Proposed Florida bill would create a condo police force

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Soon Florida could have condominium cops who would bust those who defraud community associations.

The state officers would have the authority to inspect the records and premises of any state regulated community — condos, homeowners, cooperatives, mobile home parks and timeshares. The cases they uncover would be handed over to a state attorney's office.

"We are getting so many cases of potential fraud that most local police departments are too overwhelmed to deal with them," said Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami, who filed House Bill 1397, proposing the new police force. "And most often they are low priorities for police who must worry about robberies and murders. So, nothing happens. But all this police force will do is condo fraud cases."

State Sen. Rudy Garcia, R- Hialeah, filed the companion Senate Bill 2302.

"We expect support for this bill," Robaina said. "But in this economy, any proposal with a fiscal impact is a concern."

Currently, those who suspect fraud must investigate it themselves and find proof police can work with, said William Raphan, of the state Office of the Condominium Ombudsman.

That's what happened at Whitehall Condominiums of Pine Island Ridge II Association, in Davie.

Whitehall's former president, Christopher John Winkelholz, stole almost $760,000 from the 264-unit community before his arrest in October, 2007. He pleaded no contest to charges of forgery and grand larceny.

The crimes were uncovered when board member Peter J. Trapani questioned why some repairs were never completed. Trapani searched bank records and found Winkelholz was paying himself large sums from association accounts. He then told police.

Trapani backs the new proposal, saying, "anything more than we have now will be helpful. But we need cops who will be aggressive."

On the other hand, Barbara Zee, of the umbrella group Alliance of Delray, would rather provide more authority and staff to the Office of the Condominium Ombudsman.

"We recognize fraud is a problem in some places," she said. "But it is a different atmosphere in other parts of Florida."

Miami-Dade has at least a dozencondo fraud cases ready to be investigated, Robaina said, adding his efforts are also in reaction to especially egregious cases.

In one such case, owners in Parker Plaza Estates, in Hallandale Beach, hired an attorney to ferret out an alleged kickback scheme. Charged with organized fraud were association president Joseph Greenberg, association manager Robert Hittner, maintenance supervisor Angel Ramos, and plumbing contractor Ira Silver. Prosecutors contend they plotted to siphon $1.4 million from the treasury of the 520-apartment condo. Greenberg pleaded no contest to communications fraud and was sentenced to seven years probation. The other cases are pending.

Robaina hopes to launch the condo force with at least four officers. He'd tap money from the $10.5 million Condominium Trust Fund, funded by annual $4 fees paid by owners. Robaina said using the fund this way is more in line with its mission, as opposed to the $26 million taken by lawmakers in January and transferred to the state's general budget.

"I am simply asking to take $380,000 from the fund and create this independent police force," Robaina said.

If passed, the bills would empower the state to create and employ law enforcement officers whose primary responsibility would be to investigate, enforce and prosecute violations of Florida Statutes Chapters 468, 718, 719, 721 and 723. The officers would likely be headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Robaina said, but would handle statewide cases.

Part of the money stolen from Whitehall included nearly $400,000 in special assessments.

"To pay them, some of our people had to cut back on bills, on medications. Some came to our office and begged for more time to pay as tears rolled down their cheeks. And our president stole all of that assessment money and more," Trapani said.

Daniel Vazquez can be reached at condocolumn@sunsentinel.com or at 954-356-4219. His condo column runs every Wednesday in the Local section and online at www.sunsentinel.com/condos. You can also read his consumer column every Monday in Your Money and online at www.SunSentinel.com/vasquez.

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