Around 18 months ago, an official complaint was filed with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR), the state agency that oversees the operations and integrity of condominium associations, asserting that Victor Rios and Joseph Shady were elected directors of the Belize Condominium Association in violation of state statute.
Holland and Knight, legal representatives of Joseph Fleming, an owner of the record within the Belize Condominium Association, issued a Demand Letter on April 17, 2019, to the Belize Board of Directors requesting they immediately disqualify Rios and Shady, who had been elected at the March 22 meeting.
The request was based on the assertion that the two directors had been elected in violation of Florida Statute 718.112(2)(d)(2), which disallows board members serving more than 8 consecutive years, unless elected by a two-thirds majority of those voting in an election. Rios served on the board for 12 years and Shady for 13 years.
However, that allegation would be the least serious of the accusations made by a number of the owners within the Belize Condominium Association. In a complaint filed with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation on April 26, 2019, Fleming alleged that Rios, who was President of the Belize Board of Directors at the time, participated in a fraudulent ballot initiative.
The complaint filed with the DBPR consisted of a 66-pages, including handwriting analysis by a forensic document examiner of signatures on ballots the complaint alleges were fraudulently manufactured by Rios. At the time, the Coastal Breeze News reached out to the DBPR and confirmed the agency had received no less than five complaints as of May 10, 2019, regarding fraudulent ballots.
Subsequent inquiry by Coastal Breeze News as to how the complaints would be handled by the DBPR received the following response: “However, since the allegation in question involves the reporting of a crime, in this case dealing with forged documents, the Division would not proceed with an investigation. Instead the Division has referred this matter to the Marco Island Police Department.”
The Coastal Breeze News then reached out to the Marco Island Police Department for comments regarding the referral of the case to their agency. Then–Police–Chief Al Schettino confirmed they had received the documents as of May 15, 2019, from the DBPR. “Under Florida Public Records Laws, the complaint is confidential and exempt from public records requests. The information we have received has been referred to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) for an impartial investigation of the matter,” said Schettino, who chose not to comment further.
The forging of signatures on official documents may be punishable as a third-degree felony with fines up to $5000 and up to 5 years in jail. The Board of Directors of the Belize did receive the resignations of both Rios and Shady shortly after receipt of the Demand Letter from Fleming’s attorney. The two indicated they had believed they were “grandfathered” under the Florida Statute concerning the term limitation issue, and upon clarification of that point, they both submitted their resignations from positions on the board.
Rios was serving as Vice Chairman of the Marco Island City Council at the time the allegations were made.
FDLE now has completed its criminal investigation of the complaints regarding alleged voting irregularities and possible forgery of ballots in the March 2019 Belize Condominium Association election. The FDLE report and findings have been forwarded to the Office of the State Attorney of the Twentieth Judicial Circuit in Fort Myers. It will be a decision in that office that will determine whether charges will be brought, and a trial sought. On October 23, Assistant State Attorney Jody P. Brown indicated that the case was still under investigation and no further comments would be forthcoming at this time.
The seriousness of matters such as these cannot be understated, as the elected boards of condominium and homeowners’ associations control millions of dollars in assets of owners across the State of Florida. A number of legislative measures to tighten oversight and penalties regarding fraud and elections have been enacted in recent years by unanimous votes in both the Florida House and Senate.