A plan from Miami-Dade lawmakers to penalize fraud and abuse in condominium associations earned unanimous initial approval in House and Senate committees this week.
The bills, most notably, impose new criminal penalties for falsifying association documents, committing fraud in association elections and refusing to turn over administrative records, among other reforms.
"A lot of these reforms are a long time coming," said Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami, who is sponsoring the Senate bill (SB 1682) with Sen. René García, R-Hialeah. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 8-0 to advance their bill Wednesday.
García said some condo associations have "gone a little rogue; it's gotten out of control."
"There are hundreds of people living in condos who don't feel they have a voice," he said. "We, as elected members, represent a constituency and these board members also represent a constituency. There should be accountability measures in place to ensure they take care of the monies of the association and the residents of the association."
The Florida Bar opposes the provisions creating new criminal penalties, fearing it could be a "major disincentive" to volunteers who serve on condo boards, attorney William Sklar said.
Rodríguez said the criminal penalties are a necessity, though, because "people think there are violations already when there are not in existing law."
"Criminal penalties allow local law enforcement to do what they’re willing to do -- which is, if an election is stolen, to get involved," Rodríguez said.
A similar House bill -- HB 1237, from Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami -- got unanimous approval from the Civil Justice & Claims Subcommittee on Tuesday. Both bills each have two more committee hearings before they could reach the floor.
Many of the proposed reforms stem from recommendations in a Miami-Dade grand jury report, which came after el Nuevo Herald and Univision 23 published a series of investigative stories one year ago on condo abuses in South Florida — revealing electoral fraud, falsification of signatures, conflicts of interest, embezzlement and cases of fraudulent bidding. The series also exposed the lack of enforcement by authorities, from local police departments who refused to investigate allegations of fraud, to widespread negligence at the state agency in charge of enforcing condo laws and regulations and investigating complaints.
El Nuevo Herald reporter Brenda Medina and Univision 23 reporter Erika Carrillo contributed to this report.
Photo credit: Roberto Koltun / el Nuevo Herald