MetroWest residents accuse developer of misspending $2.3M

Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel

By Rich McKay

Published August 16, 2008

Dissident residents have accused developer Kevin Azzouz of misspending more than $2.3 million of homeowners' money in the past three years at Metro West, one of Orlando's largest planned communities, which Azzouz oversees.

The charges come in a 23-page report of a yearlong financial review. A copy obtained by the Orlando Sentinel cites more than $400,000 in unapproved payments for beefed-up security, $450,000 in questionable "management fees" and $350,000 for 10,000 rose bushes -- including 7,000 bushes that never were planted.

Azzouz, whose company, Alliance LLC, took control of the 1,850-acre community in southwest Orlando in 2005, decried the report as the work of a few disgruntled residents who have an ax to grind.

"We have never misspent or absconded with anyone's money," Azzouz said. "This is all just a worthless rant full of misleading information."

More than a dozen residents and representatives of various neighborhoods attended a MetroWest Master Association meeting Thursday night to hear a response from the board's developer-appointed president, Ken Simback. But because board members only received the report earlier in the week, Simback asked that they be given more time to study it.

"We will address each and every item," Simback told the audience.

Latest controversy

The report marks the latest financial controversy to trouble the big-spending developer. Wachovia Bank has filed $51 million in foreclosures against one of his condominium projects in MetroWest. He is also being sued for about $1 million by a former business partner, and his wife wants their $6.5 million mansion near Windermere and unspecified alimony in her divorce suit.

Azzouz promised to hire an independent accounting firm to do a full audit of the MetroWest Master Association's books and make it public.

The residents' report contains more numbers than narrative. But it said that before Azzouz's company took over, the association's annual expenses -- for landscape, pool and building maintenance -- averaged about $650,000. In 2005, that rose to $1.3 million; in 2006, to $1.45 million; and last year, nearly $2.2 million.

The report doesn't suggest that money was misappropriated; virtually all of the expenditures involved work that was actually performed. But it says some of the projects were done to benefit nearby Azzouz-owned developments, not association property, and that other spending was never authorized by residents.

Among the expenses cited:

*More than $400,000 for beefed-up security, including hiring off-duty policemen, after the area was hit in 2007 with a rash of crimes, including at least one homicide, several rapes and violent robberies.

*Sharply higher management fees, with $450,000 considered "questionable." Before Azzouz took over, residents collectively paid $12,000 a year for management.

*The $354,731 to buy 10,000 rose bushes and plant 3,000 of them in the median of Westpointe Boulevard. Other projects included $197,785 to paint and "stamp" streets so that they resemble brick, and a $32,608 floating fountain.

Azzouz said the report is riddled with errors and that most residents approve of what the money has bought.

The fountain, he said, is part of an engineer's solution to aerate a retention pond. He said people in the community are glad for "brick" streets, nicer landscaping and the extra police. And he said the rest of the roses bushes are being tended to in storage and the planting held in abeyance because of earlier complaints.

Developer: Most approve

And as for the higher management fees, Azzouz said that a higher level of service costs more.

"There are more than 10,000 human beings living here, and most of them like what we're doing," Azzouz said. "Why should we bring it to a halt because a few want us to go backward?"

But in addressing parallel complaints of misspent money, Simback chronicled about $110,000 in bills charged to the association that are actually owed by Azzouz's Veranda Partners company, of which Simback is the vice president.

He said Thursday night that the association will get all its money back, plus interest. He also listed about $600,000 in delinquent assessments that are owed to the association by affiliated companies, and he told the audience that the purchase of the fountain is now on hold.

The report was compiled by Jody Altier the Palma Vista association's treasurer, and David J. Rosenberg, a certified public accountant with forensic accounting experience. Altier couldn't be reached for comment, and Rosenberg declined to discuss the report.

Rosenberg has been an outspoken critic of how Azzouz spent the association's money, including the "stamped" streets and the practice of hiring off-duty police to patrol MetroWest.

Last year he told the Sentinel: "I don't think we should be spending our homeowners association money on something the police should be doing anyway. I think it's a waste of our money."

Tony Swatek, president of the Palma Vista Homeowners Association, one of the 30 or so associations under the umbrella of MetroWest and its 12,000 residents, held a meeting Monday night to discuss the report's findings. He said that if money was in fact misspent, the homeowners would recover it from Azzouz.