Like most residents of the Roads neighborhood in Miami, northwest of Brickell Avenue and the Rickenbacker Causeway, Lorraine Albury didn't take to the high-rise idea. When developers proposed a nine-story apartment tower on a tiny swatch of property four blocks from the house where she has spent the past 56 years of her life, Albury scrounged for money to help pay a lawyer to quash the development.
"I was strapped at the time. I did without," recalls the 81-year-old Albury, who feared that visitors to the apartments would park their cars outside her modest home. "It's one of those things that you have to do. I sacrificed plenty. I would have liked to do other things, but I couldn't do them. It was a hardship for most people to donate, but everybody gave what they could give."
Luis Herrera, a truck driver who lives near Albury, shared the sacrifice. When a community volunteer explained that the first legal bill would be $2500, Herrera raided his vacation fund. "The lady collecting money told me the lawyer needed $2500," he recalls. "She only had something like $400. I told her to wait one minute, I'll be back in a second. I made a check for $2500 and I gave it to her. That was my vacation money, for my grandchildren to go to Disney World."
Besides forgoing Space Mountain, Herrera grew so intent on killing the apartment tower project that he became president of the Vizcaya Roads Homeowners' Association. Some nights he would stay up past 1:00 a.m. posting flyers on front doors, only to leave two hours later for the commute to his job in Jupiter. "He busted his tail. He really worked at it and suffered," says Jesus Roiz, a neighbor who joined Herrera's group.
Mostly Herrera collected money for the lawyers. Walking door to door, he solicited checks made out to the Luis Herrera Legal Fund. The money he collected went to pay for about $50,000 in legal services, reasonable when you consider that the case against the developer and the City of Miami went all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, in 1992 -- and that the Supreme Court ruled in the homeowners' favor.
In a settlement this past September, the City of Miami agreed to pay the developer (an openly acknowledged friend of three Miami city commissioners) one million dollars to not build the project. The homeowners' group enjoyed a small return as well, in the form of $50,000 to cover the legal fees. In December primary attorney John Fletcher took from that pile his final fee of $3129. The remaining cache was to be returned to the Lorraine Alburys and Jesus Roizes who had donated money.
Emphasis on the was.
Six months after the city cut the $50,000 check, no homeowner has received a dime. Roiz insists that Herrera is a sloppy bookkeeper who can't be trusted to return the money to the residents. Herrera counters that he is the president of the group and is free to distribute (or not distribute) the money as he sees fit. A judge will settle the matter.
"The unfortunate thing is the neighbors should be working together to resolve these issues rather than fighting with each other and distracting from what they really should be doing," says John Shubin, the lawyer who is now trying to sort out the mess. "What they really should be doing is finding everybody who gave money and returning it to them."
Roiz insists that Herrera has not properly documented all the donations he collected. Roiz is his own best example. According to Herrera's accounting, Roiz is due $200 for his past contributions. Roiz insists he donated more than $500. This discrepancy makes Roiz suspicious about all the other donations.
Roiz joined Herrera's fight to kill the project back in 1991, dropping out a year later to assist the recovery from Hurricane Andrew. He renewed his interest in the homeowners' association after the city settlement and, in a letter to Herrera, demanded a reconciliation of the books: "During the first years of fundraising, and in spite of frequent requests, you were always reluctant to produce financial statements. Moreover, after six years of existence of this fund I have never seen an audit of this account. Now you are no longer in trouble, the suits have been successful and everything can go back to normal. At this point there has to be a reconciliation and an audit for this account performed by an outside certified firm. You are dealing with moneys belonging to hundreds of people and which came from the city's general fund. The refund has to be handled in a strict business fashion.
"I intend to oversee this work and I am willing to work to make sure that ALL contributors get their money back."
Grumbles Roiz: "He was very sloppy. His records were handwritten on pieces of paper stored in a cardboard box. I do not believe his record of contributors is a complete listing. We do not know who the contributors are. There might be people who are out there who do not know that the money has been returned. That's why I am asking for a public listing."
Upset that other people were telling him what to do, Herrera refused to hire an outside accountant; he had already found a neighbor willing to do the job for free. Roiz recommended a second, independent accountant. "He charge $130 an hour," Herrera stammers in his uncertain English. "I call Mr. Fletcher. I say, 'I am not going to pay $130 to do accounting when I got one that's gonna do it for nothing.' No way I'm going to do it."
Further annoying Herrera, Barbara Samet, one of the founders of the homeowners' association, also called to voice her opposition to his choice of accountants. "I said, 'Barbara, what do you mean I can't do that? This man is going to do it for us for free.' She said to me, 'No, you can't do that.' I said, 'Well listen, let me tell you something. I am the president of this association and this man offers it for free and that's the way we're gonna do it.'" (Samet declined to be interviewed for this story.)
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Herrera insists he is no thief and that he has maintained a proper accounting of all the money. "I don't steal no money from nobody, never in my life," he declares. "I made a copy of all the checks, including the cash money. Whatever they give to me, I got a copy." Still, Herrera admits he doesn't know how much money he personally donated to the fund. "I never figured out how much I got in there. I figure about $8000, or something like that, from my own pocket."
After the September 1995 settlement, attorney Fletcher sent numerous letters asking Herrera, Roiz, and Samet to agree on a method of disbursement. He had not made any progress by March of this year, when he was appointed to the Third District Court of Appeals. The prestigious judicial appointment spurred him toward a speedy solution. In a legal motion, he asked Circuit Court Judge Celeste Muir to distribute the money as she sees fit. A hearing is scheduled for July 10.
At an initial hearing before Muir, a neighbor who accompanied Herrera declared that no money should be returned. "The only persons asking for money back are Barbara Samet and Jesus Roiz," said Carolina Paez, according to court documents. "The rest of the neighbors, they don't want money back. They'd rather have a strong association."
Herrera, a Cuban immigrant, is distancing himself from that comment. Even if the rest of the neighbors don't want the money, he says, they should have it back. "I don't care about money. I came to this country with one hand on the floor and the other hand behind my back. I don't value money. I am going to give the money back to everybody, so there is nothing to worry about.