A Miami homebuilder has been sued for stealing millions of dollars from his clients to finance his high-roller lifestyle of weekend gambling stints at the Hard Rock Casino, two Rolls Royces and a Range Rover, and a luxury condo in Brickell.
According to a complaint filed in Miami-Dade circuit court late Wednesday, Francisco Mendez, owner of the Miami-based Pioneer Inter-Development real estate developer, overpaid the contractors working on several homes, then demanded they return the extra money to him as a kickback.
“There is more of this kind of fraud than people would like to believe,” said John Criste, an attorney at Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton, the firm representing the plaintiffs. “But the fact that it is prevalent doesn’t make it right. In this instance, Mr. Mendez and his cohorts happened to get caught. They got caught because the instances of fraud in this case are egregious.”
The suit also names Marianna Dubinsky, a self-professed “construction maven” real estate advisor, and the companies VRG Remodeling Construction Corp., SDG Remodeling Construction Group and Emgei Finish Services, all based in Miami-Dade.
The filing calls the defendants a “band of thieves” that helped Mendez carry out his moneymaking plan by providing doctored or inflated invoices.
The suit was filed on behalf of three parties, all customers of Mendez: Trevor Taylor and the married couple of Patricio and Ana Cordero.
Christopher M. Utrera and Herman Russomanno III, the attorneys defending Mendez, said that their client “denies any and all wrongdoing and that their client looks forward to proving the same in Court.”
Double billing and fake invoices
According to the complaint, Taylor hired Pioneer in 2017 to build a home at his property at 6555 SW 102nd Ave. in Pinecrest. The agreement was that the home would be completed in 12 months.
Instead, the construction stretched out for nearly three years while Taylor continued to pay construction-related invoices. In the summer of 2020, Taylor called the subcontractors and discovered a difference between what they were paid and what he was billed. In one instance, he overpaid a concrete contractor $600,000 — money that went to Mendez.
Taylor also discovered he had been billed twice, in the amount of $11,139, by a window subcontractor using identical invoices. He was later billed an additional $44,695 by Pioneer, but the window company had no record of that transaction.
Later he paid two invoices to Pioneer, each totaling $43,000, for a glass subcontractor. But the invoices were doctored to look different, even though they were both bills for the same materials. When Taylor demanded that Mendez return the second payment, the developer refused and Taylor terminated the contract.
Where’s the wood?
According to the complaint, the Corderos contracted Pioneer to build a home on their property at 10600 SW 67th Ave. in Pinecrest. Two years later, little progress had been made on the project, even though the Corderos had been billed and paid four progress payments, including one intended to pay for specialty wood imported from Brazil.
When the plaintiffs asked Mendez for confirmation the wood has been secured, Mendez could not provide any documentation.
On September 22, 2020, Pioneer sent the couple a fifth progress bill for $1.8 million. After checking with various subcontractors, the Corderos discovered some materials had never been ordered and Pioneer had double-billed them on behalf of the concrete subcontractor by more than $300,000.
The excess money was funneled through the various companies named in the complaint. The companies took a commission and turned over the rest of the funds to Mendez.
The lawsuit charges Mendez, Dubinsky and the various companies with three counts of fraud, four counts of aiding and abetting fraud, two counts of civil conspiracy, two counts of conversion and two counts of unjust enrichment.
“At the end of the day, Mr. Mendez got Mr. Taylor and the Corderos to trust him to build their family homes,” Criste said. “He violated that trust when he started taking their money away from them. These are hardworking people and nobody deserves to have their money stolen from them.”
Jeff Schneider, managing partner at Levine, Kellogg, Lehman, Schneider + Grossman, which is not involved in the case, said the reason why plaintiffs sue instead of calling the police to file criminal charges is that they mostly just wanted their money back.
“If they were to call the police, the case would go to the State Attorney and they might press charges against the developer, but that would not return the plaintiffs’ money,” Schneider said. “By hiring a lawyer and bringing a civil case, they can get their money sooner. If Pioneer had built the homes as promised, they would have probably gotten away with it.”
Wednesday’s filing initiates the legal process that will result in either a trial by judge or jury or restitution of all funds to the plaintiffs.