Crime

Citizens adjuster, busted in insurance scam, kept working. Cops knew. Company didn’t.

Eric Garcia-Cebollero
Eric Garcia-Cebollero Miami Herald

Eric Garcia-Cebollero worked as a high-ranking claims adjuster for Citizens Property Insurance, the state-run company that insures hundreds of thousands of Florida homeowners. He boasted over two decades of experience in the field, and had wide authority to approve large claims for homes and businesses damaged by floods and fires.

He also was crooked, according to court records, routinely shaking down homeowners and companies for bribes.

Police first busted him in 2015 — the investigation was dubbed “Operation Bad Citizen” — but he went right on working for Citizens anyway, secretly helping authorities make criminal cases against some of the people who had paid him illegal kickbacks. This week, as a result of his cooperation, Miami-Dade police arrested four more people on allegations of bribery, conspiracy and insurance fraud.

Citizens, it turns out, had no idea that its trusted employee had gone rogue and was doubling as an undercover police operative. Nobody in law enforcement told the company, and a judge later sealed and expunged Garcia-Cebollero’s record after Miami-Dade prosecutors dropped the charges after he agreed to flip on his partners in crime. He served no jail or prison time.

And his name has been redacted from the latest arrest warrants, even though he is a key witness.

Garcia-Cebollero’s defense attorney declined to comment. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office also declined to comment; by law, prosecutors cannot comment on or even acknowledge cases that have been sealed and expunged.

But Garcia-Cebollero’s identity and the record of his insurance scams, however, remain in public court documents filed last year against two of the men he helped bust.

“It’s shocking to me. His case was dismissed before any of the people he cooperated against were convicted,” said defense lawyer Esther Alcaraz, who is is representing Jose “Tony” Lara Rodriguez, one of the men charged last year because of Garcia-Cebollero’s cooperation.

Lara_Mug
Jose “Tony” Lara Rodriguez Miami-Dade Police

“He was allowed to seal and expunge his record. What incentive does he have now to cooperate and testify? He was the catalyst for all of this and he gets to continue on his merry way while others are facing significant prison time.”

The company said it has no idea Garcia-Cebollero had ever been arrested for corruption — until a Miami Herald reporter emailed a spokesman for comment on Friday. He continued working with Citizens until December, when he resigned, said spokesman Michael Peltier.

“Citizens was unaware of Mr. Garcia-Cebollero’s arrest and has immediately turned this matter over to its Inspector General to investigate, encouraging him to access outside resources if warranted,” Peltier said in a statement. “The investigation will include an evaluation of all internal claims controls and procedures.”

Created in 2002, Citizens is Florida’s state-run insurer for home and business owners who can’t get coverage in the private market. It’s a government program financed by the premiums of nearly 440,000 policyholders statewide.

Garcia-Cebollero, 59, had worked for Citizens for more than six years as a “large loss specialist.” He was allowed to approve payments for losses of up to $50,000.

The criminal investigation began in April 2015 after an employee of a Florida City restoration company complained to police that Garcia-Cebollero demanded a 10 percent cut of money paid out by Citizens to repair a home damaged by fire.

laundry31 Citizens BIZ RRG
Citizens Property Insurance, a state-run company, represents hundreds of thousands of Florida businesses and homeowners. In this file photo, a North Miami homeowner shows water damage in a laundry room in 2006. Ronna Gradus Miami Herald file

Police arranged an undercover operation with the restoration company employee, who met with Garcia-Cebollero to pay a $3,800 “cash bribe.” After the deal went down, detectives immediately arrested Garcia-Cebollero, whom prosecutors considered a “public servant” because Citizens is a quasi-public entity.

“Mr. Garcia-Cebollero admitted to taking bribes on other Citizens insurance claims. The bribes came from homeowners, public adjusters, construction companies, restoration companies, and commercial dry cleaning companies,” according to an arrest warrant. “Mr. Garcia-Cebollero also took bribes from vendors who were doing business with Citizens.”

He immediately agreed to cooperate with police and prosecutors, returning to work at Citizens to build cases against others. His undercover work led to the arrest of Lara, who was the manager at Sir Galloway Cleaners, which often contracted with Citizens to clean clothes, fabrics and bedding damaged in fires and floods.

Prosecutors said Lara agreed to give Garcia-Cebollero ongoing payments for business referrals. At one secretly recorded meeting at Doral Starbucks, Lara gave Garcia-Cebollero a box with $1,220 cash for referring two clients, as well as a stainless steel coffee mug “with the Sir Galloway logo imprinted on it,” according to an arrest warrant. On another occasion, Lara gave him $500 cash for referring a contract that was later billed to Citizens, police said.

Lara was charged last year and remains awaiting trial. Mark Mills, the owner of Sir Galloway, was also charged in June 2017 but prosecutors dismissed the case six months later.

This week, police arrested four others based on Garcia-Cebollero’s cooperation from that time period. They are:

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Adela Pinilla Miami-Dade Police

▪ Jorge and Adela Pinilla, a couple accused of paying $3,000 cash in exchange for being allowed to submit a fraudulent claim to Citizens. It was unclear if they had retained defense attorneys.

▪ Ernesto Quinoa, a private public adjuster, who is alleged to have made a deal with Garcia-Cebollero to pay a 15 percent “bribe” on referrals to his business. His defense lawyers, Carl Kafka and Erick Cruz, declined to comment.

▪ Daniel Leon, who runs Leon Restoration, has also been charged with conspiring to commit bribery. It was unclear if he had retained a defense lawyer.

A fifth defendant, Angel Gutierrez, of Gutierrez Restoration, also faces allegations that he agreed to pay a 15 percent “bribe” on referrals from Citizens. He has yet to be arrested.

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