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Articles Posted in Fraud, Theft and Abuse

A recent case from Leesburg, Florida, illustrates why community associations should avoid issuing and using debit cards in the name of the association.

According to a recent report by Leesburg News (www.Leesburg-News.com), John Joseph O’Connor was arrested and stands accused of stealing nearly $3,000 from the Coachwood Colony HOA by making multiple ATM withdrawals with the association’s debit card shortly after he resigned as president. The transactions were discovered by the association’s new treasurer, who reviewed the bank statements after joining its board of directors and discovered nine unauthorized ATM withdrawals totaling $2,972.

The astute treasurer contacted the bank and was told that the debit card used for all the transactions was the one issued to O’Connor.

cwood-300x161The Lake County Sheriff’s Office was notified, and a deputy questioned O’Connor who said he lost his wallet with the HOA’s debit card and had reported it to the bank. However, further investigation revealed that he had never reported the card missing, and ATM surveillance video proved to be incriminating. He was arrested and released on a $7,000 bond, and is scheduled to appear in Lake County Court on May 31.

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Gary-Mars-2021-2-200x300The firm’s latest Miami Herald “Real Estate Counselor” column authored by Gary M. Mars featured in today’s Neighbors section is titled “Possible $8M Fraud Against Florida Community Associations is a Wake-Up Call.”  The article, which is the second of two parts, is on a developing case from Southwest Florida that appears to be one of the largest incidents of fraud and embezzlement ever inflicted on community associations in the state.  It reads:

. . . An excellent Naples Daily News/The News-Press investigation has found that the associations are reporting more than $8 million has been taken from their accounts. Association directors have told the journalists that APMS took sole control of their Wells Fargo Bank accounts by telling them to sign new signature cards but then never submitting them to the bank.

The ordeal that these communities are now undergoing is horrific, and many of us who provide essential services for associations in Florida have been impacted by this case. We shake our heads in disgust at the brazen actions that appear to have taken place, while also hoping that we have successfully helped every association we work with to avoid the potential for any such malfeasance.

Herald-clip-for-blog-4-24-22-297x300The association board members and bankers that appear to have been hoodwinked in this case had in all likelihood grown to trust APMS and its owners wholeheartedly. That would likely explain how the state-licensed property management company allegedly succeeded in securing, submitting and executing all of the necessary documentation in order to remove the community associations and their directors from their own bank accounts. Apparently, the necessary red flags did not go up, resulting in the success of the scheme.

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Gary-Mars-2021-2-200x300The firm’s latest Miami Herald “Real Estate Counselor” column authored by Gary M. Mars appears in today’s “Neighbors” section under the headline “Southwest Florida Community Associations Appear to Fall Victim to Massive Fraud.”  The article focuses on what appears to be one of the largest cases of fraud and embezzlement ever committed against Florida community associations that is now unfolding in Southwest Florida.  Gary’s article reads:

. . . Association directors, and also to some extent the property managers they retain, have control over communities’ purse strings, and for some enclaves we are talking about multiple millions of dollars per year. Such amounts under the control of so few have made condominiums and HOAs a favorite target of crooks and fraudsters for generations. Swindlers have embezzled millions of dollars from communities, before getting caught and facing the music in the vast majority of cases.

An excellent Naples Daily News/The News-Press investigation that remains ongoing appears to reveal sadly yet another example of the type of rampant fraud that can be inflicted on communities.

Herald-clip-for-blog-4-10-22-349x1024The case stems from an initial lawsuit filed by the Compass Point South at Windstar condominium association in Naples last April against American Property Management Services, owner Orlando Miserandino Ortiz, and his wife and co-owner Lina Munoz Posada. It alleges that the association and its board members lost access to their Wells Fargo Bank accounts because APMS did not add their names to the accounts, effectively locking them out.

