Courtesy of The Miami Herald
Flor and Brenda Medina
Published March 24, 2016
Rodolfo Rodríguez believed he had made a good investment
for his retirement when he bought a condo in Miami at a bargain price after
the real estate crisis.
The 74-year-old taxi driver fixed up the apartment he bought for $20,000 in
August 2011 and rented it to a family for $800 a month.
But there were hidden
troubles at the Tropical Point condominium on Northwest 15th
Street and 15th Avenue. Like many other Miami-Dade
condominiums, its owners' association faced grave financial
problems in the wake of the crisis. Its funds were shrinking
as some owners defaulted on their mortgages and stopped
paying the monthly maintenance fees.
And the board of directors had accepted a suggestion by the
company hired to collect the fees owed, APG Partners LLC, to
ask a judge in a Miami-Dade civil court to appoint a
receiver who would help to fix the financial problems.
Rodríguez and other owners, including some former members of
the board, now say the receiver and companies linked to her
became “their worst nightmare.”
Tropical Point is one of many Miami-Dade condos whose
directors went to court to request the appointment of a
receiver to help them regain their financial stability. In
theory, the receivers take over units that are vacant or
have defaulted on their mortgages, rent them and pass the
income to the owners' association to make up for the owners
who are not paying their maintenance fees. In exchange, the
receiver is allowed to pocket a set percentage of the rent.
Circuit Court Judge Beatrice Butchko said it is the
responsibility of condo owners to report irregularities by
During the 18 months that Caridad Alina Ortega, the
receiver appointed by Judge José Rodríguez, was in charge of Tropical Point,
some of the owners paid thousands of dollars for maintenance and their
debts, as well as special assessments. But conditions never improved,
according to the testimony of several residents of the complex, which also
faced a lien by the city of Miami. The electricity and water bills were not
paid, and elevators and fire alarm and sprinklers were not repaired.
Barely one month after her appointment, Ortega put a lien on Rodríguez's
unit for allegedly falling behind on payments of a special assessment to
repair the elevator and fix up his apartment. The bill totaled $3,754,
including late fees.
Rodríguez said he had just finished paying about $500 on his debt for
maintenance fees, and had no more money.
“I got a real estate agent and decided to get out of there and sell, because
the abuse was pretty clear, and those people had the backing of the court,”
He sold the apartment for about $32,000 in March 2012. But before he could
receive the money, Ortega sent him another bill for $14,000, for lawyers'
fees and repairs to the building. If he did not pay, she could not remove
the lien on the property.
Critics of the receivership system say that judges give receivers too much
power over the homeowners' associations and then do little to monitor their
performance. In fact, they add, some receivers work hand-in-hand with
companies and lawyers that focus only on their own profits while the
associations receive few if any benefits.
In Ortega's case, court documents show she used the services of at least
seven companies to fix, rent and manage the apartments — most of them owned
by the same people.
“If I describe our experience with the receiver as a nightmare, I would be
falling short,” Amjad Farooq, president of the Tropical Point homeowners'
association, told el Nuevo Herald. “Instead of helping us, the receiver
brought us more chaos and humiliation. Many malicious and illegal things
Ortega, who was named receiver of Tropical Point in January 2012, declined
to comment for this report on the advice of her attorney, Ronald Strauss,
because of pending court cases. The current representative of APG Partners,
Steven Kates, did not reply to a request for an interview. Rogelio Cainzos,
listed as the former APG administrator, told el Nuevo Herald he had just
left a hospital and did not want to be interviewed.
Ortega was appointed as receiver for at least 12 other condominiums in
Miami-Dade. Some of them later asked the courts to cancel her appointments.
“The victims generally have to get a lawyer to take their cases to court,
and the fight can go on for years while these people are sucking the money
out of the association,” said José Pazos, owner of Pazos Robaina Association
Management, which manages condos. The company maintains a Web page on cases
An extraordinary case
In an order removing Ortega as receiver of the International Park I condos
at 11800 SW 18th St. in November 2014, Judge Victoria Sigler noted the
following issues, among others:
Reports that the receiver was required to submit to
the court every four months almost never arrived on time, which meant
the court could not supervise Ortega's activities. “The condominium
association, the apartment owners and the residents did not have the
benefit of a transparent process,” Sigler wrote.
Ortega charged excessive amounts for costs and fees,
sometimes more than double the amount allowed by the court. In one unit,
she charged $2,500 even though she was allowed to charge only $1,500.
“In conclusion, the court does not approve of doubling of payments,
subcontracting services and excessive charges, which are contrary to the
best interests of the receivership,” Sigler wrote.
The receiver deprived at least one owner of his home
in a fraudulent manner, by posting a false judicial owner on its door
and changing the locks. “The appointment of a receiver does not deprive
anyone of ownership rights,” the judge said.
