Tuesday, July 11, 2017

County Employee Gets Pinched, Arrest Warrants Issued For Five Others In Alleged Conspiracy That Used Forged POAs To Purloin $1.6 Million In Surplus Proceeds From Tax Foreclosure Sales Belonging To Over Two Dozen Former Property Owners

In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reports:
  • A Broward tax office employee was arrested at work Thursday [July 6] in connection with a scheme that used forged documents to defraud 28 one-time county property owners out of $1.6 million, the Sheriff’s Office said.

    Five of the former property owners were dead and another one was in federal prison at the time they supposedly signed notarized documents allowing others to collect the money on their behalf, Detective John Calabro said.

    Roberto Martinez, 46, has been a county employee since 2006 and in recent years has handled surplus tax deed distributions for the county’s tax-handling Records and Treasury Division. Officials say Martinez was working in concert with five other individuals who provided forged documents, received and spent the ill-gotten money through companies they had created.

    Arrest warrants have also been issued for Marc H. Eugene, 34; Patricia Eugene, 36; Dim Villarson, 36; Denis Eugene, 41; and Gawens St. Victor, 38.

    Marc and Patricia Eugene, siblings from North Miami, have attorneys and are expected to turn themselves in, Calabro said. Officials are still looking for the other three, he said.

    The charges include an organized scheme to defraud, money laundering, grand theft and fraudulent use of personal identification information, all first-degree felonies; and uttering forged instruments, a third-degree felony. Martinez also faces multiple counts of official misconduct, a third-degree felony. The activity took place from May 2014 through July 2016, officials said.

    As the Sun Sentinel reported in May, the tax office called in authorities last year after receiving complaints from people filing claims who were told that their money had already been paid out to others. Martinez was reassigned pending the outcome of the investigation and removed from any cash-handling duties.

    Martinez has now been placed on leave pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing expected within the next week, County Administrator Bertha Henry said Thursday. He is facing a bond of $915,000, based on the 102 counts against him.

    “We have not seen any evidence that there were any other employees that could have been involved with this,” Henry said.

    The State Attorney’s Office and Fort Lauderdale Police Department also participated in the investigation.

    Martinez’s salary is $42,249 a year. Calabro said Martinez made 27 cash deposits into a credit union account totaling $89,100 in 2015 and 2016 “without a legitimate source of income,” and he paid $6,000 in cash for 2013 Kia Sorrento.

    In all of the 28 cases, the properties were sold involuntarily at auction because their owners owed taxes on them. Proceeds from the auction, called a tax deed sale, are used to pay the delinquent taxes and accrued interest, then any governmental liens, mortgages or other debts. The former owner is entitled to whatever amount remains.

    Sometimes, a former owner will sign an agreement with a company or individual to act on their behalf to get the money. The power of attorney document gives the company the right to file for and collect the remaining funds.

    It was forged power of attorney documents that were used in these cases, Calabro said. Also, all the notaries on the forged documents told police they did not notarize the documents and their signatures were forged.

    The money owed from the auction of the properties had sat uncollected for months or more, which indicated to the group that maybe no one would be coming forward to collect it, Calabro said.

    “Information was passed on when no one came forward to say we want this money back,” Calabro said.

    There have been court cases over the payments that were made using the allegedly forged documents:

    -- Two lawsuits filed last year charge that Nu Concepts Investments LLC of North Miami, CSC Equity of Miami Beach, and Marc Eugene filed forged documents to obtain $145,000 owed to property owners in Miramar. Eugene represented both companies.

    -- Patricia Eugene has been on trial in Miami-Dade County on charges that she collected $161,686 from a tax deed sale for a Pembroke Pines property after submitting a forged power of attorney form on behalf of her and her company, Concrete Capital LLC. A court order has frozen $124,745 that she paid to her attorney, David Joffe, who was representing her after her arrest, saying the money was proceeds from unlawful activity..

    -- A judge in February ordered the county to pay nearly $80,000 to the heirs of a Hallandale Beach property owner who had died four years before a document was signed with her name and used to collect money from the auction of her property. Those payments were made to St. Victor.

    Marc Eugene was involved with 15 of the fraudulent payments, St. Victor with six, Denis Eugene with 3, Patricia Eugene with two and Dim Villarson with one, according to the arrest warrant. The distributions ranged from $2,848 to $274,068.

    It was very unfortunate for a whole bunch of people,” said Miguel Grillo, one of the affected property owners who was out almost $40,000 after the auction of his Reflections at Pembroke Pines condominium. “I knew it was someone inside. It was so clear.”

    Grillo said he may have to hire an attorney to get the money he is owed. Henry said any money the county will have to repay to the victims is covered by insurance.

    While the county’s policies for handling notarized documents met state requirements, it beefed up verifications of powers of attorney after the concerns were raised, Henry said.

    Besides submitting a notarized document, people seeking power of attorney must provide some form of identification for the person they claim to represent, such as a copy of that person’s driver’s license, and contact information for the individual, officials said.