The case was expanded in January with a new lawsuit listing 24 additional plaintiffs and new allegations, including that there is good cause to believe that the owners have left the U.S. and have been residing in Colombia for more than a year. Both complaints allege Miserandino placed funds in accounts that only he could access, preventing the associations from keeping tabs on or accessing their money. According to interviews by the journalists with the association directors, APMS took sole control of their accounts by telling them to sign signature cards but then never submitting them to the bank.

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Recent news reports chronicle the tale of a former Marco Island city council member who was charged with three counts of forgery of a ballot envelope and three counts of criminal use of personal identification information, which is third-degree felony, in his condominium association’s annual board of directors election.

The reports from the Naples Daily News and several Southwest Florida television stations indicate Victor Rios, 78, was charged with forging ballots for the Belize Condominium Association election to remain a board member. Several ballots for the property’s March 2019 condo election were cast under the names of residents who testified that they had not voted in the election, and their signatures on the outer ballot envelopes were forgeries.

FDLElogo-150x150Complaints alleging election fraud were filed with the state’s Division of Condominiums under the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, and with the Marco Island Police Department. MIPD subsequently asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the matter because Rios was a sitting city council member at the time.

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Nicole-Kurtz-2014-200x300An article authored by the firm’s Nicole R. Kurtz is featured as the “Board of Contributors” expert guest commentary column in today’s edition of the Daily Business Review, South Florida’s exclusive business daily and official court newspaper.  The article, which is titled “Recent Arrests for Community Association Theft Illustrate Laws Working, Associations Must Do Their Part,” focuses on several recent incidents of embezzlement at Florida community associations, and it discusses the impact of the 2017 changes to the Florida laws to add teeth to condominium fraud and enforcement measures.  Her article reads:

. . . In Kissimmee, Florida, the second arrest of a former HOA property manager was covered as part of a series of investigative reports by WFTV (Channel 9, ABC). The reports chronicle how Sherry Raposo, who had previously been arrested on charges related to having her ex-cop-turned-felon boyfriend patrol the Turnberry Reserve community and using the HOA’s funds to bail him out of jail in North Carolina, was arrested yet again on new charges of fraud involving the accounts she oversaw while serving as a property manager for the community. The station also uncovered similar allegations of embezzlement against her from a different community in Seminole County, leading to the possibility of another investigation into Raposo and thousands of dollars that were moved from that HOA’s bank account.

dbr-logo-300x57Theft by a former property manager at the tony Parkshore Plaza condominium tower in downtown St. Petersburg also made headlines recently in the pages of the Tampa Bay Times daily newspaper. The report indicated that Abby Elliott was found guilty and had been sentenced to two years in prison for using the condo association’s funds to pay for vacations, airfares, salon treatments and other personal expenses.

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As documented in a recent report in the Miami Herald, the property manager of two Sunny Isles Beach condominium towers has been arrested for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the associations for the properties.

Property manager Georgina Pineda (pictured below) was booked into a Miami-Dade County jail recently, and apparently it wasn’t her first brush with the law involving association theft and fraud.  This time, court documents allege she stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Eden Roc Condos, which she had managed since 2017.  The documents indicate that much of the money went to feed her gambling habit at the Miccosukee casino.

GPineda-300x169According to Sunny Isles police, Pineda had access to the condo association’s debit card. She was supposed to use it only for small expenditures for the community, but when the association board demanded a full audit she “continually made excuses as to why she was not providing accounting reports.”

The arrest report also states that when Pineda finally provided a spreadsheet, it was missing numerous transactions — including withdrawals at the Miccosukee casino in West Miami-Dade.  In addition, she was regularly transferring association funds into her own independent business account.

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Nicole-Kurtz-2014-200x300An article authored by the firm’s Nicole R. Kurtz was featured as the guest commentary column in today’s edition of the Daily Business Review, South Florida’s exclusive business daily and official court newspaper.  Her article, which is titled “Association Election ‘Shenanigans’ Lead to Contentious, Costly Litigation,” focuses on the takeaways for Florida community associations from the case involving the strange and suspicious circumstances surrounding an Orlando-area HOA’s last annual election.  It reads:

A case in which a trial court concluded may have involved some association election “shenanigans” is going back to the trial court for further proceedings after the Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed the lower court’s order mandating binding arbitration.