Ortega had a conflict of interest when she hired
companies to provide services for the condo without revealing important
links. “The court has noted that providers to the receiver, Gables
Professional Management Co., Community Rental Partners, LLC, and APG
Partners, are all companies registered in the name of the property
administrator, Rogelio Cainzos, and have substantially profited” from
Ortega's receivership, Sigler wrote.
Ortega's attorney Strauss — who is also listed as an
agent for the majority of companies hired by Ortega and the ones that list
Cainzos as administrator — told el Nuevo Herald that Sigler issued her order
without considering any evidence or witnesses.
“There was no hearing for evidence,” said Strauss, who declined further
Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Beatrice Butchko told el Nuevo Herald that
judges appoint receivers to help, not harm, the condominiums. But judges
generally are not aware of irregularities committed by receivers, she added,
and it is the responsibility of owners to inform the court.
“Obviously, someone who wants to be a receiver does not come to us and tell
us, 'I am going to steal, I am going to harm the owners.' It doesn't work
that way,” said Butchko, an administrative judge in the Circuit Civil
Division. “In some cases these people are not doing the work they were
appointed to do, but we judges have hundreds of cases and we are not
monitoring all the actions of receivers. The owners have the responsibility
for letting us know that the receiver is not doing his job.”
Some members of the industry believe, however, that the judges are not
sufficiently aware of cases of fraud involving condo receivers and that
their actions border on criminal.
“The court appoints these people, and it should be responsible for what
those people do with the powers that it grants them,” Pazos said. “A
receiver should be someone neutral, appointed randomly by a judge. But in
these cases, it was the owners' associations that proposed the person they
wanted appointed as receivers.”
Butchko said that if owners believe that a receiver is violating the law, it
is the residents or the owners who should contact police or take their
complaints to state prosecutors.
In Tropical Point
Several years after he lost his property, taxi driver Rodríguez still does
not understand exactly what happened.
“I never understood how those people got there and in just two months I
already owed them thousands of dollars,” said Rodríguez, who has driven a
taxi for 20 years and used part of his savings to buy his apartment. “That
was a nightmare and a headache. I tried to defend myself, but I was told
that I needed to get a lawyer, go to court, and all of that costs money.”
In 2014, Rodríguez received a call from new owners of several Tropical Point
units offering to take his case to court. That same year, in June, Judge
José Rodríguez ordered Ortega and the companies that worked with her to
return $3,799 to the taxi driver because of overcharges. Since then, the
judge has ordered reimbursements for at least two other owners.
“We came here and started to review the accounts, and we found all kinds of
abuses, including the case of this taxi driver, who clearly was charged for
services that were never provided,” Armando Pérez-Roura Jr. said. His
family's enterprise, 1498 Across the Bay, bought several units in the
condominium to rent, negotiated a loan to carry out repairs and had the city
of Miami remove its lien on the property.
Judge Rodríguez removed Ortega as receiver of Tropical Point in 2013, at the
request of the homeowners' association and Ortega herself. Shortly
afterward, Ortega sent the association an invoice for more than $48,000,
saying the bill was for services provided by two legal firms for work
related to the condominium. Tropical Point is refusing to pay the bill.
The case is now before a circuit court, and has unleashed a torrent of
questions about Ortega's work at Tropical Point.
Attorneys for Tropical Point persuaded the judge to order Banco Popular to
hand over account records for companies linked to Ortega that worked on the
condo, alleging that Ortega was not providing the correct documents related
to her work for the complex.
Documents presented by the attorneys to the court showed that more than
$61,000 generated by the condo during Ortega's receivership was deposited in
an account of APG Partners, LLC. About $11,000 of that money went back to
the association. The attorneys claim, however, that the total amount
deposited in bank accounts used by Ortega and the companies she hired was
well over $115,000. They are asking Judge Rodríguez to order the return of
all that money, and to order Ortega to pay all legal fees.
Testifying in the case on March 2, Cainzos told Judge Rodríguez that he did
not create some of the companies that list his name, and that in some cases
he was not even aware of the companies' existence.
“Would you say you were just a front man,” Cainzos was asked by Spencer
West, attorney for the current receiver of the Tropical Point condominium,
“You could say that,” Cainzos answered, adding that an unauthorized
electronic signature was used to create the companies.
West asked the court in January 2015 to consolidate before one judge all of
the pending cases by owners against Ortega, but his petition was denied.
Judge Butchko, who could not comment on specific cases, told el Nuevo Herald
that cases can only be consolidated when they present identical
West's petition in fact alleged that Ortega and the companies she worked
with had engaged in a pattern of abusive activities in a number of the
properties where they worked.
“Ortega's entire receiver team, APG, etc., should be barred from
participating in any other receivership in Miami-Dade until the court can
prevent similar cases,” West said in his petition.