From the orange McLaren he paraded around South Beach to the $4 million Princess yacht that was too big for the dock at his Cocoplum estate, developer Rishi Kapoor cultivated an image of impressive wealth even as his dream of a real estate empire crumbled around him.

Although his completed projects were few, Kapoor talked of becoming the United States’ first trillion-dollar developer, won the trust of wealthy investors and lured politicians into his orbit. He quietly hired Miami Mayor Francis Suarez as a $10,000-a-month consultant while he was seeking city zoning approval for a new project, rented a small building from Coral Gables Mayor Vince Lago and purchased land across the street for a new condo development in a deal that netted a $640,000 commission for a politically-connected brokerage.

Those who worked with Kapoor said he wanted a face like Suarez’s to help sell his projects. He boasted to friends and employees of dinners and cigars at Suarez’s home, and assured investors that he had the mayor’s ear and assistance in overcoming barriers at City Hall.

But behind that image of success and access, Kapoor’s emergent empire was in free fall.

As Location Ventures’ chief executive, Kapoor shifted money from one project to another as bills came due, including funds provided by lenders, investors and condo buyers, according to claims in lawsuits and court records. His company and its development entities overpaid for land, borrowed millions from private lenders at high interest rates and failed to meet construction costs, according to records, investors and lenders.

His luxury condo tower near downtown Coral Gables, a monument to his jump from small-time developer to emerging star, was over budget and behind schedule. Investors were demanding he return millions sunk into a half-dozen or so upscale residential projects around South Florida. And the top financial executive at Kapoor’s development firm had confronted him about troubling business practices, including the $10,000 payments to Miami’s mayor for what he described as “unknown services” — a dispute that would portend the beginning of the end for Kapoor as an up-and-coming builder and embroil Suarez in a criminal investigation.

Today, far from creating the “ultimate seven-star luxury experience,” Kapoor, a 39-year-old Atlanta transplant, is defending a reputation under siege. U.S. marshals, armed with a federal judge’s order requested by a bank, seized his 68-foot Princess motor yacht this October while he and his wife were aboard. Another lender is seeking to foreclose on his waterfront home. His real estate portfolio, which once appeared to stretch from the Bahamas to Montana, is being unloaded and sold off for parts.

Former Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Alan Fine, hired by Location Ventures’ board of directors to sell off assets and pay back creditors, confirmed that his biggest sales so far were two planned luxury condo projects at 1505 Ponce de Leon Blvd. in Coral Gables and 551 Bayshore Dr. in Fort Lauderdale, both bought by former Location Ventures investors.

Even Location Ventures’ 299 Alhambra Cir. office is on the scrap heap, with a collection of furniture, computers and other office equipment to be auctioned off at a value of only $41,000 to help the company pay bills, according to an auctioneer’s report.

“He should be on top of the world,” said one former Location Ventures contractor who, like other sources close to Kapoor’s business, spoke on condition of anonymity due to the state and federal investigations and controversies surrounding his projects. “He was a rising star.”

Kapoor has repeatedly ignored interview requests. In a recent email, he wrote that the Miami Herald “has covered me very unfairly and untruthfully.”

Suarez and Lago have said they did nothing wrong.

Showmanship and Relationships

Before he was removed this summer as CEO of Location Ventures, Kapoor’s company had only completed a few projects around Miami-Dade County, but Kapoor boasted of a grand future.

“It is f------ incredible what we have built in just eight years,” Kapoor told Location Ventures employees in a four-page email in April 2022 titled “Real Talk.”

“I challenge you to find other real estate firms that have accomplished the same or more in that timeline,” he wrote. “You should feel like explorers finding new horizons — always pushing to do what others have not.”

Ten years earlier, Kapoor launched Location Ventures with a former University of Miami classmate and fraternity brother. They began with a renovated Coral Gables apartment complex marketed to students and others near the campus.

From its modest beginnings, the company would ratchet up ambitions with its first major luxury condo project, the Villa Valencia, a 13-story high rise near downtown Coral Gables. Location Ventures, along with its subsidiary URBIN, also had its sights on projects elsewhere in the Gables, Coconut Grove, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

Local business publications featured interviews with Kapoor, who talked about revolutionizing luxury living and also addressing Miami’s housing crisis for young workers by building apartment and condo projects that downsized living units while providing working spaces, restaurants, shops and offices.

Kapoor grew bolder. He pitched a 500-acre residential development with stables and horse trails on South Miami-Dade farmland. Corporate records show he was negotiating to buy a small island in the Bahamas for $50 million to be the site of a “world-class, ultra-luxury wellness community and superyacht marina.”

He had recruited more than 40 employees and about 50 investors and lenders. He lured new backers at one meeting for Villa Valencia, his company’s signature project, by staging his sales pitch at the private Swiss bank UBS’ local office.

