1 Was 2011 a flight from turbulence? As South Floridians look back on moribund times, the arrival of new cash, investors may signal breakout for By Review Staff If 2010 was the year of the clean-up, 2011 served as a stage-setter for new possibilities. Distressed law firms fell into the arms of suitors, investors bearing new money scooped up flagging properties, and a casino giant arrived from the other side of the world to deliver on a promise of a pot of gold if only the politicians would opt for a little policy change. Two venerable law firms Adorno & Yoss and Ruden McClosky faded from the landscape. Out-of-town firms with great expectations planted flags in South Florida, hoping to snatch a piece of the Latin American action. Others set up foreclosure operations to pick up the pieces scattered by David Stern, Marc Ben-Ezra and others. Opportunistic investors appeared on the scene to pick up distressed properties for a song. International investors had a field day buying condos in bulk. Developers burdened by pre-crash debt sighed with relief as new business finally generated badly needed cash. High-rolling Genting Group pledged to drop billions in Miami for a destination casino resort if state legislators would only give the green light to Las Vegas-style gambling. Other cities and many in the hospitality industry recoiled in fear and protested the multinational conglomerate would eviscerate their businesses. Gov. Rick Scott threw the wheezing state court system a life buoy, suggesting the state should fund the judicial system from general revenue and not from an unreliable pool of filing fees. And so the stage is set for some tough decision-making in the new year. Consumer and public debt must still be reduced and paid. Compatriots in past scandals must still be identified and prosecuted. As the region and country gird for a hotly contested presidential election, voters can only hope policymakers both elected and unelected can summon the nerve to make the right decisions for their communities. FORECLOSURE MESS Stalled Cases Robo-signing became part of the nation's vernacular as banks largely quit filing new foreclosure cases and went back to look at the paperwork already in court files. The recurring names of a handful of notary publics became a red flag for defense attorneys. Appeals court decisions made clear mortgage lenders and servicers shouldn't expect judges to rubber-stamp foreclosure orders. The state attorney general's office began investigating several foreclosure law firms and settled with one. Several firms lost their skittish clients, and a Plantation attorney took the biggest fall. The Law Offices of David J. Stern quit handling foreclosures, and the attorney's DJSP Enterprises spinoff as a publicly traded company stopped processing foreclosure paperwork. Elusive Agreement Put 50 state attorneys general together and what do you get? We don't know, but one of them isn't a master settlement covering the mortgage meltdown. Led by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, the state AGs banded together in October 2010 to negotiate damages from lending and foreclosure practices of the Big Five mortgage servicers: Ally Financial, Bank of America, Chase, Citibank and Wells Fargo. The banks reportedly were willing to pay as much as $25 billion to settle. But squabbling among AGs has been intense. Florida's Pam Bondi co-signed a letter suggesting Miller was overstepping his bounds in pursuit of the servicers. Others, like New York's Eric Schneiderman, felt Miller was going too easy. AG investigates Joining in an effort with other attorneys general around the country, former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum last year launched an investigation into eight law firms for lenders for alleged robo-signing and other irregularities.
2 Some of the firms, including the Law Offices of David J. Stern and Shapiro & Fishman, successfully fought wideranging subpoenas issued by McCollum's office as part of the investigation. The Law Offices of Marshall C. Watson became the first firm to settle with the attorney general for $2 million. Chief Broward Circuit Judge Victor Tobin joined the firm afterward. Stern Out The Law Offices of David J. Stern surprised chief circuit judges across the state with a letter in March saying the Plantation law firm was pulling out of 100,000 active foreclosure cases statewide. The firm at its peak handled 20 percent of all foreclosures in the state. But lenders and servicers dropped the firm in the wake of an attorney general's subpoena, which was invalidated by an appellate court in early December. Fannie Mae alone spent $5.5 million to move its Stern cases to other law firms. Palm Beach Circuit Court responded by setting up a series of mass case management conferences to deal with 9,000 dropped cases alphabetically by lender and get them back on track. Ben-Ezra & Katz The Hollywood law firm was ordered to stop its once-lucrative foreclosure business, laying off hundreds of employees. But the firm did not go down without a fight. It was one of several foreclosure mills alleged to be practicing robosigning. Fannie Mae walked as a client with 15,000 foreclosure cases. Ben-Ezra sued for more than $10 million in lost compensation, but the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled against the firm. Chase Home Finance also sued, accusing the firm of refusing to hand over case files that contain more than $400 million worth of original notes and