International News

Israeli Arms Dealer Says Venetian Islands Rental Mansion Bilked Her for $20,000

Where do you vacation if you're a prominent Israeli businesswoman who makes a living brokering weapons sales to a notorious African dictator? A $4,500-per-night villa in Miami Beach, of course.

But Yardena Ovadia says her stay at the über-luxurious villa turned into a nightmare. In emails and a phone interview with New Times, Ovadia says the mansion's owners ripped her off for thousands of dollars.  
"The agents are blackmailing and lying with no hesitations, and all they are saying is a big lie," Ovadia explains in an email about the dispute.

The villa's owners, though, tell a different story. They say the arms dealer's family extensively damaged the $20 million property and is refusing to fix the issues. "I think they need to take some responsibility for what they've done," says David Solomon, one of the agents for the property.

Ovadia is a self-made millionaire with a background in the Israeli military. Among her most profitable — and most notorious — clients is Teodoro Obiang, a strongman who's spent three decades running tiny, oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. Obiang came to power by orchestrating the coup and eventual execution of his own corrupt uncle. Under Obiang, widespread abuses including "torture, arbitrary detention, and unfair trials" are rampant, according to Human Rights Watch.

But Ovadia — who previously served as Israel's honorary consul in Equatorial Guinea — says Obiang gets a bad rap. Among organizing other business deals with the president, she helped broker $100 million in arms sales to the African country in 2008, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

Before this summer, Ovadia had never been to Miami. So she booked a reservation for herself, friends, and family — a party of ten in all — at the superluxe Villa di Lusso, a gorgeous, all-white, six-bedroom, six-bathroom bayfront home on the Venetian Islands. 

As part of the rental, Ovadia agreed to a $20,000 deposit; when she and her family arrived, "everything was good," she tells New Times,  They enjoyed the sunsets and waterfront view, and the house seemed just as beautiful as advertised.

"We did not check every detail, and we trusted the words of [the] agents," Ovadia says. "These agents looked like decent, reliable, and fair people and offered us various services." 

Several days into their more than monthlong stay, the high-end Israeli tourists' vacation started going downhill: The maid "did not perform her work properly" despite a $2,500 cleaning fee; a hairstylist came with a $750 price tag; and the air conditioner, lamps, a TV set weren't working. "We had to 'live' with all those problems during our vacation," Ovadia says. 

But the biggest shock came at the end of their stay: Despite the agents' assurances that the house was in fine shape, Ovadia says, she never got the $20,000 deposit back. First she was told that she would get it after five days, and then, two and a half weeks later, she was blown off again. More than three months after leaving Miami, she still hadn't gotten the money. "It's criminal," she says. 

Alex Tefel, another agent for the property, tells a different version of the story. Though Ovadia and her family were nice people, he says, they also left the property damaged. At the check-out walk-through with the owners, for which the tenants were not present — because of a religious conflict, Tefel says — drawings in crayon were discovered on the walls, Tefel says. There was also damage to the couch and to the owners' paddleboards. 

"It's a $20 million house," Tefel says, and repairs are expensive. He adds that the owner is "very professional" and already — obviously — wealthy, so "there's no reason why this owner would make these things up." 

Solomon adds that all the claims against the deposit, which amounted to some 60 pages of evidence, were made fairly and completely in line with legal regulations; after Ovadia rejected the claims, he says, the agents tried to work with her, and eventually an agreement was reached. Tefel says nearly $6,000 of the $20,000 was being returned by wire. 

As far as he was concerned, he adds, everything had now been resolved. "There shouldn't be any bad blood," he says. 

But Ovadia doesn't see it that way. She's considering hiring a lawyer to help recover the money, she says, but in the meantime has taken to social media to blast the property. Most of all, she just wants to make sure no one else has to endure her experience at Villa di Lusso.

"It was so bad for me," she says. "So bad."  
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Trevor Bach