When elections monitor Mónica Hidalgo turned up Nov. 20 to watch over the 2015 balloting for the board of directors at the Los Sueños condominium, many of the owners breathed a sigh of relief.
They believed Hidalgo had been sent by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulations (DBPR), in reply to their request for a monitor to supervise the controversial elections at the Hialeah complex.
Hidalgo’s presence was welcomed by both board members who were seeking reelection and their opponents. Members of both factions say they gathered signatures on petitions seeking the presence of a state-appointed monitor who would guarantee the transparency of the process and report conclusions to the DBPR.
“We asked for her. Yes, of course, we collected signatures for that,” said Arelys López, who was reelected president of the condo association in the balloting.
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But what López and others involved in the election did not know was that Hidalgo is not a monitor appointed by the Office of the Condominium Ombudsman.
In fact, since 2010 that office stopped assigning Hidalgo as an election monitor after stating that she “blatantly ignored” instructions prohibiting the delegation of responsibilities, misrepresented not being at a meeting and other issues. The ombudsman concluded the March 31, 2010, letter by stating, “your actions, lapses in judgment, and inattention to duty… have seriously undermined and diminished the trust and confidence placed in you and reflects adversely upon the election monitor program administered by this office.” Her identification badge was revoked.
And in 2012, after at least one condo owner complained, the Ombudsman’s office demanded that Hidalgo stop promoting herself as a monitor assigned or certified by the state and warned her that her actions amounted to consumer fraud.
Hidalgo told a team of reporters for el Nuevo Herald and Univision 23 two weeks ago that she does not represent herself as a monitor assigned by the state.
“I never say I am certified. I always say I was certified. Little words that are specific and powerful in any court,” said Hidalgo, who owns Luminary LLC, a company that supervises condo and co-op elections. “And I never introduce myself as sent by the DBPR. If someone says that I am sent [by the DBPR], that’s up to them, but that never comes out of my mouth.”
Condo owners say there’s no clear way to determine whether a monitor has been assigned by the state or privately contracted by an association’s board of directors. The issue reflects the lack of regulations of condo election monitors, who are not state employees and do not have licenses or certifications. The state also stopped issuing identification badges for the monitors it approves.
The Condominium Ombudsman can appoint an election monitor only after receiving a petition signed by at least 15 percent of the condo owners.
CONTACTED BY SUNSHINE
Hidalgo said she was contacted directly by Sunshine Management Services, the company that manages the Los Sueños complex, to monitor the election there. She added that she is always paid for her services by condo associations.
Sunshine representatives, however, initially told el Nuevo Herald and Univision 23 that Hidalgo had been sent by the state as an neutral party to monitor the balloting. They added that Hidalgo had accepted the use of notarized affidavits by owners as guarantees of the validity of their votes, a system designed by Sunshine to avert electoral fraud.
Sunshine’s public relations agent, Helena Poleo, in a later email to journalists, wrote that the company had provided information about Hidalgo that it believed to be correct but then appeared to add some nuance.
“It is widely known that Mrs. Mónica Hidalgo has been certified by the DBPR to monitor elections and owns a totally legal company for those activities,” Poleo wrote. “She has been sent by the DBPR to monitor elections in many associations. It is our understanding that her certification remains valid.”
However, a DBPR spokesperson said that Hidalgo refers to a certification “which does not currently exist. In essence, Ms. Hidalgo has created a non-existing title.”
Poleo’s email added that the journalists “have decided to focus on technicalities.” She did not clarify whether she referred to Hidalgo’s role in the elections, or a previous report about the irregular notarization of the affidavits used in condo elections.
The previous report quoted several owners at Los Sueños and The Beach Club at Fontainebleau Park condos as saying they did not sign the affidavits in the presence of notary Carmen Aslan, whose seal appears on more than 230 of the affidavits.
Some condo associations seek the help of monitors in elections, to ensure that they follow state guidelines and avert fraudulent votes and other irregularities. Although election monitors appointed by the Ombudsman are required to send the office a report on the process and results of each election, private monitors like Hidalgo only report to whoever hires them.
