Criminal penalties in proposed condo law spur controversy in Tallahassee
Miami Herald
By Brenda Medina

The condo reform bill has been signed into law.

The Florida condo reform bill is moving forward in the state Legislature, but the controversy between those who are in favor of and those who are against criminalizing certain infractions could intensify in the coming weeks.

The bill, led by Miami-Dade lawmakers, seeks to make condo electoral fraud a crime, such as falsifying signatures for condominium elections, and to create penalties for retaining documents to which homeowners are entitled. But lawmakers are facing resistance from colleagues, lobbyists and lawyers who do not favor new criminal punishment.

“We’ve figured out that there is really no teeth in some of the laws that apply to condos and associations,” Republican Sen. René García, of Miami-Dade, said during a committee meeting.

“Our residents feel that they are living in third world countries, almost, with totalitarian regimes, where they are being intimidated and told what they need to do in their associations,” added García, who is cosponsoring the bill with Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, a Democrat.

The bill was recently presented in the Senate’s Regulated Industries Committee, where it was preliminarily approved in an 8-2 vote.

Miami-Dade lawmakers have already made several changes to the bill related to language and other technicalities, but insist that criminal punishments (which in some cases would lead to imprisonment) are an essential part of the reform plan. The bill is now under consideration by the Senate’s Rules Committee (SB 1682) and House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee (HB 1237), which is scheduled to vote Thursday.

The reform proposal was submitted a year after el Nuevo Herald and Univisión 23 published the series “Condo Nightmare,” an investigation that revealed cases of electoral fraud, forgery, conflicts of interest, alleged misappropriation of funds and fraudulent bids in several South Florida condominiums.

Those who oppose all or several of the criminal punishments insist that criminalizing offenses that should be handled as a civil matter — such as fines — would discourage homeowners, who would then not want to become condo board members. They argue that the new rules could end up accidentally punishing board members for making mistakes.

“We’re dealing with about 36-40,000 associations, and there are certainly those that are bad actors,” said Travis Moore, a lobbyist with the Community Associations Institute (CAI), who testified before the Senate committee. “We are trying to regulated those ... but without affecting the volunteers that serve in many of the other associations in a positive way.”

Moore said his biggest concern is that, in the absence of board members, the associations would have to be managed by a court-appointed receiver. This, Moore said, would particularly affect associations at small condominium complexes, where there aren’t many owners willing to take on volunteer board positions.

In any case, stronger regulations are needed, said Miami-Dade County Commissioner José “Pepe” Díaz and North Bay Village Commissioner Andreana Jackson, who appeared before the committee in Tallahassee to advocate for reforms.

“These problems have seriously impacted many people who do not have the financial means to defend themselves, to go to court to recover money that, many times, has been stolen from them by members of some boards,” Díaz said.

Richard Pinsky, a lawyer and lobbyist, who represents property owners on behalf of Cyber Citizens for Justice, said the condo fraud cases are not an exclusive problem for Miami-Dade County.

“This affects a lot of people across Florida and, on behalf of those living in condominiums, we support the bill,” Pinsky said.

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