Recent cases of embezzled funds of Homeowners- and Condo Associations have hit the spotlight all over the Nation. We are not talking about small amounts, they are not hitting the headlines of our media. We are talking here about serious amounts, like $ 1,2 million as reported in a case in Treasure Coast, Florida. See Report below! 
And it is, as usual, the "little" homeowner who pays the bill in the end. Not the Boards, not the professionals!
                This makes a recent ruling of the DBPR even more disturbing!
For home- and condo owners it is imperative to be able to control their boards and management companies by checking into association documents. Only being able to access these documents, if so requested, gives them the opportunity to have some kind of control about things, which are often done behind closed doors - not in public meetings - as required.
Now the DBPR sides with unwilling boards, if owners request documents. Their latest ruling requires a unit owner to prove "willfulness", if the board is not willing to hand over requested documents.
This leaves many owners without any possibility to control their boards and management companies. 
But even, if these "professionals" mismanage, or allow funds to be embezzled like in many cases reported recently, it is you, the owner, who will in the end pay for this! Ever figured, when you will read in the headlines of your local newspaper that funds of your association have been embezzled? Or when you read in your association newsletter, that your board voted on a "Special Assessment" in order to recover embezzled funds, necessary for the upkeep of your community?
Only you can protect yourself by checking regularly on your association's documents.
Have you done that lately?

  Condo groups victims of scheme
                                  MELISSA E. HOLSMAN of the News staff 
    Courtesy MSNBC   -   West Palm Beach , Florida


Alfred L. Laidman remembers his disbelief when he learned his signature was forged on checks from the River Pines Condominium Association that residents had been betrayed by the man entrusted with their money. 
    "It really took the wind out of you," Laidman said. "If you met him, you’d swear he was your uncle that he was straight as an arrow." 
     The man was Biagio "Ben" Mento, 46, a one-time Port St. Lucie real estate salesman who became president of Prestige Property Management Co. He now faces federal charges in a $1.2 million embezzlement case involving 10 local homeowners associations, six banks and a two-year FBI investigation. 
     Law enforcement authorities and condo law experts say the Mento case serves as a warning to homeowners’ associations: Take extra precautions to protect your money. 
     "It’s something that should alert all homeowner associations whenever they decide to retain someone to assist them in their bookkeeping and finances," said lawyer James Bowdish, who represents a bank in one of the Mento-related lawsuits. 
     Bowdish said in his 27-year career in Martin County, he’s never seen one person take advantage of so many associations. 
     "Hopefully in the future, they will be on their guard and do a better job of investigating," he said. 
     A similar warning comes from Brian Gervais, an economic crimes investigator with the Martin County Sheriff’s Office, who worked on the Mento case with the FBI. 
     "You can trust someone to handle your accounts, but that doesn’t mean you never check on it," said Gervais, who during the investigation repeatedly heard the "outrage" of association board members. 
     "Over the years, they built up these reserves and all of a sudden someone comes along and wipes them out. It was a big hit for a lot of them," Gervais said of Mento. "Once the fox was guarding the hen house, then the game was already over. He never should have been in that capacity, but ... he’s a pro, and they just fell for it." 
     At River Pines, in Port Salerno, Alfred Laidman agreed. 
     Laidman is former vice president of the association, which three years ago learned that more than $230,000 missing from its bank account. Federal investigators allege Mento forged seven checks on the account while he was under contract to manage association finances. 
     The forged signatures were Laidman’s. 
     "This man, you really felt he was so trustworthy," Laidman said of Mento. "I’ve never met any one like him very outgoing and likable. He was slick. ... He is a real con man."      
     A ‘quintessential con artist’ 
     Mento, now serving a 10-year state prison sentence for adding zeros to a $30 check to make it read $30,000 is scheduled to appear Monday in federal court in Fort Pierce on the condo fraud charges. 
     In that case, he initially pleaded not guilty to 25 counts of federal bank fraud and one count of money laundering for allegedly embezzling at least $606,000 through Prestige Property. Monday’s appearance is for a change of plea hearing. 
     His attorney, federal public defender Leon Watts, declined to discuss the reason for the hearing. 
     In the Mento case, court documents, law enforcement statements and victim interviews provide a detailed look at how unwary homeowners associations can lose their money. 
     The story begins in 1995, when Mento, then working for a Port St. Lucie real estate firm, expressed an interest in buying Prestige Property Management. The company managed payroll and maintenance for more than 80 homeowners associations in Martin and Palm Beach counties. 
     For 10 years, Prestige had been owned by Joseph Rizzuti, of Palm City, now chairman of the citrus export company Clements Golden Phoenix Enterprises. 
     In an interview last week, Rizzuti said a West Palm Beach real estate agent he’d hired to sell Prestige recommended Mento. 
