Condo fraud laws must be strengthened, say politicians & police
12 May 2016
It was an open secret.
For years, the allegations of fraud, financial mismanagement and other
violations in Miami-Dade condominiums had been reaching the ears of
government officials, some of them now confess.
Yet proposals to strengthen condo laws and regulations in the last two
state legislative sessions in Tallahassee never were approved. Police
departments kept referring complainants to civil courts or the state
Department of Business and Professional Regulations (DBPR), which
supervises some condo-related issues. And the DBPR insisted it did not
have the authority to investigate many of the complaints.
But now the issue has jumped into the public spotlight, following an
investigation by el Nuevo Herald and Univision 23, and groups of condo
owners who are organizing to make themselves heard.
In an election year...
In an election year, the scandals have forced several public officials
to address a problem that some county residents fear will only get
worse as more and more condos are built in Miami-Dade.
“We have to realize that a lot of times the government is reactive,”
state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla said during a panel discussion
last week organized by the Brickell Neighbors Association.
Also at the meeting were county commissioner Xavier Suarez; Raquel
Regalado, a school board member who is running for the county mayor's
job; Miami commissioner Ken Russell; and state Rep. Jose Javier
Rodriguez, who is running against Diaz de la Portilla.
“We swing things in one direction, and then you sit it out and you see
what happens with that, then in two years we swing in another
direction,” added Diaz de la Portilla, referring to the last round of
changes in condo laws and regulations approved in 2008, which
“restricted” the power of the DBPR “to police” the associations of
Moderator Rosa de la Camara, a lawyer with the firm Becker &
Poliakoff, asked Diaz what can be done to avoid the annual “sweep” of
money from the Condominium Trust Fund. Condo owners pay into the fund
$4 per year for each condo unit. (There are about 1.6 million units in
Florida, nearly 40 percent of then in Miami-Dade and Broward). Since
2009, however, the state has been spending part of the money on other
issues, drawing criticism from lawmakers and advocates for condo owners.
we have a toothless DBPR
“Part of the problem is that in reality we have a toothless DBPR, with
really not enough personnel and enough resources to enforce the law,”
said Diaz de la Portilla, who added the agency should be given all the
money when it receives more power. “By giving them the teeth that they
need to enforce the law, then you tie those dollars to those functions
and you put it in a lock-box, so to speak.”
Rodriguez said part of the problem is that proposals for legislative
changes that would give more power to condo owners to control their
condos and regulate associations never get anywhere in Tallahassee.
“Unfortunately, to get a lot of these proposals approved, sometimes it
takes a crisis, because there are a lot of forces lobbying for the
status quo and against the rights of individual homeowners,” said
Rodriguez, who described dealing with the DBPR as “frustrating” because
the agency will ask owners to “basically prove their cases” and produce
the evidence before an investigation can be launched.
“Almost in every case, if the homeowners are fortunate and they have a
lot of neighbors involved, they can affect the character of their board
and get changes that way. For some buildings, that is not an option and
they have to hire outside counsel. That’s a horrible situation for
homeowners,” said Rodriguez, who used to work with condo owners in
low-income areas during his tenure at Dade Legal Aid.
“People should call their representatives, the officials, and tell
them, 'Hey, use the power you do have to give the money (to the DBPR).
Use the authority you have, even if it's limited.”
Regalado said condo owners in Miami-Dade cannot wait for changes in
Tallahassee to resolve problems in their complexes.
“The truth is that it takes more than one (legislative) session to get
any (legal reforms) passed,” she said. “Usually two or three years. It
has to be something really strong to pass on the first try.”
“Before talking about creating new laws or giving laws more teeth,
let's talk about what we can do now,” Regalado added.
the result of negligence
Regalado, who is running against county Mayor Carlos Gimenez,
criticized the shortage of police agents assigned to investigate
condominium frauds. “This problem has been the result of negligence,”
The Miami-Dade police department launched an investigation after el
Nuevo Herald and Univision 23 documented a string of scandals,
including electoral fraud and scams on contract awards, never addressed
by local or state officials despite complaints from owners.
Police Chief Juan Perez has said the department would begin to record
and investigate complaints of condo crimes and promised to support
creating a special task force proposed by Commissioner Bruno Barreiro.
Gimenez met with condo owners in April and promised to go to
Tallahassee to support an effort to strengthen condo laws and
regulations proposed by state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz.
During an April protest in Doral by hundreds of condo owners,
organizers stressed that they wanted officials to fulfill the promises
they had made.
“We don't want this to remain just promises,” said William Mendieta,
resident of the Las Vistas condos in Doral.