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Articles Posted in Fraud, Theft and Abuse

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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Changes in condominium association laws that were recently enacted with an aim to curb fraud in associations seem to have had a strong impact in increasing the general awareness of the problems facing Florida condo communities.  A few major media outlets have followed up on the news of the law with reports about arrests involving South Florida associations.

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Several months ago the Miami Herald reported that the administrator of an Aventura condominium named Admirals Port had been arrested on charges of accepting thousands of dollars in bribes and stealing cash from the building’s laundry machines.  Donovan Staley was charged with organized fraud, grand theft and the use of a phone to plan a crime, and he could face up to five years in prison.

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The outcome of this year’s legislative session evoked a lot of confusion from property managers and boards of directors serving the community association industry.  As a result, we have received a lot of requests from our readership asking for clarification on some of the laws that were enacted. In this post, we will be tackcc-article-photo-fb-3-300x158ling the debit card provision in an effort to clear up some misconceptions about the new legislation.

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The new Florida law that establishes criminal penalties for association fraudsters should help many associations to contend with suspicious and irregular activities by unscrupulous board members.

Association boards of directors control the purse strings for their condo communities, and as such they have always made for extremely appealing targets for fraudsters who conspire to assume control via their annual elections.  In a Las Vegas case, a U.S. Justice Department investigation revealed that 11 associations were defrauded of tens of millions of dollars in a board of directors takeover scheme from 2003 to 2009.  Forty-one defendants were convicted of rigging board elections through such tactics as traveling to Mexico to print phony ballots, using the master key at a condominium complex in order to remove ballots from mailboxes, and retrieving discarded ballots from condo dumpsters.

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Firm partner Gary M. Mars authored an article that appeared as a “My View” guest column in today’s “Business Monday” section of the Miami Herald.  The article, which is titled “Condo Fraud Legislation Adds Teeth to Florida’s Laws,” focuses on the ramifications of the newly minted Florida law that established criminal penalties for some of the most common maneuvers of association fraudsters.  Gary’s article reads:

The new legislation, which will add teeth to the Florida laws governing the administration of condominiums by establishing criminal penalties for fraudsters, has been signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott and took effect July 1.

The El Nuevo and Channel 23 reports revealed many cases of electoral fraud and forgery, conflicts of interest, mismanagement, and rigged bidding systems at a number of condo associations in South Florida. The Miami-Dade circuit court grand jury investigation focused on some of the cases from the news reports and several others, and its findings illustrated in detail that the state’s laws and enforcement measures are inadequate. Continue reading

House Bill 6027 was signed by Governor Rick Scott. The Bill makes changes to the financial reporting requirements of Florida condominiums, homeowners’ associations, and cooperatives, and will be effective as of July 1, 2017.  The Bill may be summarized as follows:

  • Sections 718.111(13)(b) and 719.104(c)2, Florida Statutes, are amended to remove the requirement that an association that operates fewer than 50 units, regardless of the association’s annual revenues, shall prepare a report of cash receipts and expenditures in lieu of financial statements, and instead bases financial reporting requirements strictly on annual revenues.
  • Sections 718.111(13)(d) and 719.104(b), Florida Statutes, are amended to remove the restriction which limit the ability of a condominium and cooperative association, respectively, to waive the financial reporting requirements of such Sections for more than three consecutive years.
  • Section 720.303(7), Florida Statutes is amended to remove the requirement that a homeowners’ association that operates fewer than 50 parcels, regardless of the association’s annual revenues, may prepare a report of cash receipts and expenditures in lieu of financial statements, and instead bases financial reporting requirements strictly on annual revenues. Continue reading

Condo & HOA Board Members May be

Neglecting the Duties You are Owed

Are you concerned that the developer of your condominium did not deliver on the promises made to you when you purchased your condominium unit?  Are you concerned with the construction of the condominium in which you live?  For most individuals the purchase of a condominium unit can be their most important investment.  However, many of the decisions impacting this investment are not up to the owner of the unit, but rather they are left up to a board of directors controlling the association.

At a specified time, the developer of a condominium is required to relinquish control of the association’s board of directors in favor of the unit owners.  The turnover of an association from developer to the unit owners presents the first opportunity for the association’s board to hire a lawyer, an accountant and an engineer to perform important and time-sensitive inspections of the condominium.  These inspections will identify construction defects and other concerns that may exist.  As such, it should not be surprising that a developer would want a “friendly” association board of directors following turnover.  But imagine the havoc an unscrupulous developer could inflict if the association’s newly elected board — or the attorney and engineer working for the unit owners — have financial ties to the developer.

A recent Miami-Dade grand jury report found that there was extensive fraud, mismanagement, stacking of boards and conflicts of interest among condominium association boards (click here for the complete report).  Such misconduct is not limited to Miami-Dade, however.  Perhaps surprisingly, one of the largest public corruption cases set in the fast-paced, scheming neon desert notoriously dubbed “Sin City” did not involve the usual Las Vegas suspects, but rather a contractor, a lawyer, and a stacked board of condominium directors.  In 2015, Leon Benzer, a construction company boss, was sentenced to 15 and a half years in federal prison for orchestrating a scheme to take control of association boards for the purpose of channeling construction defect repairs to Benzer’s company. Benzer’s scheme involved a network of recruited purchasers and real estate agents who would get elected to association boards, hire Benzer’s attorney, and award lucrative contracts to Benzer’s construction company. Through these unethical practices, these individuals violated the duties owed to the association and its unit owners.

Condominium unit owners are considered shareholders of the association, and act in a fiduciary relationship to each owner.  In such relationships, the law demands a higher than ordinary degree of care from each director and officer, with Florida law specifically demanding directors to discharge their duties in good faith.  Simply put, directors should act to protect the best interests of the association and its unit owners, rather than their personal interests or those of affiliated third parties.  The actions of the board members in Benzer’s scheme were in complete disregard of the unit owners’ rights, as they participated in rigging elections and seeking only personal gain.

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