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Nov 20th
A Tale of Two Condos PDF Print E-mail
Written by Francisco Alvarado, BT Contributor; Photos by Benjamin Thacker   
November 2018

Skimming, kickbacks, and other crimest

Residents of Aventura’s Coronado and Admiral’s Port condominiums were ripped off. But just how bad was it? Who exactly was involved? And why is it so hard to get answers?

OCoverShot_11-18n March 30 of this year, Francisca Wildi marched into the property management office of the Coronado Condominium, an Aventura complex of three high-rise residential towers built along West Country Club Drive in the 1970s. The 75-year-old unit owner was on a mission to look at her condominium association’s finances.

Since her election in 2017 to the condo’s board of directors, she and two other newly elected unit owners had become increasingly concerned about wasteful spending and lawsuits with contractors, she tells Biscayne Times.

“I didn’t like what I was seeing,” Wildi says. “I took it very seriously and began asking questions because it is our money.”

Earlier this year, after two more neighbors she’d supported won seats to the nine-member board, her side now had a five-vote majority. Wildi was named secretary, a position that allowed her to dig deeper into the association’s bank records. She explains that only the president, vice president, treasurer, and secretary have access to statements for the Coronado’s operating account, held in the Aventura branch of City National Bank.

Two weeks later she met with then-assistant property manager Ximena Lama and asked to see the past year’s bank statements, according to an Aventura police investigative report. That’s when Lama made a startling revelation. She told Wildi that the account had been closed owing to fraudulent activity and handed over documents related to the incident, the report states.

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One of the papers was a bank statement showing a series of automated transfers that began on September 29, 2017, with $4870 being deposited into a TD Bank account in the name of one Maria Lola. Twenty days later, another $4790 had been transferred to the TD Bank account. Between Halloween of last year and February 27, 18 more transfers went through, ranging between $2000 and $4900, according to the report. In all, over the time period Wildi examined, more than $72,000 had been siphoned from the association’s operating account into the one parked at TD Bank.

Another document she read was a March 6, 2018, fraud affidavit used to close the account, completed and signed by Jeffrey Luxenberg, who was the association’s president from February 2016 to March 13 -- which was also the day Wildi was appointed secretary, and her ally and new board member Joanne Orizal took over as president.

Yet Luxenberg, Lama, and then-property manager Caroline Pinsky hadn’t bothered to inform the eight other board members at the March 13 meeting, much less report the theft to authorities, Wildi alleges. It was she who filed a complaint with the Aventura Police Department the same day Lama finally told her what had happened. Luxenberg, who remains a director, declined to comment for this story.

“If you’re the president, treasurer, or secretary, you have a fiduciary duty to report something like this to the rest of the board,” Wildi tells the BT. “If I hadn’t found out, nothing would have happened. It doesn’t make any sense.”


SCoverStory_2ix months later, Aventura Police detectives traced the TD Bank account to a branch in the Shenandoah neighborhood of Miami belonging to a woman with the first name Maria and second name Lola. Her last name is Martin, but it did not appear in the City National Bank document listing the automated transfers. According to the investigative report, the 33-year-old Martin was arrested and charged with second-degree grand theft and organized fraud on August 2.

Despite the bust, Wildi says, she is still seeking answers about Martin and whether she had any connections to people associated with her condominium. After all, Martin wasn’t a Coronado employee, wasn’t a contractor for the building, and doesn’t own a unit there. But Wildi suspects Martin had help from someone with access to Coronado’s bank account information.

“There is probably more money involved, but there’s no way to account for it,” Wildi says. “And there is no way this ‘Maria Lola’ person was working alone.”

The chances that Wildi will ever find out exactly what happened are highly unlikely, even though both state Republican and Democratic lawmakers have promised hundreds of thousands of condo owners like her that scofflaw employees and board members engaged in unethical and criminal acts would go to prison.

During the 2017 Florida legislative session, the State House and Senate passed a bipartisan bill, and Gov. Rick Scott signed it, that attached criminal penalties to a slew of illicit behaviors, such as tampering with ballots for board elections and manipulating condo association records, that have long plagued condominium and homeowner associations.

Yet critics contend that the new law has yet to produce any meaningful indictments or prosecutions of rogue condo association operators.

“I see this not just with this case,” says Russell Jacobs, attorney for the Coronado condo association. “We’ve uncovered instances of fraud that are neatly wrapped up in a bow that are not getting prosecuted. If there was a crackdown, it would curtail it.”

Instead there are a lot of frustrated condo owners like Wildi. “It’s very discouraging,” she says. “There are a lot of bad things going on with condos. But when we go to the authorities, no one pays attention.”


