On July 13, Alexander I. Perez stood underneath a new street sign christening a
portion of SE 10th Avenue in front of his Hialeah warehouse as "Banah Sweet Way." A gaggle of local politicos -- including Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, his Hialeah counterpart Carlos Hernandez, and County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa -- huddled around the owner of Banah International Group, a sugar-making company that boasts it will create 300 jobs in La Ciudad Que Progresa.
In addition to the street renaming, Perez's company has also received $400,000 in state and county tax breaks thanks to Gimenez, Hernandez, and Sosa.
The occasion capped a sweet turnaround for Perez, a 48-year-old Cuban American who was released from federal prison in 2007 after serving four years for moving a different type of ingestible white substance: cocaine.
Perez has even become a media darling at 1 Herald Plaza. In February, El Nuevo Herald trumpeted Banah's claims he will invest $32 million into its 300,000-square-foot sugar making and packaging facility. Last week, the Miami Herald's Business Monday chimed in with a mostly positive fluff piece.
For the last three weeks, Banana Republican has been investigating how this former marimbero schmoozed some of Miami-Dade's most powerful Cuban American politicos into giving him taxpayer money and a street to celebrate his new found career as a sugar pusher.
I found that the county mayor's office, when doling out incentives to companies promising jobs, doesn't do routine criminal background checks or cursory searches of the Miami-Dade civil court system, which would have easily turned up Perez's felony conviction, as well as a spate of lawsuits that raises serious doubts about Banah's financial ability to deliver the jobs promised to Hialeah residents.
THE COCAINE TRAFFICKER
Despite repeated attempts to interview Perez, Banah Marketing Director Miguel Ferro never made him available. When I took a tour of Banah's 300,000 square-foot warehouse on Oct. 10, Ferro claimed Perez had not been in the office for the entire week due to an illness. Perez also did not respond to an email with a list of questions about his criminal record and five lawsuits against Banah that allege Perez stiffed his ex-landlord, his vendors, and his former employees out of more than half-a-million dollars combined.
A native of Camaguey Cuba born on July 31, 1964, Perez caught the attention of the Drug Enforcement Administration on October 12, 1999. At approximately four that afternoon, agents pulled over two men, Ramon Andres Sanchez and Jose Luis Hernandez, in a Toyota Camry at 515 SW 65th Ave. A search of the vehicle turned up six kilos that Sanchez and Hernandez asserted they got from Perez. The pair provided sworn statements against him. Two years later, Indictment Perez Alex">the feds indicted Perez on two felony counts of cocaine conspiracy and cocaine possession with intent to sell.
In 2003, Perez, a roly-poly man with olive skin and balding gray hair, Judgement Perez Alex">pled guilty to one of the counts. He spent four years in federal lock-up.
THE RISE OF BANAH
On June 6, 2008, one year after his release from prison, Perez incorporated Banah International Financial Group and opened an office at 2100 Coral Way. A year later, he formed two more corporations, AP Energy Inc. and Banah International Group. In 2011, he incorporated Banah Sugar.
According to Banah's corporate web-site, Perez has spent the last four years building his sugar empire; initially buying and selling wholesale sugar in the commodities market. From there, Perez bought his own sugar mills in Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Paraguay, says Marketing Director Ferro, exporting 1.2 million metric tons of granular sugar a year and 1.2 million liters of liquid sugar annually.
"Now we are focusing on the domestic retail market, which is why we have this facility in Hialeah," Ferro says. "Banah sugar is on the shelves at several local chains including Sedanos, Navarro, and Presidente."
But court documents show Perez ran into financial trouble two years after starting up his new enterprise. In a lawsuit filed on April 5, a man named Sergio Gonzalez claims that Perez offered him a $200,000 annual salary on Jan. 30, 2010 to run his company from San Jose, Costa Rica. Gonzalez accepted the job, working seven months for Perez. But he never got paid.
Gonzalez alleges Perez gave him only one paycheck for $16,667 that bounced. He quit in September 2010 after Banah's landlord changed the locks to the company's office doors. Gonzalez claims Perez didn't pay the rent either. In his response to the lawsuit, Perez denies his former chief executive's accusations.
The same month Gonzalez quit, Humana sued Banah International Group for failing to pay $5,347 to cover employee healthcare benefits. The Internal Revenue Service also slapped Perez with a lien for $8,851 in unpaid employee taxes from 2009. Perez settled with Humana for $4,000 in 2011, but court records show the IRS lien is still in place.
FROM TRAFFICKING TO POLITICKING
On Banah Sugar's Facebook page, Perez loves posting photos of his new political pals. Scroll through them and you'll catch images of Mayor Gimenez with his arm draped around Perez and embattled U.S. Congressman David Rivera, who is the subject of two federal investigations, shaking hands with Banah's founder in his company's lobby.
Another pic shows Hialeah Mayor Hernandez, Hialeah City Council President Isis Garcia Martinez, and Herman Echevarria, owner of Miami socialite magazine Venue, in Perez's office at Banah's Hialeah headquarters. They are standing in front of a wall decorated with a large photo of former President George H. Bush and former Soviet Union head Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as seals for the Central Intelligence Agency, the Office of Homeland Security, and the Vice-President of The United States.
The politicians provided Perez with more than just photo-ops. On Oct. 13, 2011, Rivera awarded Perez with a "Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition" due to his "outstanding and invaluable service to the community." At the presentation ceremony in Washington D.C,, Rivera and Perez were joined by Congresswoman Illeana Ros-Lehitinen and Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart.
