Crime

Their checks were stolen from Miami-Dade last year. Some still haven’t been reimbursed.

Michael Santana, 24, was charged this week with stealing dozens of checks worth tens of thousands of dollars that were written out to the office of the Miami-Dade County clerk, depositing them into personal bank accounts and cashing them. He’s facing a grand theft charge.
Michael Santana, 24, was charged this week with stealing dozens of checks worth tens of thousands of dollars that were written out to the office of the Miami-Dade County clerk, depositing them into personal bank accounts and cashing them. He’s facing a grand theft charge. Miami-Dade Corrections

In the fall of last year, a worker in the Miami-Dade County Clerk’s Office absconded with dozens of checks written by residents to the clerk’s office to pay for the recording of public records like marriage licenses and mortgages, police say. The checks, investigators say, were deposited and cashed in bank accounts controlled by the employee and his friends.

As for the public record documents that accompanied the checks, they were fed into a recycling bin at the recorder’s office in downtown Miami, never to be seen again.

On Tuesday police arrested David Santana, 24, and charged him with official misconduct and grand theft. Public corruption investigators say he stole 53 checks made out to the clerk of the court totaling more than $30,000, squiggled a name on the back of them and cashed them in bank accounts belonging to his girlfriend and another friend.

This week, Clerk of the Court Harvey Ruvin promised that all of the 53 missing documents had been recorded. But the re-do hasn’t come without a financial cost. And for many of the people who were ripped off, the hassle of re-creating the documents has been time consuming.

That’s because under state law Ruvin’s office isn’t permitted to record a document until it has received payment. So not only were the victims forced to write new costly checks to cover the stolen ones, but in many cases they had to contact attorneys to re-create the voluminous records that were tossed and destroyed in the recycling bin.

The onus on the reimbursement for the stolen checks, the county contends, is on the banks that cashed the checks. Now, six months later, several victims still have not been reimbursed for their initial checks as the banks continue to investigate exactly what went wrong.

“As of March 6, 2019, I have not been paid back what was stolen,” said attorney Luis Fernandez, who wrote an initial $1,300 check to the clerk’s office in September to record a warranty deed and a mortgage. In December, without having been reimbursed, he wrote another check for the same. “I’m stuck in bureaucratic red tape.”

It wasn’t clear this week exactly how many people had not been reimbursed. Ruvin said he believes most of the 30 or so people who wrote the 53 checks have gotten their money back. It also wasn’t clear which banks Santana used to deposit the checks because the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office had not released Santana’s arrest warrant outlining the details of the scheme by Thursday.

Ruvin, who said each victim was notified in writing after an office audit managed to identify the writers of the stolen checks, said his staff is willing to testify on anyone’s behalf who was wronged.

“I’m very confident people will be fully reimbursed by the bank that made the error,” said Tony Gonzalez, a director in the recording office. “We can testify for them.”

According to investigators, Santana’s check-stealing scheme was simple. When no one was looking, he scooped up dozens of checks and tossed the documents that accompanied them into a recycling bin. Then, in most cases, he wrote an unintelligible signature on the back of a check and deposited it into one of seven bank accounts controlled by his friends.

Ruvin said Santana was suspended without pay in January after the scam was uncovered and tied to him. He’s since been fired. State records show that in November, before he was identified by the county as the perpetrator, Santana was arrested by Coconut Creek police for carrying a concealed weapon without a permit after he was ticketed for a non-moving traffic violation.

The Miami Herald’s attempts to reach Santana this week were unsuccessful.

Ruvin said since the problem his department has added more firewalls to curtail any future thefts. He wouldn’t go into detail about the safety nets, saying disclosing them would give an advantage to anyone with ill intentions. He was adamant about not placing cameras in the clerk’s office, feeling it was an invasion of privacy.

Still, the clerk of the courts said, “The public can rest assured that our office is vigilant and along with law enforcement, will safeguard the public record to the full extent of the law.”

Chuck Rabin, writing news stories for the Miami Herald for the past three decades, covers cops and crime. Before that he covered the halls of government for Miami-Dade and the city of Miami. He’s covered hurricanes, the 2000 presidential election and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas mass shooting. On a random note: Long before those assignments, Chuck was pepper-sprayed covering the disturbances in Miami the morning Elián Gonzalez was whisked away by federal authorities.
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