TCoverStory_3ahe first case to be brought under the new law involved an administrator working at Admiral’s Port, another Aventura condominium complex comprising twin 22-story towers on NE 183rd Street. It began with rolls of video footage, some taken in a laundry room, one in a manager’s office, and more in the office of an Aventura police detective.

For starters, picture Donovan Staley as he enters the corridor leading to the laundry room inside the east building of Admiral’s Port. A surveillance camera captures the 33-year-old property manager as he approaches the machine that takes cash and converts it to credit onto “smart cards” used for the washers and dryers. The west building also has a smart-card machine. The date on the footage reads August 1, 2017.

A walkie-talkie dangles from the left pocket of his neatly pressed slacks, and he’s in a crisp long-sleeved, buttoned-down shirt. He wears his gelled hair in a clean side part.

As the camera hovers over him, Staley unlocks the machine. He turns around as if to see whether anyone is watching, opens the machine, and stuffs a wad of green bills from it into his right pants pocket. After relocking it, he steps away, out of camera view. Over the next two weeks, surveillance cameras capture Staley repeating the same ritual.

An employee of Castle Group, the property management company hired by the Admiral’s Port condo association board, Staley was responsible for negotiating contracts with vendors, making sure contractors got paid, and acting as a safeguard for monies collected from the card-loading machines.

“We felt he was a good manager,” says Jaye Chipy, who was Admiral’s Port vice president until March of this year, and has since sold her unit. “And we were happy with Castle.” Linda Goldman, who served as the association’s secretary alongside Chipy, agrees, noting that “everybody liked him.”

It turns out, Staley was breaking the rules for collecting cash from the machine, according to a sworn statement to police given by Nina Marcovich, who served as Admiral’s Port treasurer with Chipy and Goldman. Every time cash was taken out, Marcovich explained, a form had to be filled out detailing the amount of the collection, and then verified by four people: herself, Staley, the building engineer, and a resident picked at random. The funds would then be deposited monthly, as card-machine revenues, into one of the bank accounts for Admiral’s Port.

“One day a maintenance worker brought the video surveillance to our attention,” Chipy says. “We watched it, and we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. It was incredible. Donovan was hitting the machines frequently.”

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Armed with the footage, Chipy went to the Aventura Police Department and filed a complaint on August 3, 2017. The same day, Det. Thomas Mundy interviewed Doug Waller, the maintenance worker who’d tipped off the board members and had more allegations to reveal about Staley.

Waller, a husky man with sandy hair, gave a video-recorded sworn statement in which he accused Staley of having pilfered the laundry-card machines for more than six months. (Staley, who was arrested on August 22, 2017, declined through his attorney, Omar Johanssen, to comment for this story.)

Sitting at a cramped table inside an Aventura Police Department interview room, Waller claimed that he and other employees, including a security guard, knew about the alleged thefts but were afraid to come forward because Staley was their boss.

“The security guard would text me to let me know Donovan was hitting the ATM again,” Waller told Mundy. “That’s what we called the laundry-card machine.”

Waller said Staley tried to force him to accept some of the money he was stealing. “I walked into my office and an envelope is sitting on my desk,” Waller said in his statement. “There was $615 in it. Donovan then sent me a text saying, ‘A little gratitude goes a long way.’ That’s when I called Jaye [Chipy].”

Waller then dropped an even bigger bombshell. He said he decided to rat on Staley because, he claimed, his boss and an Admiral’s Port board member were soliciting kickbacks from contractors working on the property’s 40-year recertification project, a Miami-Dade and Broward County requirement of building safety inspection and certification.

In his statement, Waller also alleged that one company paid Staley and the board member a $9000 kickback, and that Medley-based Safety Electric, an electrical contractor he’d recommended, had reluctantly agreed to pay the pair kickbacks to win a job for the 40-year certification.

According to the quote submitted in his June 20, 2017, bid for the job, Alexander Lopez, Safety Electric’s owner, expected the company’s work for the 40-year certification to total $12,800. Waller told the detective that “Donovan told me to call Alex up and tell him to add three grand to the quote.

“I took Alex to the rooftop and let him know what he was up against,” Waller added. “Alex told me he didn’t feel comfortable with this.”

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Regardless, Lopez submitted a second invoice with a new price quote: $15,800. Waller claims that Staley then made the electrical contractor doctor a third invoice for $18,800 that included $6000 meant for the property manager and the board member.

However, after Lopez completed the job and his company was paid, he had second thoughts about paying the kickbacks. When contacted by the BT, Lopez declined comment.

“Donovan has been e-mailing and calling him,” Waller told the police detective. “He’s been blowing up my phone, asking, where the hell is Alex.”

After interviewing Waller, Detective Mundy contacted Lopez, who agreed to speak with the detective. In addition to corroborating Waller’s sworn statement, Lopez agreed to participate in an undercover sting against Staley.

