Courtesy of Miami Herald
DANIEL, JENNIFER LEBOVICH AND JENNIFER MOONEY PIEDRA
Published May 26, 2007
Call them Fisher & Pinkus.
Robert Fisher, 56, had expertise in
architecture and construction; his wife Julie was skilled in bookkeeping.
Don Pinkus, 68, a retired U.S. Customs officer, knew how to investigate
The trio, along with a handful of others at
Hallandale Beach's Parker Plaza Estates, feared something was crooked at
their 20-story waterfront condo.
A raucous November 2005 meeting confirmed
suspicions that had arisen in 2003:
The $14.3 million the condo board wanted to
spend on hurricane windows and doors -- announced at a hastily called
meeting -- sounded outrageous.
''There were gasps among the gallery,'' Lisa
Hermann, an attorney Fisher hired to file a lawsuit, said of the day the bid
was announced. "A lot of people spoke at the meeting, and it was very
About 200 residents poured into the lobby to
Three months later, angry residents unseated
the nine-member condo board. That's when Fisher & Pinkus' unofficial
investigation truly began.
Fisher, who once owned an architecture firm,
had started thinking distrustful thoughts about the board two years earlier,
when members said they wanted to borrow $11 million for improvements.
''They told everyone we didn't need to pay it
back,'' Fisher said.
The board told residents it would take out a
30-year loan for $11 million, rather than hit them with an assessment. The
monthly repayment, they said, would come out of maintenance fees.
Fisher offered again and again to help the
board seek bids. The members, again and again, were not interested.
''They were not open to anyone else helping
them out,'' he said.
The board borrowed the money. Soon, work was
under way: a renovated gym with new equipment; a $200,000 fountain outside
Because the board sought virtually no input
from residents, nobody knew exactly how the money was spent, Fisher said.
''They had arguments when people wanted to
discuss things,'' he said. ``We weren't allowed to comment.''
Residents' concerns grew when the board hired
Jill Rosenhaus, a Miami interior designer, and paid her more than $350,000
to spruce up the place. Rosenhaus, whose son Drew is a top agent for pro
football players, is the sister-in-law of Robert Hittner, one of three
Meanwhile, the Parker Plaza team of
unofficial investigators -- Pinkus, the Fishers and attorney Hermann had
been joined by an accountant and two residents with maintenance backgrounds
-- were moving forward. They relied on each other's expertise.
''It was a real collective endeavor,'' Pinkus
Julie Fisher, 50, took on the job of poring
through invoices and bank statements -- some piled more than a foot high in
the condo office.
''The old board wasn't savvy enough to shred
all that material,'' said Virgil Rizzo, the state former condo ombudsman
whose office oversaw a new board election.
The paper trail kept Fisher busy nearly eight
hours a day, five days a week, for about three months.
''We were happy to be making forward progress
and finding things we knew weren't right,'' she said. She had kept the books
at her husband's architecture and construction firm in Miami before they
Pinkus, who retired from Customs three years
ago after investigating money laundering and narcotics cases, pitched in.
The aim: ''Ferreting out things that looked
suspicious,'' said Pinkus, the current condo board president. ``If it didn't
look right, we turned it over to police.''
Among items that piqued their curiousity: a
large number of checks that were cashed at local check-cashing stores.
A 50 percent deposit -- $330,000 -- for a new
roof was made before work was started. The contractor went out of business
before construction began. A new board later installed determined the condo
didn't need a new roof.
By the time annual elections rolled around
last year, residents petitioned the state for a monitor.
There had been questions in the past about
how the votes were counted. Most of the board members had been serving since
the late 1990s.
In the February 2006 election, all nine
incumbents were ousted, and a new slate was voted in.
''Everyone knew it was time for a change,''
Fisher said. ``We had to stop what was going on.''
The new board proceeded with the hurricane
protection work -- for about $9 million less than the original estimate.
So far, three people have been arrested and
one more person is expected to be charged in what authorities say is a
kickback scheme to defraud residents out of millions.
Joseph Greenberg, 83, the former condo
president, pleaded not guilty Friday to charges that he illegally deposited
$200,000 into personal bank accounts to avoid detection. He was released on
Greenberg is the only former board member who
has been implicated. Police say the investigation is ongoing.