See no evil: How a culture of secrecy boosts South Florida鈥檚 condo market Luxury properties in the region are ensnared in an alleged billion-dollar embezzlement and money-laundering scheme. Those who built them? Not so much.
(Illustration by Adria Fruitos)
A聽lawyer with ties to Venezuela s oil ministry, a member of the country鈥檚 鈥渂oliburgues铆a鈥?elite and a money launderer sat around a Caracas office table while armed guards and a German shepherd with a shock collar stood watch.
The boliburgu茅s placed his handgun on the table. It was November 2015, and the three Venezuelans were pressuring an unnamed associate to persist with a scheme that U.S. authorities would later allege embezzled $1.2 billion from the Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA. Much of that money, according to a criminal complaint, ended up in South Florida real estate.
Among those reportedly alleged to be connected to the scheme: the three stepsons of the country鈥檚 embattled president, Nicol谩s Maduro; a billionaire Venezuelan TV mogul; and former executives at PDVSA. Eight people have been charged in the case so far, while one defendant 鈥?a wealth manager at a Swiss bank 鈥?was arrested in August.
With a federal investigation ongoing, the U.S. attorney鈥檚 office could seize at least 16 South Florida properties tied to the defendants. But in the initial complaint filed in July 2018, only one was explicitly named: Unit 2205 at the Porsche Design Tower in Sunny Isles. Federal officials allege this condo was ultimately transferred by Carmelo Urdaneta Aqui 鈥?who until 2015 was legal counsel to the Venezuelan oil ministry 鈥?to the alleged money launderer, Jos茅 Vicente Amparan Croquer, as payment for services rendered.
Luxury real estate in South Florida has long served as a magnet for wealth from South America. The continent鈥檚 tycoons, celebrities, athletes and assorted hustlers have seen it both as a playground and a bank 鈥?a good place to invest or park cash, given its proximity, culture, weather and, most of all, its discretion: The provenance of the wealth has historically mattered little to Miami-area developers and brokers. What鈥檚 mattered is that their buyers have it.
But even though today鈥檚 tougher anti-money laundering laws impose stricter disclosure requirements on banks and lenders involved in real estate purchases, those who build product and those who sell for them can continue to benefit from a culture of secrecy, thanks in no small part to the real estate industry鈥檚 intense lobbying and donations at every rung of the political ladder.聽
鈥淒evelopers and real estate agents have no legal obligation to conduct customer due diligence on the purchasers of real property,鈥?said Ross Delston, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer and anti-money laundering expert, 鈥渙ther than to abide by the general tenet that a business would want to avoid taking part in a criminal scheme.鈥?/span>
Gil Dezer, who built the Porsche Design Tower, maintains that his firm operates within the law. He cited anti-discrimination laws, including the Fair Housing Act, that his company interpreted as requiring it to sell to a buyer who can sign a contract and send a deposit. It鈥檚 an argument some of his fellow developers have also made. But experts in money laundering and housing law challenged this interpretation.
鈥淭here鈥檚 nothing in the fair housing law that eliminates or reduces the duty to ensure the legitimacy of funds in a transaction,鈥?said Charles Intriago, a former federal prosecutor and anti-money laundering expert. 鈥淭hat鈥檚 bullshit.鈥?/span>
In May 2016, Urdaneta told associates about a 鈥渟ignificant deposit鈥?he put down on a unit in Miami. The developer, he said according to the complaint, was pressuring him to close in 60 days.
The condo was located on the 22nd floor of the glassy, black cylindrical Porsche Design Tower. The skyscraper marked the apex of the post-recession luxury condo construction boom 阿爱上海同城