mortgages. Mandatory mediation Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady appointed a committee to assess the effectiveness of the mandatory mediation program for homeowners going into foreclosure. In October, the committee concluded the program was not effective and should end. They did suggest it might be worth continuing if left as an option at the circuit level but only with major changes. The biggest problem is getting lenders to send decision makers to mediation. Without someone with the authority to modify mortgages, the meetings are mediations in name only. Pushed Out The two women were known for their aggressive investigations into foreclosure mills. So foreclosure defense lawyers, a public interest group and two legislators cried foul when Assistant Attorneys General June Clarkson and Theresa Edwards were suddenly forced to resign in May, three months after glowing evaluations, Facing an uproar, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi asked an inspector general from another state agency to conduct an independent investigation and issue a report. Clarkson and Edwards, meanwhile, started their own foreclosure defense practice in Fort Lauderdale. Condo Receivership The impact of foreclosures showed up in surprising ways. At a Miami condo building with nearly half of its units in foreclosure, not enough money was coming in for maintenance. Seeking to save it from falling into disrepair, Miami- Dade Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey threatened six major banks with contempt and bankers with jail to compel them to work together and pay for the building's receiver. Six of the seven lenders had skipped a show cause hearing on payments to court-appointed receiver Lisa Lehner. No bankers showed up and no arrests were made at the January hearing, but six of the lenders gave the Miami attorney checks for fees and expenses totaling close to $106,000. The money came just before and even during the hearing. REAL ESTATE MELTDOWN Crescent Buys Tao Units ST Residential, an investment firm led by Starwood Capital Group and private equity firm TPG, sold about 60 percent of the units in the two-tower Tao, Sunrise's first high-rise condo. Crescent is renting the units out. An affiliate of Miami-based Crescent Heights bought 240 units for more than $50 million in May. The 396-unit, 26-story complex at 2641 N. Flamingo Road was completed during the recession. Developer Weitzer/Kislak Sawgrass lost the units to foreclosure. Chicago-based Corus Bank was the lender of nearly $158.6 million in distressed loans. After Corus went under in 2009, ST Residential bought the loan as part of a portfolio and completed the foreclosure. Piece of a Landmark
3 Crocker Partners of Boca Raton was among the most active commercial real estate buyers in South Florida. One of its highest profile acquisitions was the $44.01 million purchase as part of a joint venture with WestCity Realty Advisors of the One Financial Plaza office building in downtown Fort Lauderdale on June 30. Through an online foreclosure auction, Crocker and WestCity purchased the 28-story, 39-year-old tower, the city's first skyscraper. Biscayne Landing The city of North Miami selected Michael Swerdlow to develop Biscayne Landing. The city and the Miami developer are negotiating a 99-year lease of the 184-acre former landfill. Swerdlow's proposal calls for between 700,000 to 1 million square feet of retail space, about 3,000 residential units, an assisted-living facility, an emergency health care center, two hotels and a park. It would also have space for a film production company and biomedical researchers and developers. Distressed No Longer Paramount on the Bay, the last high-rise condo project from the boom era, was brought out of distress this year. IStar Financial and ST Residential, which bought the debt from Corus Bank, took title to the 346-unit, 47-story tower in June. That was the culmination of a foreclosure suit the lenders filed in 2010 against developer Royal Palm Miami Holdings, led by Dan Kodsi. The lenders sought to recover a $262 million delinquent loan. A court-appointed receiver completed construction of the project and sales of the condos are under way. LAW FIRMS IN FLUX Adorno & Yoss One of South Florida's largest law firms closed its doors March 31 after a lengthy unraveling prompted partially by firm founder Henry "Hank" Adorno's suspension by The Florida Bar. The Coral Gables-based firm was once known as the nation's largest minority-owned law firm and in 2008 counted more than 300 lawyers in 21 offices and affiliates throughout the country. After Adorno's departure, the renamed Yoss firm bounced paychecks, failed to pay vendors, was garnished for a malpractice judgment and lost scores of partners and entire offices. The end came not in a bankruptcy filing but a closing announcement. Merger Time After a long downward spiral, Ruden McClosky called it a day after 52 years. The firm sought a merger partner for about a year until finding one in Fort Lauderdale-based Greenspoon Marder. The deal in bankruptcy court was almost derailed by ex-partners, who were owed $3.5 million in equity payments. