidavits were supposed to protect from fraud —were falsified.

Owners protested and forced the directors to resign after initial revelations emerged about the vote fraud and an allegedly rigged bid for a multimillion-dollar contract for roof repairs. Before it resigned, the board canceled the contract with Sunshine Management Services, which administered the condo.

Miami-Dade police are investigating the elections and the bid for the roof repair.

‘ANTI-FRAUD SYSTEM’

Amid the controversy, Sunshine hired a public relations agent, Helena Poleo. In an email to journalists, Poleo wrote that the company “is aware that fraud in condominium elections is very common, which is why it implemented a system that went beyond what is required by law to try to guarantee the transparency and legitimacy of the elections.”

The system guarantees that the only valid votes counted are those that are supported by an affidavit, Poleo argued. That's how the company was seeking to avoid votes with falsified signatures.

“The votes, some accompanied by affidavits and others not, were submitted by condominium owners to the condominium offices, where Mrs. Carmen Aslan was available to carry out the corresponding notarizations,” Poleo wrote.

Owner Castillo told reporters, however, that she gathered about 60 of the 144 affidavits submitted for the election at The Beach Club. None of the affidavits was notarized in the presence of the persons who signed them, said Castillo. She added that she and other neighbors received instructions to gather up the documents.

“The instructions they gave to us was to gather up the affidavits, that possibly there was some part of the law that allowed a notary to not be present” for the signatures, said Castillo. She declined to identify who gave her those instructions. “I don’t have to worry about it because I am not the notary. I don't believe she deceived me, and perhaps she knew the law,” she said.

Castillo added that she made three trips to the main Sunshine offices in Miami Lakes to deliver the affidavits as she gathered them. The affidavits later turned up with the signature and notary seal of Aslan, collection manager at the Martinez law office, which represents several of the condos administered by Sunshine.

Ramón de la Cabada, a lawyer and former state prosecutor, said it is a crime for notaries to “certify a signature that they did not witness in person.”

“Fraud by a notary is a felony in the state of Florida, with a penalty of five to six years in prison,” said De la Cabada. “If they do it as a favor, that is an explanation but not a legal defense. But if there's a constant recurrence of the same act, in my opinion, that is circumstantial evidence that there's something bigger going on.”

Former prosecutor Eric Padron said the charges could be even harsher if there's evidence that irregular notarizations were part of a conspiracy.

“The charges that a notary could face would be perjury and fraud,” said Padron. “But if there's proof that this is part of a scheme, an arrangement among several people, that notary could face more serious charges.”

The condo owner at The Beach Club who first complained about the irregular notarizations told journalists that she signed her affidavit at the condominium’s own office, with no notary present.

The date of the notarization was listed as Nov. 15, a Sunday. But the owner recalled signing the affidavit on a weekday because she went to the office to pay her monthly condo fees. She asked to remain anonymous.

She added that the blank affidavit was handed to her by Jose Hernandez, at the time employed by Sunshine to manage the complex. Hernandez denied gathering signed affidavits and said he no longer works for Sunshine.

THE LOS SUEÑOS CASE

The November election at Los Sueños condo reported a stunning 115 percent voter turnout by its condo owners. Two opposing groups of owners who ran slates in the election are accusing each other of falsifying signatures on the votes.

Several condo owners there also denied having seen Aslan, who allegedly notarized the majority of the affidavits designed to prevent fraud in the balloting.

“I signed the paper, but I've never seen that notary,” said owner Ubaldo Sierra when journalists showed him a photo of Aslan.

Another Los Sueños owner, Moises Gomez, said that he also did not sign the affidavit in front of Aslan.

“I signed the document in front of the condo woman, Arelys. She was alone,” said Gomez.

Arelys Lopez, who was reelected president of the condo association in the November balloting, assured reporters that the affidavits were notarized in front of the people who signed them, and that a notary accompanied her around the complex to certify the signatures on the documents she gathered.

When told that several owners had denied to reporters that their signatures were notarized in front of them, she declined to reply. “I am not going to comment,” she said.

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