THEY BELIEVED SHE WAS FROM THE DBPR
Roxanna Domínguez, the Sunshine employee who manages Los Sueños, said she worked with the board of directors to collect signatures for the petition of a DBPR monitor. After obtaining the required number of signatures, Domínguez said she wrote the petition and delivered the documents to Sunshine’s offices in Miami Lakes so they would be forwarded to the Ombudsman.
The Ombudsman’s office told el Nuevo Herald and Univision 23 it never received the petition from Sunshine.
Poleo’s email said that although sufficient signatures were collected to request a monitor for the 2014 elections at Los Sueños, the number of signatures for the 2015 balloting fell short.
“And the association directors made the decision to contract the company of Mónica Hidalgo, which is legally established for that process,” Poleo wrote.
That version contradicts the statements of association president Arelys López and Domínguez, who told reporters they gathered enough signatures to request a monitor in 2015. Even two weeks ago, when they spoke with reporters, both said they were convinced that Hidalgo had been sent by the DBPR.
It’s not the first time.
In August of 2012, Ombudsman Bruce A. Campbell wrote a letter to Hidalgo telling her to stop promoting her business as having been “qualified or appointed by the Office of the Condominium Ombudsman.”
Campbell issued the warning after an owner at the Doral Oaks condominium filed a complaint that June alleging that Hidalgo had been introduced during a condo election “as a representative of the Ombudsman’s office.”
Two months later “the board members of Doral Oaks Condominium were advised of” Hidalgo’s credentials as a “State of Florida Certified Election Monitor,” according to the letter.
“I am not concerned that you may run a business conducting elections, but you may not advertise a relationship with the Condominium Ombudsman, or imply it with reference to an election monitor certified by the State of Florida,” Campbell wrote. “To obtain employment based on such representations constitutes consumer fraud.”
Hidalgo nevertheless insisted last week that she can continue to portray herself as a monitor certified by the state, just as her business cards state. She said that she received a certificate in 2009, after taking classes at a Broward college.
“That’s like any other profession,” Hidalgo said. “I paid for my education, got my degrees. And who’s going to take them away? Nobody.”
Hidalgo sent el Nuevo Herald a copy of a document that states she is “duly appointed” as an election monitor “pursuant to the provisions” of the Florida statutes that regulate condominiums. The document was issued Jan. 1, 2009, and has no expiration date.
DBPR spokesperson Chelsea Eagles said the agency does not currently certify election monitors. In the past, she added, the agency issued badges and certificates. But it stopped doing that “in response to an influx of misuse by election monitors presenting badges [and] certificates at elections in which they had not been appointed by the Ombudsman,” Eagles wrote.
BANNED BY THE DBPR
Just 14 months after Hidalgo was “duly appointed” as an election monitor, then-Ombudsman Colleen Donahue informed her that she would not be assigned to supervise any more elections because of complaints of irregularities filed by two condo complexes.
“The identification card issued to you by this office is revoked and you are requested and instructed to return it immediately,” Donahue wrote.
The complaints against Hidalgo date to January 2010, when the manager of a Hollywood condo wrote to the DBPR’s condo division alleging that on the 19th of that month Hidalgo had turned up at the association elections with her ID badge, even though the association had not petitioned the presence of a monitor.
Hidalgo “did not behave as an impartial observer but on the contrary, made all the owners present aware that she was siding with a candidate,” the manager said in the letter, obtained under a public records request. “She made every effort to find faults and irregularities in the way we handled our elections.”
That same day, according to Donahue’s letter, Hidalgo had been appointed by the state to monitor an election in another condo. Instead of going, she sent a representative who was not on the list of state-assigned monitors.
The letter adds that Hidalgo denied having been present at the Hollywood condo election, but contradicted herself in a telephone conversation with Donahue. “Several times during our conversation you talked of yourself being present at the election,” Donahue wrote.
Hidalgo blamed the DBPR for the complaints. She told reporters that the Ombudsman’s office had sometimes assigned her to work several elections on the same day and hour, and instructed her to send a representative to the ones she could not attend.
Hidalgo said she had always conducted condo elections in a neutral manner and followed state regulations, and that she has kept abreast of changes in the condo election laws and regulations.
“I am recognized and praised for my work … I don’t even have to advertise,” she said. “I was the best monitor DBPR ever had, and am still the best monitor in the state of Florida.”
Univision 23 journalist Erika Carrillo contributed to this report.