Former board president at Hallandale Beach condo faces spending inquiry [2-24-15]
Article and Video Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel
By Amy Shipley
Published February 24, 2015
State regulators ordered a Hallandale Beach condo president to resign immediately after learning he was a convicted felon. Robert Picerno refused.
When a state investigator told Picerno to reinstate two owners improperly kicked off the De Soto Park Condominium board, he said no. When regulators demanded association records, he declined. And when they served him with a subpoena, he ignored it.
Picerno’s defiance eventually cost residents of the seven-building, 549-unit complex in the Three Islands neighborhood a total of more than $16,000 in fines.
Now state regulators are looking into owners’ allegations that Picerno misspent $177,000 in condo money while Hallandale Beach Police investigate possible embezzlement, grand theft and fraud, a detective told the newspaper.
The tumult that accompanied Picerno’s 18 months as president at De Soto Park reflects a sense of powerlessness familiar to many condominium owners across South Florida: They have little recourse when condo boards don’t know or follow the law. Some complain of slammed doors — or even retribution — when they press for details about how their money is spent.
Even when disgruntled owners get the ear of state regulators, action can come slowly — or never. State records in the De Soto Park case show regulators have limited authority over board members who insist on doing as they please.
Records obtained from the city and state show a condo roiled by conflict during Picerno’s tenure as president. Residents filed more than a dozen complaints with the state and city against Picerno and the association, some alleging Picerno misspent their money or the association stonewalled them when they asked questions.
The association sent cease-and-desist letters to two owners who complained and slapped one couple with a defamation lawsuit.
“This is so unfair, especially since we’ve been telling [state regulators] for so long what has been going on,” said owner Annette Pintado, who filed a complaint and got sued.
Picerno told the Sun Sentinel he gave the condominium a dramatic face lift without raising fees, yet was constantly under siege from a small group of malcontents.
“They didn’t have any knowledge of how to do things and all they wanted to do was complain,” Picerno, 68, said in a telephone interview. “They hassled me enough and tortured me and my family. … I tried to do my best, but they made up story after story after story.”
Felons not allowed;
Picerno shouldn’t have been on the board in the first place — yet it took the state six months to remove him.
Florida law bans felons who have not had their civil rights restored from serving on condominium boards, and Picerno had been convicted of bribery and conspiracy in Rhode Island in 2004.
Regulators were alerted to Picerno’s felony conviction near the end of 2013, Picerno’s first year as president. De Soto Park residents sent news clippings detailing Picerno’s trial for soliciting bribes while serving on a local planning board in Lincoln, R.I.
The state told Picerno to step down. Instead, he put himself on the ballot for re-election in 2014 — and won.
Picerno finally stepped down in August 2014, after state regulators fined the association $16,579.80, demanded reinstatement of the 2013 board of directors (with the exception of Picerno), and threatened additional $5,000 fines for any board member who failed to comply.
When asked why he ignored the state’s demand for six months, Picerno said: “I’m not going to answer that. When I first ran, I was checked out … and given the green light.”
A whirlwind of construction under Picerno brought improvements including new security cameras, roof and fountain lights, tile and paint. Those projects also brought questions from unit owners, who noticed problems ranging from a lack of permits to exposed wiring.
City inspectors cited the condo for code violations in seven major projects carried out on Picerno’s watch, ordering immediate fixes that are still underway and have cost owners thousands of dollars.
But when residents demanded the association provide specifics on how their money was being spent, they were rebuffed. And so were state regulators.
At least two owners sent letters to the De Soto Park board requesting association records on the construction and other spending. Neither got the records, but both got attention from a De Soto Park attorney.
One was told in an unsigned letter from the association she could review records — if she ponied up $540. The other received his certified letter back — the association had declined it. Both owners filed complaints with the state.
Regulators sided with the owners and tried — unsuccessfully — to obtain the records through written requests to Picerno, then violation notices and, finally, a subpoena.
As the owners awaited records that never came, the association sent a cease-and-desist letter to one and filed a defamation suit against another.
De Soto Park’s attorney also fired off a cease-and-desist letter to a unit owner who complained to the state that Picerno began following her after she tried to solicit signatures to oust him from the board late in 2013.
The lawsuit and letters contained virtually identical allegations, including that the owners had made “statements misrepresenting … Picerno’s qualifications and eligibility as a board member … without any factual basis.”
