Retired trio pooled skills to expose plot

A group of condo retirees used their years of work experience to unravel an alleged kickback scheme at the Parker Plaza Estates condominium in Hallandale Beach.

Article Courtesy of Miami Herald


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 wrongdoing.

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 heated.''

About 200 residents poured into the lobby to protest.

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 the driveway.

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 facing charges.

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 said.

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 retired.

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 bond.

Greenberg is the only former board member who has been implicated. Police say the investigation is ongoing.