     "I didn’t know about his background. But the real estate office pre-qualified him, and they said he had references and had the money in the bank," Rizzuti recalled. "My first impression was that he was a finance guy, which was good for that business. He was a very smart man." 
     When Mento bought Prestige, Kevin O’Hay already was manager there. O’Hay said at first it was a "pleasure" to work with the new owner. 
     "Everyone who worked there was very happy to go to work every day," O’Hay remembered. "I couldn’t believe that somebody who hadn’t been in that business before picked it up so fast. ... He seemed to be a man of superior intelligence and almost an uncanny photographic memory." 
     O’Hay said he often went with Mento to meet potential clients. 
     "He was smooth," O’Hay said. "Before he got to a meeting, he knew their (homeowners association) background and what was going on with their organization. There were times that we were hired before the interview was over." 
     Years later as authorities uncovered the association check forgeries O’Hay said he couldn’t believe Mento was responsible. 
     "I was shocked," O’Hay said. "I thought the guy walked on water." 
     Since then, O’Hay said he’s been "living this case every day for the past three years." 
     He formed his own property management company taking over some of Mento’s former clients but "almost every day I have to tell someone that I wasn’t involved with this. ... We were just pawns. 
     "Here we are, three or four years later, and we are still seeing the ripples of what happened," O’Hay said. "This guy put it on to the nth degree. He’s the quintessential con artist and hurt a lot of people." 
     A shell game 
     The forged condo association checks began showing up in 1997, according to FBI special agent Mike McBride, who led the Mento investigation. Prosecutors allege that from July 1997 to April 1998, Mento passed $1.2 million in forged checks on the bank accounts of condo association clients. 
     McBride said Mento forged the checks by tracing actual board member signatures. 
     "He was doing good forgeries," McBride said. "He would take from one association, then take money from another association and replace it in accounts that were being questioned. So association number two was out the money that was originally taken from association number one." 
     For months, association officers didn’t notice; many didn’t realize ownership of their management company had changed, McBride said. For 10 years, "a lot of these people had been dealing with Prestige Property Management ... and didn’t think they needed to worry." 
     The forged checks finally began to be uncovered during routine association audits in 1998. Between April and June of that year, seven associations filed notifications of forgery with the Martin County Sheriff’s Office. 
     The sheriff’s office and FBI opened an investigation. 
     To unravel the forgery scheme, sheriff’s detective Brian Gervais created a spreadsheet seven pages long, tracking the checks that moved among condo association clients and into Mento’s own Prestige Property account. 
     In one example, prosecutors allege, a forged $67,900 check from the River Pines Condominium Association was deposited in Mento’s Prestige account on March 16, 1998. The next day, a forged check for the same amount $67,900 was deposited back in the River Pines account but it was from Monarch Country Club in Palm City. 
     In ensuing days, forged checks from other associations went into Monarch’s account to replace that missing money. 
     "You have one block of money that you want to move to Prestige, but you actually have a set of forged checks," Gervais explained of the Mento case. "When the shell game is over, you end up with a net gain by Prestige of approximately $606,000, but you have approximately $1.2 million in forged checks." 
     Prosecutors allege the $606,000 diverted from association clients to Mento’s account was used, among other things, to buy a $200,000 home in Palm City and a race horse worth more than $7,000 in Miami-Dade County, and to lease a Lincoln Continental. 
     Mento also paid off a $219,547 federal tax lien against Prestige Property, FBI agent McBride said, adding, "Guess where he got the money from the homeowners associations." 
     Throughout their investigation, McBride and Gervais said they repeatedly encountered association board members who couldn’t believe Mento had betrayed them. 
     "A lot of them told me he seemed like such a nice person and so trustworthy," Gervais said. "Of course, they didn’t know his background." 
           A shady background 
           What the associations didn’t know was that Mento had served almost five years in federal prison on wire fraud, bad check and embezzlement charges in New York in the late 1980s and ’90s. 
     The charges included skimming $103,000 from Norstar Bank of Central New York in Syracuse, N.Y., where he worked as vice president and senior investment officer. 
     While in federal prison, he was charged with swindling more than $100,000 from a fellow inmate. 
     Prosecutors said Mento told the inmate he was an investment banker who could get big returns on the inmate’s savings. The man invested $100,000. Mento then used an ex-con in New Hampshire to send fake statements to the inmate’s wife to recruit new investors, even providing references to vouch for his reputation. 
     After serving his prison sentences, Mento was placed on "supervised release" and in 1995 he moved to the Treasure Coast. 
     While still on supervised release, he bought Prestige Property Management without telling his probation officer, according to the federal indictment. 
     Asked about his business, Mento told the probation officer he was "employed as a budget analyst and failed to disclose that he was president and co-owner ... with monetary oversight responsibilities," the indictment said. 
     When Mento bought Prestige he had a partner: Robert W. Penrose Jr., who served 21 months in federal prison on 1991 charges that he embezzled $83,000 from his partners in a Gibbsboro, N.J., dental business. 