On August 22, 2017, the detective set up a hidden camera inside the property management office of Admiral’s Port before Staley arrived for work. Lopez was already there, too. Footage shows Lopez handing Staley an envelope containing $6000 while they sit at a desk. After Lopez leaves, Mundy, who declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article, enters the room and explains to Staley that he is being placed under arrest on charges of organized fraud, unlawful use of a communications device, and two counts of grand theft for taking money from the laundry-card machines and the kickbacks.

The investigation left board members shocked, according to Goldman, the former secretary. “Donovan fooled everybody,” she says. “What he did -- no one saw it coming.”


A CoverStory_6aslim woman with raven hair, Francisca Wildi sits in a chair inside a conference room in one of the three towers of the Coronado Condominium. She is flanked by unit owners Chaia Rotem, Digna Flores, and Paul Duggal, who were all also elected to Coronado’s board of directors this past March.

“It’s been more than five months since I made my complaint to Aventura police,” Wildi says. “I had to call Detective Mundy to find out that they’d made an arrest. But he didn’t give me any other information on who Maria Martin is. To me, it looked like a fictitious name. We still don’t have a lot of answers.”

Wildi claims she has been unable to get answers from Luxenberg, who filled out the fraud affidavit, and that Pinsky, the property manager at the time, quit her job on March 28, the same day Wildi went to the Aventura Police Department. FirstService Residential, the company that managed Coronado and employed Pinsky, hasn’t helped either, she alleges.

In April, Detective Mundy obtained a subpoena for the TD Bank account, according to the police investigative report. Bank records show that Martin opened the account in early August 2017. The detective identified deposits that matched withdrawals made from the Coronado’s bank account. On August 2, 2018, Mundy arrested and charged Martin with organized fraud, grand theft, and offenses against computer users. At her arraignment in early October, Martin pleaded not guilty. She did not return two messages on the voicemail of the cell phone listed in her arrest report.

Still, Mundy didn’t find any links to FirstService Residential employees or board members. “Maria Martin didn’t work for Coronado,” says Russell Jacobs, the association’s attorney. “We thought it was a fabricated name. The problem with ACH transfers is that all you need is a voided check. Certainly the management company could have done a better job reconciling things. We are still only learning who she is.”

Jacobs says that as a result of City National Bank’s internal investigation, the $72,000 was returned to the Coronado condo association. He adds that the bank is still assisting the ongoing police investigation.

In May, Coronado’s board voted to replace FirstService with Sunrise Management, with offices in Plantation.

Paul Duggal, an 80-year-old retired engineer who owns three apartments at Coronado, says that he and Wildi ran for seats on the nine-member board of directors because the property has been neglected and mismanaged for years.

“I pay $1600 a month in maintenance, and for what?” he asks. “Look at our corridors. All of them are shabby. Our elevators were supposed to be done and inspected in July 2017. It still hasn’t happened.”

CoverStory_6bDuggal rattles off a number of poor management decisions that have plagued Coronado in recent years. “One time the board approved $17,000 in bonuses for FirstService employees,” he says. “We had a pool-fixing contract for $300,000. It ended up costing $1.3 million. Then we had a company install [key] fobs for $106,000, and it ended up being $300,000 without any change orders or documentation. This association needs to be thoroughly investigated.”

Executives in the Dania Beach office of Toronto-based FirstService Residential did not return two messages seeking comment. “It’s a real, real mess here,” Duggal says. “So much money has been going out.”

Wildi is convinced that Maria Lola Martin had an inside accomplice. “I don’t believe she acted alone,” she says. “The property management company handled the accounting. How did they not see all this money going out? How do they not reconcile the accounts? And if you’re the president of the board, how do you keep it to yourself?”

Wildi says she and Duggal have been trying to get a forensic audit of their books conducted but are being met with resistance by other board members. “We need to get to the bottom of this to find out who else was involved,” Wildi says. “The only way to do it is to conduct a forensic audit. But that hasn’t been approved by the board.”

According to Duggal, it’s an uphill battle fighting to reform the board because a majority of Coronado’s residents are senior citizens who can’t stand up for themselves. “A lot of people here are elderly and on Social Security,” he says. “Some have trouble walking. You feel bad for them.”


HCoverStory_5aours after Mundy arrested Donovan Staley on August 22, 2017, on charges of ripping off the laundry-card machines and accepting kickbacks, he and Aventura Police Chief Brian Pregues joined Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle for a press conference about the bust. Flanked by the Aventura police officials and state Senators Rene Garcia and José Javier Rodriguez, Rundle hailed Staley’s arrest as the first under the new condo law approved by the state legislature. A large poster of Staley’s mugshot with a list of the charges against him served as a backdrop.