Known as a 24/7 workaholic, Kapoor’s personal and professional lives were intertwined.

He did business in his office and on his yacht, where he served up his signature “Rishi-rita” cocktails of Tequila and Sprite Zero and, according to former employees, hired a private chef. He used a corporate AMEX credit card to spend $79,050 on luxury-watch marketplace Chrono 24, and put a $50,000 “bonus advance” toward the purchase of a McLaren sports car, according to Location Ventures correspondence taking account of what he owed and was owed.

Paid $350,000 a year as the firm’s CEO, plus millions more in fees from property acquisitions, loan arrangements and development projects, he and his wife, a former animal trainer at Zoo Miami, bought a nearly $6 million waterfront estate in Cocoplum in November 2021, according to public records and former employees. In March, he borrowed more than $4 million to purchase the Suneeta II to replace the boat he already had. The waterway behind Kapoor’s new home was too small to fit the developer’s yacht, so he kept it at a marina slip at the Cocoplum Yacht Club that he had purchased for $695,000 in January 2022.

Colleagues said he craved being at the center of attention in both his personal and business lives. A longtime friend who worked at Location Ventures until its demise said Kapoor used to take detours in his McLaren to Ocean Drive, one of Miami’s most famous see-and-be-seen locations, when they would go out to breakfast on South Beach.

In the South Florida Business Journal’s “40 under 40” from 2021, Kapoor said his fantasy career was to be a race car driver, and that if he were to be played in a movie, the actor to portray him would be George Clooney.

Eager to make connections with important people, Kapoor invited mayors to ribbon cuttings and doled out more than $100,000 in campaign checks from corporate accounts, about half of which went to a political committee supporting a losing candidate in this November’s Miami Beach mayoral race.

Eventually, he began directly paying politicians where his company was developing new projects — hiring Miami’s Suarez as a part-time consultant and renting a storefront office from the mayor in Coral Gables.

Help from City Hall

After becoming closer in 2019, public records show that Miami’s mayor met multiple times with Kapoor while trying to change city laws to help him build a $70 million residential and retail complex in Coconut Grove.

In July 2021, Suarez quietly signed a $10,000-a-month consulting contract with Location Ventures’ subsidiary, URBIN. Kapoor, who told friends he would dine and smoke cigars with the mayor at Suarez’s home, quickly leaned on the mayor to help him launch his new brand at an October 2021 event in the Design District.

When Kapoor began pursuing a second high-rise condo project in the downtown Coral Gables area, he leased a vacant building from Mayor Lago and his business partners to use as a nearby showroom — even though he wouldn’t purchase the condo development site for another six months. When Location Ventures did buy the 1505 Ponce de Leon property for $35.5 million, a $640,000 closing fee went to the boutique brokerage owned by former Hialeah City Councilman Oscar De la Rosa, where Lago and Hialeah Mayor Esteban Bovo hung their real estate licenses.

In total, over the past three years, Kapoor’s companies were tied to about $1 million in payments, including the closing fee on the Coral Gables land sale, to business and campaign accounts linked to Miami-area politicians. Suarez, who at the time was building toward an ill-fated run for president, was paid at least $170,000 from September 2021 through March 2023, according to Location Ventures’ corporate and financial records.

For their money, both mayors say they behaved appropriately.

Lago says he received nothing from the closing fee on the property sale. He recused himself from votes on Kapoor’s projects after becoming his landlord.

Suarez, who makes $130,000 a year as mayor, says he worked for URBIN as a consultant to find private-equity investors and denies lobbying his own city on behalf of Kapoor. He says he didn’t meet with the developer about his Miami project while on his company’s payroll.

But notes of company meetings held last year by Location Ventures indicate Kapoor told his staff that he would ask Suarez to help when his $70 million Coconut Grove project ran into roadblocks with city regulators. The meeting notes, provided to investors to appease their frustrations over repeated delays on the project, made his role clear: “Mayor Suarez to assist in pushing this along.”

Ultimately, Kapoor worked through Suarez’s staff to lobby the city’s zoning director to change his position that the project’s dimensions were illegal under Miami law.

“Please thank the Mayor for his support and assistance,” Kapoor wrote in an Oct. 11, 2022 email to the Suarez aide who interceded.

Kapoor’s business with Suarez has drawn the interest of local and federal investigators.

Several former Location Ventures employees said Kapoor used politicians like Suarez to promote his projects.

“Rishi just paid for a face,” said a former executive at Location Ventures.

Dario Moreno, a Florida International University associate professor specializing in politics and international relations, said Kapoor followed in the footsteps of other developers from outside Miami who made a quick mark by turning like-minded politicians into allies with campaign donations, gifts and, in Suarez’s case, a lucrative side job.

“Politicians are always looking for someone to pick up the tab — it’s a very transactional thing,” Moreno told the Herald. “And where we see this a lot is in Miami’s biggest industry, real estate.”