     Penrose later told investigators he and Mento had been in Allenwood federal prison in Pennsylvania at the same time, and while there made plans to move to Florida and start a business after their release. 
     From prison, Penrose was sent to a halfway house in Miami, then finished three years of supervised release in May 1996 while serving as Prestige Property’s vice president. He died of natural causes in his Fort Pierce home in September 1998. 
     None of this criminal record was known to the homeowners associations who contracted with Prestige, however. 
     "I’m sure if they’d had any idea that Ben Mento and Robert Penrose had been both serving time in a federal penitentiary together, they would have found a different property management company," detective Gervais said. 
     Added FBI agent McBride: "They never did a background check on Mento because he never had to file with the state." 
     Complex legal battles 
     According to Florida law, property managers who handle day-to-day management issues are required to have a license and are subject to background checks in the licensing process. 
     But management company executives like Mento aren’t required to have a state license, so don’t undergo background checks. 
     Lonnie Parizek, spokeswoman for the state Department of Business & Professional Regulation, said owners of property management companies must submit a registration form to the department, listing all officers and executives, "but they are not required to be licensed." 
     That hasn’t changed in the three years since the Mento case brought attention to the licensing gap, but another area of the law has: State regulations approved in 1999 now require homeowners associations to have insurance to cover losses from dishonest management companies. 
     The Mento case also sparked complex legal battles among condo associations and banks. Between 1998 and 2000, Mariner Villages of Stuart, Monarch Country Club of Palm City and Villages of Ocean Dunes in Jupiter all filed lawsuits over Mento’s alleged forged checks. 
     In Port Salerno, the River Pines Condominium Association still is in court, suing one bank to recoup $88,750 and another, First National Bank and Trust, for an additional $160,498. 
     In the First National case, River Pines argues the bank should be responsible for accepting and not detecting three forged checks. 
     "We feel the bank is at fault completely with this," River Pines President Marty Connelly said. "When you look at the paperwork, they absolutely are at fault, and we will pursue it to the end." 
     In response, James Bowdish, First National’s attorney, argues River Pines is responsible for its own losses, because the association was negligent in dealing with Mento and in not monitoring its accounts. 
     "River Pines apparently did not do any checking into (Prestige) before retaining them to supply services," Bowdish said. "They allowed Prestige access to their post office box where the statements were sent. And ... River Pines failed to discover the first forged check, which occurred in July of 1997. 
     "Had that been discovered promptly and they had notified the bank, the other forgeries would never have occurred." 
     Adding complexity to the River Pines case, First National has counter-sued another homeowners association, Cedar Pointe Villages 6, in Stuart, because one forged River Pines check, for $46,325, was written to Cedar Pointe. 
     "What we are doing is asking the court that if we are found liable on these checks, we would like to have Cedar Pointe give back the $46,325," Bowdish said. 
     In court papers, Cedar Pointe Villages 6 denied liability for the River Pines check, in part because of what it alleged was First National Bank’s "own negligence in failing to verify the signatures or otherwise detect the error promptly." 
     In an interview last week, Eugene L’Heureux, a Cedar Pointe board member, said the association hadn’t known the River Pines money was in its account because there were "so many checks floating around." 
     Besides, he said, the River Pines money wasn’t actually available for use because Mento already had robbed Cedar Pointe of more than $128,300. 
     "That was not a windfall," L’Heureux said. "If we had some extra bucks, we would reimburse River Pines but we don’t. We were taken too." 
     Tracking him down 
     After the check forgeries were uncovered in 1998, Mento closed Prestige Property Management and a year later after a bank foreclosure on his Palm City house moved to West Palm Beach, where he quickly had new legal trouble. 
     In May 1999, he was arrested on state charges of altering a $30 check to make it read $30,000 and taking about $1,200 from a Lake Worth video store where he worked. A year later, Mento was convicted and sentenced to 14 months but didn’t show up to serve that term. 
     The FBI’s McBride and sheriff’s detective Gervais tracked him for five months, finally finding him using aliases to rent a Jupiter apartment and to find employment in West Palm Beach. 
     Mento’s job? 
     He was working at a company "that of all things, will consolidate your debts for you," McBride said. "They said he was a good worker and didn’t have a clue." 
     Because he fled, Mento in October received a 10-year prison sentence on the state forgery and theft charges. In January, the federal indictment was unsealed on the bank fraud charges related to the homeowners association forgeries. 
     Looking back on the Mento case, Gervais said the lesson for homeowners associations is to watch finances closely, even if they’re paying management companies to handle the books. 
     By detecting potential fraud quickly, associations can "minimize the amount of damage you’ll be exposed to," Gervais said, noting: 
     "This type of fraud is almost like a game of musical chairs. When the music stopped and the whole thing unraveled, a lot of people didn’t have a place to sit, and all the money was gone."