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Raymond Ray approved Greenspoon's offer Nov. 29 shortly after Ruden's Chapter 11 filing. Greenspoon is now Fort Lauderdale's largest law firm with 140 attorneys, 400 staff members and offices throughout the state. In August, 12-lawyer Atkinson Diner Stone Mankuta & Ploucha merged with Fowler White Boggs, creating a firm with two past Florida Bar presidents in its Fort Lauderdale office Terry Russell and Jesse Diner. Russell, who spent four decades at Ruden McClosky, launched Fowler White's Fort Lauderdale office last year. Newcomers A number of out-of-state law firms flocked to South Florida to plant their flags. Some were lured by potential business in Latin America, and others were asked to establish outposts by their northern clients. The new arrivals include Boyd & Jenrette, DLA Piper, McGlinchey Stafford and Wilson Elser. Additionally, Foley & Lardner launched a Latin American practice in Miami. ROTHSTEIN FALLOUT Sitting For Deposition After much in-fighting, attorneys involved in civil litigation finally sat down with the mastermind of Scott Rothstein's $1.2 billion Ponzi scam. Arranging a two-week deposition this month wasn't easy, though. Rothstein has been held in a secret location since he ratted out organized crime figures, and the government repeatedly complained to U.S. District Judge James I. Cohn about security concerns. Some parties wanted to postpone the holiday season deposition, saying they were unprepared due to recent clawback lawsuits against them. Cohn was adamant the show must go on, and Rothstein was brought to Miami for questioning. Rothstein didn't disappoint, regaling attorneys about sharing his "rock star lifestyle" and implicating bankers, ex-partners and other lawyers.
4 Bankruptcy Settlements The bankruptcy trustee for Scott Rothstein's defunct law firm and his legal team reached settlements totaling $101 million to repay victims of the settlement financing fraud. Auto magnate Ed Morse kicked in $30 million, and Miami Beach investor Ira Sochet agreed to pay $25 million. Other notable settlements were reached with Rothstein's former accountants, Berenfeld Spritzer Schecter & Sheer, for $10 million; Coquina Investments for $12.5 million; and American Express for $9.25 million. Some of the settlements included controversial bar orders, which prevent other litigation against parties that agree to pay. More Charges For much of the year, speculation ran rampant on when others tied to Rothstein would be charged. Instead, the U.S. attorney's office focused on nailing down charges against his everyday helpers. Two were Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler computer technicians Curtis Renie and William Corte, who created a fake TD Bank website so Rothstein could fool his victims. Both received five-year sentences. Rothstein's law partner from his salad days as a Plantation employment attorney was sentenced for doctoring documents to facilitate the scam. Howard Kusnick got two years in prison. Three Auctions While Scott Rothstein languished, his spoils were auctioned to the highest bidders at three auctions. Two were held by the U.S. Marshals Service and featured his yachts, fancy cars and vast watch and jewelry collections. The third was put on by the bankruptcy trustee overseeing the liquidation of Rothstein's defunct law firm and featured more personal items clothes and shoes worn by Rothstein and his wife, household furniture, a grand piano and vast amounts of bric-a-brac. The proceeds are headed to fraud victims. ROGUE PROFESSIONALS Lewis Freeman Once the go-to receiver in South Florida, Freeman was sentenced to 10 years for stealing $2.6 million from accounts he was entrusted by judges to oversee. But the flamboyant prisoner didn't stay silent for long. He sent s to friends and family from his federal work camp in southwest Miami-Dade via his daughter. The dispatches exposed a slice of prison life that were at times sad but often hilarious. The fallen accountant and disbarred lawyer nicknamed the prison a spa. He regaled readers about arepas and "Egg McPrisons" cooked with a clothing iron. When prison officials heard about some of his comic criticisms, they reportedly put an end to them. Marika Tolz When it came to juggernaut South Florida receivers, Marika Tolz was high on the list. But she was sentenced to eight years in prison in May for misappropriating $16 million, pocketing $2.4 million of it. Tolz not only was a panelist for the U.S. trustee's office, she was a custodian on probate cases and took care of property and cash for the government. Her downfall was holding onto $1 million earmarked for victims of Scott Rothstein. At her sentencing, Tolz said she stole to take care of her ailing mother, a Holocaust survivor. But records also showed she had invested in real estate. CIVIL COURTS Bank Overdrafts There were so many attorneys, chairs had to be brought in to Senior U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King's courtroom for a hearing in November. But when it was done, a major class action civil settlement was approved. Bank of America agreed to pay $410 million to settle claims that it resequenced customer transactions to generate excessive overdraft fees. Critics complained about a $123 million windfall for plaintiff counsel. How that money is going to be split among the lawyers is another issue. Attorney Jeremy Alters' law firm withdrew from the plaintiff executive committee shortly after it was revealed he was under investigation by The Florida Bar for possible trust account misappropriations, and attorneys from Argentina say he promised them a slice of the fees. BankAtlantic Shareholders Even when you win, sometimes you lose. Just ask shareholders who sued BankAtlantic Bancorp in a securities fraud class action.