Rivera spokeswoman Leslie Veiga says the congressman did not know about Perez's criminal record and that he gave Banah's owner the certificate at the behest of Colombian American business leaders she did not identify. "Had our office been aware of the issues in Mr. Perez's past, he certainly would not have received a congressional certificate," she says.
Katrina Valdes, Diaz-Balart's spokeswoman, says her boss only attended the event as a professional courtesy to Rivera, who asked him to meet with a large group of South Florida businessmen. Ros-Lehitinen's press secretary could not be reached for comment.
Three weeks later, through the Beacon Council, a public-private agency that is supposed to promote economic development, banah-qti1">Banah requested $400,000 in tax incentives from the county and state. The company claims it will create 300 new jobs paying an average of $50,000 a year in 2013. In December of that year, county commissioners approved Gimenez's recommendation to grant Banah the tax breaks.
Gimenez spokeswoman Suzy Trutie says the mayor's office was unaware of Perez's criminal record and relied on the Beacon Council to conduct a background check on the company and its officers. On the state application for the incentives, Perez listed "none" when answering a question if he or any of his companies were involved in any recent criminal investigations, civil suits or had any liens.
Asked if the mayor would have rejected Banah's request had he known about Perez's conviction, Trutie declined comment. "I don't want to talk hypotheticals," she says, insisting the mayor's recommendation is just a formality. "The Beacon Council did the due dilligence. Nothing came up."
(Banana Republican did not try to obtain comment from the Beacon Council prior to publication because the responsibility of monitoring how these tax incentives are doled out ultimately falls on the county. Below is the Beacon Council's response which was emailed to me this afternoon.)
Beacon Council spokeswoman Ana Acle-Menendez explains that the agency relies on Google searches and information obtained from Dun & Bradstreet, a company that provides some information on businesses such as their credit rating and if they've filed for bankruptcy. "We do not have the capability to do a criminal search as we don't have a person's birth date and often companies are owned by several people or corporation," she says. "It'd be great if the county or state could do the search but it would have to be done in a timely manner."
Acle-Menendez also noted that the background question on the state application for the incentives is not clear. "The problem is 'recent'has to be define," she says. "It's not up to us to define that and we'd like to see that loophole closed."
She adds that Banah must fullfill its investment, add the 300 jobs and pay all its taxes before it actually gets the money.
Nevertheless, Perez showed his gratitude for Gimenez's formality when Banah International Group donated $500 to the mayor's reelection campaign on Dec. 12, 2011, six days after the county commission signed off on the incentives. Two months later, the county commission approved Commissioner Rebeca Sosa's request to rename SE 10th Avenue in honor of Banah. Sosa says she did so at the request of the Hialeah mayor and the city council. Hernandez declined comment.
However, Sosa didn't seem to have a problem with Perez's criminal record. "There are people who have paid their debt for incredible mistakes they made in life," she says. "Where do you draw the line?"
MORE TROUBLES FOR PEREZ
On July 13, the day Hialeah and county leaders celebrated the christening of "Banah Sweet Way," Perez's headquarters played a big role in solidifying Gimenez's reelection. According to El Nuevo Herald, Banah's executive offices was the site where Hernandez let the county mayor know the Hialeah political machine was behind him.
"It was a positive dialogue," Hernandez told the newspaper. "We talked about working together for our communities and I gave him my word that I would support him."
Later that afternoon, during a press conference inside Banah's HQ, Perez thanked the elected
officials for recognizing his fledgling company. "We
want Banah to be the Coca-Cola of sugar," Perez boasted in Spanish.
"Our headquarters will always be
in Hialeah. I assure you, Banah's success is guaranteed."
Perez was initially planning to develop Banah at 405,000-square-foot warehouse in Doral located near Miami International Airport and inside a free trade zone. He signed a lease with CV Miami in August 2011, agreeing to pay $6,666 a month in rent. According to Ferro, the Hialeah location, which is 100,00 square feet smaller, was more suitable for the company's planned growth and wanted to create jobs in a city where it is desperately needed.
However, CV Miami sued Perez on May 29, claiming he bailed on his Doral lease. CV Miami
alleges Banah owed $139,000 in unpaid rent plus late fees for
February, March and April of this year. Both companies recently
settled out of court.
But Banah is still dealing with four
pending lawsuits that were filed after the company got its street
renaming and tax breaks, including Gonzalez's complaint.
All-American Containers, a Miami
company that supplied Banah with plastic containers and tops for its
sugar products, sued Perez and his firm on June 6, alleging the coke
felon owes $183,478 for unpaid merchandise.
In July, New York-based Sterling
National Bank sued Perez and Banah because the financial institution
claims it provided funding capital for payroll that he hasn't paid
back. The bank's pending lawsuit alleges Perez owes $327,623.
In August, a company called Pro Label Inc. sued Banah International Group. However, employees at the Miami-Dade County Clerk of the Courts file room could not locate the case file when I requested it on Oct. 10. This lawsuit is also pending.
Ferro declined comment on the ongoing litigation. Meanwhile, Gimenez's spokeswoman says the lawsuits won't
change anything. "The issue is moot," Trutie says, "since the
incentives were already approved."
Unless the county commission moves to reconsider its vote, which has happened before when the Beacon Council recommended incentives for a company tied to an individual with a criminal record. In February, county commissioners rescinded a $3 million grant given to the family of shopping center developer Yoram Izhak.
The funds were supposed to help pay for the renovation of Northside Shopping Center at NW 79th Street and 27th Avenue. But commissioners were unaware Izhak had been convicted for tax evasion and attempting to board an airplane with a loaded gun until Banana Republican reported about it. Commissioner Dennis Moss convinced his colleagues to pull their support for the Northside funds.
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