Update: Administrators of Venezulan news blog UltimaHora24 say they are aware of the lawsuit against them and retracted their article on the de Grazia brothers weeks ago. According to a statement issued on Monday, UltimaHora24 claims it is not responsible for content published from third-party sources. Administrators say the article in question was a repost from another site.
In Miami's fast-growing Venezuelan community, few things are worse than being known as an enchufado. It's a scarlet letter worn by those believed to have enriched themselves through political connections to the regimes of Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro and the late Hugo Chávez.
Ask enough Venezuelans expats in Florida, and they'll tell you the state is practically crawling with these unsavory types. A suspected enchufado's business ties, alleged wealth, and proximity to corruption in Venezuela are all fair game and scrutinized through social media, WhatsApp chats, and internet blogs — on certain occasions operating on little more than suspicion.
For years, enchufado rumors have been swirling around brothers Carmelo and Levin de Grazia, the owners of the Florida-based restaurant chain Bocas Group. But the de Grazias appear to have finally reached their limit: Earlier this month, the two filed a defamation lawsuit against three South Floridians who allegedly spread gossip on blogs and social media accusing the pair of laundering money for corrupt Venezuelan officials through their restaurants.
According to the civil complaint filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, the ordeal began at the end of August when an anonymous Venezuelan blog, UltimaHora24, published an article claiming the de Grazia brothers and their cousin Horacio were using the restaurant chain to launder portions of the estimated $1.2 billion embezzled by officials in the Maduro regime from Venezuela's state-owned oil company. The article was then reposted and shared on social media by two other anonymous blogs: Expresa and VozDeAmerica. (The original article has been removed from UltimaHora24 but is still available in internet archives.) The brothers claim "upon information and belief" that all three of the websites are owned and operated by Doral resident Gerardo Jose Gils Dams.
Venezuelan journalist Angie Perez is also named as a defendant. The brothers' suit says Perez shared the article on her Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages and also uploaded her own Instagram post with a photo of a private jet in Opa-locka she claims belongs to Levin de Grazia.
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El avión privado de @levindegrazia Lo tiene en el aeropuerto de #OpaLocka aquí en #Miami, pero la empresa está registrada en el paraíso fiscal de #Delaware, a su vez registrada bajo otra empresa que le tapa el a muchísimas empresas sospechosas. Qué cosas, no? Por cierto: su pasajera principal es @deboramenicucci, esposa de @maikelmorenotsj La llevan a cada rato a Las Bahamas para agarrar sol y hacer #shopping CC: @treasurydept @marcorubiofla @flsenrickscott @scottforflorida @oscar_ganem @incoherenciadigital
The lawsuit claims the campaign to defame the restaurant owners was orchestrated by Cesar Gonzalez, a former co-owner of Bocas Group and former manager of a now-closed Bocas restaurant in Coral Gables. The civil complaint details an elaborate plot that supposedly involved Gonzalez paying Dams to make the posts and then, using intermediaries, requesting $70,000 from Levin de Grazia to take them down. (The suit suggests Perez's alleged involvement was limited to reposting the articles and making her own social media posts and does not link her to any attempts at extortion.)
In a public statement, Levin de Grazia said the enchufado accusations are an attack on his livelihood.
"Bocas has never lent itself, nor will it ever, for money laundering. On the contrary, the origin of the funds used for the foundation and the growth of the restaurants is completely lawful, auditable, and has been fully declared to the competent authorities in the United States of America," he wrote. "It is an unfortunate reality that entrepreneurs who work hard sometimes face attacks from disgruntled former partners."
An administrator with Expresa tells New Times the site is run by a decentralized network of journalists who did not know or have any relation to Dams. Likewise, an administrator from VozDeAmerica says the site has no relation to Dams and did not even know about the lawsuit.
No contact information is provided on UltimaHora24's website. Perez declined to comment on the lawsuit when contacted by New Times. Gonzalez has not responded to a message sent via Twitter, and Dams could not be reached for comment.
In 2015, Levin de Grazia opened the first Bocas restaurant, Bocas Grill, in Miami. In less than four years, Bocas Grill and its sister franchise, Bocas House, expanded to five other locations. Bocas Group also owns four other restaurants in the Miami area: Francisca, Kitchen of the World, Laborejo, and La Fontana. Additional Bocas Group restaurants are under construction.
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El recurso humano es lo mas importante en una corporación. Son el cliente más importante y por ello son seleccionados con pinza en las grandes corporaciones, pero en las grandes. Hace 4 años iniciamos un sueño, un emprendimiento familiar que se expandió de manera tan rápida e inesperada que no logramos a la par profesionalizar el proceso de reclutamiento del personal y de supervisión de los que nos venían acompañando desde el principio cuando éramos solo un par de restaurantes. Se nos fueron presentando nuevos retos y las exigencias crecieron. Algunos han logrado comprometerse con la evolución de la visión y la filosofía, a esos llamo mi equipo, otros lamentablemente fueron perdiendo la perspectiva y quedándose atrás o debajo de la expectativa del cargo que ocupaban. Un buen equipo significa un aumento del 30% de tu revenue y un mal equipo su decrecimiento también en 30%. En las corporaciones, la elección de un buen equipo es fundamental. Y si la gente que conforma tu corporación no está a la altura y se convierte en un vicio, debes desprenderte de el. Un buen equipo se evalúa en los resultados que obtiene la corporación en cuanto a números: cantidad de clientes satisfechos y felices, traducido en incremento constante de las ventas. ¿Cómo persiste una corporación en el tiempo? ¡Con resultados positivos! Si tu “equipo” no te genera números verdes, es hora de cambiarlo porque no estan llevando a cabo su principal objetivo: la transcendencia. Es un tema de entendimiento mutuo. Debes comprender, valorar y amar a tu equipo, siempre y cuando tu equipo sea recíproco contigo y persiga con amor y esfuerzo tus mismos objetivos. Entiendo que no sea para todos fácil entenderlo. Hoy me siento más cerca de lograr el estándar de recurso humano que nuestros comensales merecen.
The de Grazias are expats from San Cristobal, Venezuela, where their uncle, Américo de Grazia, is an opposition lawmaker in the country's national assembly. Carmelo de Grazia, Levin's brother, lives in Caracas, according to the lawsuit.
The restaurateurs' sudden success stirred suspicion among many Venezuelan expats, particularly on social media, where they wondered publicly how Levin de Grazia obtained the funding to open so many restaurants so quickly. Levin de Grazia took notice. In a 2017 WLRN article, he likened an anonymous Instagram post accusing him of money laundering to a witch hunt and said the gossip could ruin his business. "No Venezuelans here want to go to a Chavista restaurant," he said.
The business grew, and the rumors persisted. The lawsuit claims the accusations have left the plaintiffs subject to "hatred, distrust, ridicule, contempt, or disgrace."
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The growth of whisper networks against suspected enchufados has coincided with a jump in federal indictments against former Venezuelan officials and individuals with Chavista ties residing in or hiding assets in the United States. There's no doubt there are plenty of enchufados around, but proving those accusations can be difficult.
The Miami-based group Veppex (an acronym for Politically Persecuted Venezuelans in Exile, in Spanish) recently launched a platform where individuals can anonymously submit information about suspected enchufados. The group says it forwards all credible accusations to the Department of Justice and other federal agencies.
"In cases where one is looking to denounce an enchufado, the best thing to do is get in touch with U.S. authorities so that they can investigate," Veppex president José Colina says, "because, in the end, you're going to need to have proof."
This story has been updated to accurately reflect the relationship between Levin and Carmelo de Grazia and their uncle, Américo de Grazia.