5 Plaintiff attorneys claimed the bank holding company's leaders misled investors about souring developer loan portfolios to prop up the share price. The bank said the stock plummeted when the housing bubble burst. A jury ordered the parent company of the Fort Lauderdale-based bank company to pay class members $2.41 a share. But U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro in Miami negated the verdict in August, finding it inconsistent and granting a defense motion on the improper use of a witness. Lawyer Advertising A federal judge in October ruled The Florida Bar's advertising rules violate the First Amendment rights of lawyers. However, the impact of the ruling was unclear since The Bar is overhauling lawyer advertising rules. The ruling was issue in a case brought by the public interest group Public Citizen on behalf of a Jacksonville lawyer. Many lawyers have objected to rules for years, calling them too strict. The Bar is proposing looser restrictions. Chinese Drywall Some homeowners in Miami-Dade and Broward counties who claimed faulty Chinese drywall ruined their homes opted out of a proposed $53 million federal settlement with Miami-based Banner Supply, fearing insufficient compensation. Plaintiff attorneys said they have proof drywall maker Knauf's German executives kept quiet about known defects. The purported evidence remains under seal. War Supplies A Palm Beach Circuit Court trial gave Floridians an insider's look at the back-room deals and life-and-death hazards during the Iraq War. Mohammed Al-Saleh, a brother-in-law of Jordan's king, won a $28.8 million verdict in July by convincing a jury that Delray Beach billionaire Harry Sargeant cheated him out of profits on a jet fuel delivery business. Days later, Sargeant filed a countersuit in federal court, claiming Al-Saleh sabotaged the business, forced his own exit from the company by angering the king, cost the company millions and deserves nothing. Cuban Verdict Two years after a jury gave the surviving sons of Gustavo Villoldo Argilagos a $1.2 billion verdict, a second trial resulted in a $2.8 billion award against Cuba. The August trial in a Miami-Dade Circuit Court came 52 years after the elder Villoldo was given a choice between his own death or the execution of a son. He chose suicide. Villoldo lost a fortune in the communist takeover. His sons Gustavo and Alfredo Villoldo had the original award set aside and refiled the family's case to show acts of terrorism against them, including a half-dozen attempts on their lives that continued through the mid-1970s. Accounting Liability Chicago-based accounting firm BDO Seidman was hit with a $91.7 million verdict in January, almost two-thirds in punitive damages, for fraud and negligence that cost Miami aviation pioneer George Batchelor and his foundation $78 million in losses on a Boca Raton senior housing investment. The punitive damages resulted from BDO's denial of its duty to audit real estate properties that ended up in bankruptcy. BDO is appealing. Benlate The long-awaited third trial of a Pinecrest orchid grower against the chemical company she accused of destroying her crop fell far short of hurting DuPont. Miami-Dade jurors awarded microbiologist Claire Sidran and her husband $1.02 million, a fraction of the $3 million to $4 million they requested. The trial was on damages only after Circuit Judge Amy Steele Donner struck DuPont's defenses for its "unconscionable scheme" to defraud the court by withholding documents during discovery. Fireworks still flew in the courtroom. The judge reported plaintiff lawyer Robert Ratiner to The Florida Bar for comments he made during trial, and Ratiner is seeking sanctions for document concealment. CRIMINAL COURTS Minkow and Lennar Barry Minkow managed to come full circle. He went from being one of the most successful young businessmen in the country in the 1980s to a celebrated fraudster. He emerged from prison as a pastor and an anti-fraud crusader. But like everything with Minkow, it was a fraud. He was sentenced to five years in prison for attacking home-builder Lennar on his website. The Miami-based developer ended up losing $583 million in market value while Minkow made
6 money shorting the stock while publicly accusing the company of wrongdoing. Turns out he was a hired gun for a litigant going up against Lennar. Alcatel-Lucent The government wasn't kidding when it said it was going after executives who bribe foreign officials to grease the wheels in the name of business. Alcatel-Lucent vice president Christian Sapsizian was nabbed at Miami International Airport and now is serving a 30-month sentence, a poster child for the U.S. resolve to enforce the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Sapsizian pleaded guilty to facilitating bribes to Costa Rican officials. Alcatel-Lucent, in the meantime, agreed to pay $137 million in fines under a deferred prosecution agreement. Tax Convictions Father-and-son developers Mauricio Cohen Assor and Leon Cohen Levy lived like kings in Miami Beach for years but told the Internal