By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Norman Braman is arguably the most powerful man in Miami-Dade. He sits atop $1.6 billion, owns the city's largest auto dealership, recalls county mayors as if they were unruly children, and funnels small fortunes to political candidates. In short, the octogenarian practically rules this town.
But one of Braman's ex-employees is aiming to take the billionaire down a notch. Ulises Ruiz, a former service consultant at Braman BMW on Biscayne Boulevard, claims the dealership routinely performed unnecessary repairs to milk millions out of carmakers and customers alike.
"The general practice at Braman was to encourage and pressure service consultants to order unnecessary services and repairs on vehicles covered by the manufacturer's warranty," Ruiz alleges in a lawsuit filed October 29.
Braman says he is aware of Ruiz's claims but insists it's the suit — not his dealership's charges — that's bogus. "I think he is a disgruntled employee," Braman says. "We are not a high-pressure sales organization... We take pride in the reputation that we have built up over the course of all these years. That speaks for itself."
Ruiz says supervisors held weekly meetings to pressure employees to invent problems, and when repair orders were deemed insufficient, managers wrote question marks on them and sent them back.
"You had to make up a story just to milk the warranty," Ruiz tells New Times. "Imagine: You drop off your BMW for an oil leak, and when you pick it up, they tell you they had to replace an AC evaporator. That's $5,000! Even if your car is under warranty, would you like the entire dashboard taken apart on your new car?"
Sometimes the dealership wouldn't even replace the part, Ruiz claims. "They just open up the new one, get it dirty, and send it back to BMW."
Ruiz says he bristled at the bogus charges. But when he complained of the shady practice in December 2011, his supervisor shut him down. "He said that the extra money was 'job security' and that I should shut up about it," Ruiz remembers. He complained again in February of last year. Ruiz was fired roughly a month later.
Last week, Ruiz put a classified ad in the Miami Herald seeking people bilked by Braman. But the ad ran for only one day before it was removed. An employee in the Herald's classifieds department said she wasn't sure why the ad was axed. Her manager could not be reached. Ruiz says when he asked why the ad was canceled, a Herald employee told him someone had called to complain.
"Norman Braman has enough power to do that," Ruiz says. "He's got the money and the connections. I'm sure he had it removed."