“Donovan Staley abused the trust of the condo directors and owners to line his own pockets,” Rundle said. “We want the community to know that the new law is going to make a difference.”

Garcia, who co-sponsored the legislation with Rodriguez, claimed that Staley’s arrest sends a message that authorities and politicians were done with “rogue association members” and “fraudulent activity going on at these associations.”

“It stops today,” he said. “With today’s arrest, it sends a strong message that the community is not going to stand for this type of behavior anymore.”

Yet Admiral’s Port board members had no advance notice of the press conference, according to Jaye Chipy, or its aftermath.

“The Aventura police weren’t very forthcoming with information,” she says. “Next thing we know, Rundle is holding this big press conference, waving a life-size poster of Donovan’s mugshot. We were like: ‘They are really going to put a stop to this.’ Then it just fizzled out.”

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According to the Staley investigative report, Mundy found no evidence backing Waller’s claims that a board member was in cahoots with the property manager. Meanwhile, Staley’s trial date has been postponed several times since his arrest. His next hearing is scheduled for December 5. He has pleaded not guilty. “I don’t know if they’re hoping people are going to forget,” says Chipy. “But I’m not. Donovan did so much damage.”

Staley’s alleged improprieties sent the Admiral’s Port 40-year-recertification into a tailspin. “When Donovan was arrested, it all came to a screeching halt,” explains Chipy. “The parking lot was turned upside down due to all the construction equipment there.”

She says the board was hoping the investigation would continue efforts to determine if any other contractors were paying kickbacks. “We had some faith in the people doing the investigation,” Chipy says. “It set back the construction schedule tremendously, not to mention we also had to change the property management company. Anything Donovan had touched became questionable.”

Castle Group tried to hold on to the management job, claiming that Donovan was a rogue employee, Chipy says. Company officials didn’t respond to three phone messages seeking comment. Like Detective Mundy, Aventura Police Chief Pregues declined comment through a spokesman.

CoverStory_5cThe fallout also led to a complete turnover of the Admiral’s Port board. Even though Chipy, Nina Marcovich, and a third board member had assisted the investigation, they were voted out in early March. The six new board members all declined speak to the BT, citing a desire to move on from the scandal or a lack of knowledge about the case. “They think it isn’t too good for Admiral’s Port reputation,” says France Soude, who was an Admiral’s Port director until July of this year.

The current president, Judy Pasternak, adds, “The current [directors] and I were not on the board last year. This is a criminal case and an ongoing investigation. We have no knowledge pertaining to this case.”

“Kathy Fernandez Rundle said she would make an example out of [Staley],” Chipy grouses. “It was just a very sad ending.”

Ed Griffith, Rundle’s spokesman, says he can’t comment on the specifics of Staley’s case. However, he says, it is moving along at a normal pace: “The overall pace of a criminal prosecution can always seem too slow for those individuals who may feel victimized by a particular defendant. However, the exact pace of a criminal case is normally dictated by the legal activity generated by courtroom actions.”


ACoverStory_7s she sits inside the Coronado Condominium’s conference room with her fellow unit owners, Francisca Wildi wonders how long she’ll be able to continue fighting to learn more about the illegal bank transfers to Maria Lola Martin. “I’m the one who keeps calling the detective to ask what is happening,” she says. “I’m really surprised at how slow the law works here in Florida.”

Russell Jacobs, the Coronado board’s attorney, claims the new condo laws have not enhanced the ability of prosecutors to prosecute crimes involving condo associations. “The State Attorney is not doing enough to prosecute those cases, and it’s giving criminals a heightened sense that they can get away with it,” he says. “Prosecutors claim to be overwhelmed, and that’s why the cases take so long to conclude.”

Spokesman Griffith insists that Rundle and law enforcement agencies are taking the problem seriously. An assistant state attorney in the economic crimes division is focusing on condo crimes.

“That work is supplemented by the activities of the Miami-Dade Police Department’s condo crimes unit and the work of the Miami Beach and Aventura police departments, which also work condo crime investigations,” Griffith says. “Presently, we have 12 active ongoing condo investigations, but that number can change, depending on the information and evidence brought to the police by individual complainants.”

Griffith also notes that condo crime investigations are very “paper intensive.” “It always takes time to develop these cases, which is often exasperating for condo residents,” he says. “Our American system of justice requires concrete evidence and cooperative witnesses willing to come forward to testify for a case to successfully lead to a criminal conviction, beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Wildi, who purchased her first Coronado unit 18 years ago and her second unit 15 years ago, says she’s been struggling to reform the condo association for nearly two years.

“Before this latest incident with Maria Lola, three of us filed a complaint with the state attorney general and a state senator whose office is in Kendall,” she says. “But we don’t hear anything or get a response. Nobody cares.”

 

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