Two other board members were removed illegally, the state concluded. State investigator Carl Hecht told Picerno in a Jan. 16 email that only unit owners could vote to recall board members, so board members Dora Shvartsman and Boris Breytman should be reinstated.
“Once again,” Hecht wrote, “the Division will expect the Association to follow the law.”
Once again, Picerno did not follow the law. In a letter to Breytman, Hecht wrote: “Mr. Picerno … refused to reinstate you to the board.”
Only after Picerno stepped down, six months later, did Breytman and Shvartsman return to the board.
Can’t follow the money;
Condo owners’ money can be misused or wasted when the volunteers that serve on association boards ignore warning signs and fail to pay close attention.
Financial surprises hit De Soto Park near the end of 2013. Some board members claimed they never approved the association’s purchase of a condo or the spending of $176,945 from its reserve fund. The condo also exceeded its budget for repairs and maintenance by more than $300,000.
The condo’s accountant said he had tried to warn the board, but no one took action.
“I kept saying, this guy has got a debit card and he’s not writing receipts,” accountant Brian Calvarese said. “No one stepped up to him on the board.”
Calvarese told the Sun Sentinel he was so troubled by what he saw he took his concerns to Hallandale Beach Detective Chris Grieco.
Calvarese and Grieco said Picerno used association money to pay off his and his wife’s cellphone bill. Picerno bought laptops, cellphones and a television with De Soto Park money, Calvarese said. He spent association dollars at restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations, Calvarese said, and used a De Soto Park debit card without showing how he spent the money.
Calvarese said Picerno also spent money he was not authorized to touch, from the association’s reserve account.
State law requires condominiums to set aside money to pay for major repairs or future expenses. These reserve funds may be used only to pay for those designated, down-the-line expenses, unless unit owners vote to free the money for other purchases or operating expenses.
Some board members alleged no such vote occurred in 2013, yet the annual financial statements assembled by Calvarese recorded $176,945 in reserve spending.
Picerno told the Sun Sentinel no money came from the general reserves, but records show his signature on multiple checks from that account.
One bought golf carts. Others went to a landscaping supply company and other businesses and individuals, their memo or subject lines indicated.
“Nobody voted” to use that money, Calvarese said. “There was no board resolution. Nothing documented.”
Reserve funds were even used to purchase a condo unit at De Soto Park.
Unit No. 116 in Building Four cost the association $75,000. Just over a month after the purchase, De Soto Park sold it for $78,500 to a company owned by a real estate agent who does business at the complex. Two months after that, the agent’s company sold the unit for $122,000 — a profit of more than $40,000.
Picerno declined to comment on specific transactions.
“I’m not going to answer any more questions because all they’re looking for is trouble,” he told the newspaper.
It’s now been more than a year since four 2013 board members and one unit owner filed complaints with the state almost simultaneously in December 2013.
“Mr Picerno feels that he can spend and do as he pleases,” Max Levine wrote in his complaint.
“Mr. Picerno always disregards board members and unit owners in what he decides to do,” wrote Catherine Impliazzo.
“Mr. Picerno refuses to give us access to the records,” wrote Breytman, and “has taken money from the reserve account without approval of the majority of the unit owners and board members.”
Association attorney Isaac Manzo disputed the allegations in an April 2014 email to state regulators: “The Association completely denies all allegations in the complaints in this case and also vehemently protests the unfounded, harassing conduct of” state regulators.
Picerno told the Sun Sentinel: “The board knew everything I was doing. I would explain in the office; they knew everything that was going on.”
The final days;
Picerno served as board president through the spring and summer of 2014, even after his arrest following a brawl with a teenage condo resident.
Police sought Picerno on the night of a De Soto Park board meeting, saying he hit and kicked the boy and tried to hit him with a metal flashlight.
The boy had argued with Picerno and a security guard over whether police would be called to the boy’s apartment after a complaint that the boy had been peeping through a window, according to police.
The boy suffered cuts to his forehead and lips and a broken hand, the arrest report stated. Police charged Picerno with assault and battery and the guard with battery.
While awaiting trial, Picerno continued his work for the board. In December, he pleaded no contest and adjudication was withheld.
Picerno is currently serving 12 months’ probation.
Now, he said, he just wants to be left alone.
“They’re just mean, vindictive people,” he said. “I tried to do my best to help them. All they ever did was turn everything around.”