“What should have been a rather routine meeting of the Association was cloaked with mystery, intrigue, and confusion,” begins the Fifth DCA’s unanimous opinion in the case of Winter Green at Winter Park HOA v. Richard Ware et al. Indeed, mystery, intrigue and confusion seem to be very apropos for describing the set of circumstances that unfolded during the Orlando suburb’s annual meeting and election.

It all began when somehow two nearly identical notices were sent out to announce the upcoming annual meeting and election to the homeowners. Both notices included the necessary agenda and accompanying documents, however the notice prepared by the association’s property manager set the annual meeting date for November 15, 2017, while the other notice announced the annual meeting was to be held on November 12, 2017.

dbr-logo-300x57Fifty-five members of the association attended the Nov. 12 meeting, which was sufficient to establish a quorum, but the owners were surprised to find that neither the property manager nor any of the current board members were present. An owner was even dispatched to the property manager’s office to seek clarification on the manager and directors’ absence, but he found no one there.

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Reports of association theft, fraud and embezzlement are no surprise to the South Florida community association attorneys at our firm, but two similar reports on the same day from communities on both the east and west coasts of the country drew our attention.

The media reports of the incidents, which both ran on Thursday, Jan. 17th, are very similar. The one in the Nisqually Valley News newspaper in the state of Washington chronicles how the Clearwood Community Association filed a complaint alleging its former bookkeeper embezzled nearly $300,000. The suit against Dolanna K. Burnett, the former bookkeeper, and her husband claims that she wrote multiple checks to herself and covered it up in the accounting system dating back to 2014.

The newspaper article states Burnett had a previous conviction in 2014 for theft, identity theft and forgery. She used counterfeit refund checks totaling $17,000 while she was working for the Tacoma Health Department and deposited them into her personal account. This information was discovered last summer and taken to the Clearwood Board of Directors, which stood by its decision to retain her and continued to use her as its bookkeeper.

This led to an outcry by the unit owners, eventually prompting a majority of the board members and Burnett to resign from their posts.

By the end of the year, the board hired a forensic accountant and discovered evidence that the former employee had been stealing significant sums from the association’s general account for years. It turned the case over to the county sheriff’s office and filed a civil suit against Burnett.

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A Lantana couple that had been arrested for defrauding their homeowners association were recently found guilty and hit with a severe jail sentence and restitution order.  The judge in the case found William and Darlene Cox, the former president and treasurer of Lantana Homes HOA (respectively), guilty of embezzling from the association that they helped to lead.

William Cox was sentenced to three years in state prison, while Darlene Cox was placed on probation for five years, the first of which must be served with a monitor.  They were also ordered to pay more than $360,000 in restitution to the HOA.

According to a report by CBS 12 News in West Palm Beach, the current leaders of the HOA are frustrated because Darlene Cox is still living in the community.  She remains a neighbor amongst all of those she defrauded and robbed.

willcoxDarlene and her husband were arrested in November 2016 after the current board discovered financial discrepancies in the association’s accounts.  According to the arrest report, the two were accused of taking the HOA funds and using the money to pay their personal car insurance as well as their homeowners and life insurance premiums.

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hands-and-breaking-handcuffs_shutterstock_58240561-300x184In the pursuit of association fraud and embezzlement, one of the most important aspects of the major legislation that was adopted earlier this year is the law’s effort to curb conflicts of interest by association board members and officers.

The new law provides that presumptions of conflicts of interest exist in the following circumstances:

  • A director, officer or one of their relatives enters into a contract for goods or services with the association.
  • A director or officer . . . holds an interest in a corporation, LLC, LLP or other business entity that conducts business with the association or proposes to enter into a contract or other transaction with the association.

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