Former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina beamed and clenched his fist when he and his wife beat a criminal rap in their recent tax-evasion trial.
But as he ponders a possible return to political life, one particular piece of trial evidence could dog Robaina on any future campaign trail — a secretive $800,000 fee he collected years ago for helping a developer make a $16 million profit on a taxpayer-funded land sale to the Miami-Dade County public schools.
The payment came from Robaina’s most generous political patron, the late Roberto Cayon. The wealthy developer tapped Robaina — then serving as the powerful president of the Hialeah City Council — to help overcome strong community opposition to a proposed high-density, multifamily housing development in neighboring Hialeah Gardens. Residents expressed fears that more new homes would further pack already-jammed schools.
Robaina, appearing as Cayon’s real estate broker and lead advocate at a packed public hearing, helped persuade the Hialeah Gardens City Council in January 2003 to allow a substantial land-use change. It doubled the number of allowable dwellings on the parcel — up to 1,050 units on 84 acres in the tiny city.
What critics of the project and the Hialeah Gardens council were not told then was that the Miami-Dade School Board had already approached the Cayon family to purchase the very same tract to help ease school overcrowding.
The up-zoning, narrowly approved 3-2, amounted to a jackpot for Robaina and the Cayons — instantly increasing the value of a tract just purchased for $14 million. But it also cost taxpayers millions.
Although they never built the ambitious original project, the Cayons eventually sold a big chunk of their property to the school board, which decided to buy it under an eminent domain “taking.”