Revenue Service their salaries were on the small side. They were arrested in 2010 while travelling to the United States for civil litigation. Their criminal trial in Fort Lauderdale was a soap opera filled with allegations among family members of forgery and infidelity. Of particular concern to federal prosecutors was how the pair sold their New York hotel for a $33 million profit but paid no taxes by directing that money to offshore accounts. They were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison after a jury found them guilty of hiding $150 million in assets and failing to report $49 million in income. Drug Possession Law It took little time for Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch to shake things up after reaching the bench. The jurist with an unabashed love of Shakespeare waxed poetic with an order proclaiming Florida's drug possession law unconstitutional. The former criminal defense attorney drew from a July 27 order by U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven in dismissing 39 drug possession cases in August. Prosecutors cried foul, the 3rd District Court of Appeal upheld the law in November, and the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments this month. Spence-Jones The bribery trial of suspended Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones ended with an acquittal on charges she pressured prominent developer Armando Codina into funding a charity. Defense attorney Peter Raben combed through more than 500,000 s and relied on testimony from three dozen witnesses to prevail at trial. Spence- Jones was accused of using her influence to squeeze money out of Codina, but he testified at trial that was not true. Raben's victory led to the collapse of the state's other attempt to end Spence-Jones' career, and a grand theft case was dropped. Broward Corruption Deerfield Beach City Commissioner Sylvia Poitier was charged in April with five counts of falsifying public records for undisclosed conflicts of interest. She was convicted of four misdemeanor counts. Tamarac Mayor Beth Flansbaum- Talabisco was charged in March with taking unlawful compensation, bribery, official misconduct and conspiracy in her dealings with developers who sought support for a building project. Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Cindi Hutchinson was charged in January with taking gifts and services from developers who received zoning changes. Ophthalmologist Sentenced Alan Mendelsohn wore many hats: Hollywood ophthalmologist, GOP fundraiser, adviser to Gov. Charlie Crist. Now he has a new title: prison inmate. Mendelsohn was sentenced to four years after pleading guilty to trying to hide $82,000 in political donations to former state Sen. Mandy Dawson. ON APPEAL Terror Sentence Judicial discretion took one on the chin when an appellate court decided Jose Padilla's sentence for supporting terrorism was not long enough. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke in Miami cut Padilla too much slack in sentencing him to 17 years in prison. The 2-1 majority said she failed to take into account his criminal history and mistakenly gave him credit for 3½ years spent in a Navy brig after he was deemed an enemy combatant. In dissent, Judge Rosemary Barkett said her colleagues were just substituting their judgment for that of the trial judge.
7 Death Penalty A Miami federal judge in June said Florida's death penalty law is unconstitutional. U.S, District Judge Jose Martinez, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, found there must be a majority finding of aggravating factors by a jury to conform to a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision. Florida doesn't adhere to that standard. State Attorney General Pam Bondi vowed to appeal. Tobacco Conspiracy The 3rd District Court of Appeal offered the first appellate guidance on the validity of conspiracy claims against all major players in the tobacco industry rather than just the companies who produced smokers' favorite brands. The panel ruled all companies were potential defendants based on decades-old reports from the industry-funded Tobacco Research Council that eased public fears about smoking hazards. The companies most likely to be hurt by the decision are Lorillard and Liggett, which have smaller market shares than Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. BANKRUPTCY / INSOLVENCY Nevin Shapiro Nevin Shapiro was just another Ponzi schemer until he claimed he showered gifts on University of Miami athletes. In jailhouse interviews, Shapiro said he gave cash and even purchased prostitutes for football players. Shapiro, who is imprisoned for 20 years for running a $930 million grocery diverting scheme, also proved to be a major thorn in the side of his former attorneys, Guy Lewis and Michael Tein. The Lewis Tein law firm in Miami was sued by the courtappointed bankruptcy trustee for Shapiro's former business for more than $900,000 in legal fees allegedly paid through Shapiro's company. The attorneys settled in November for $400,000. Cabi Developers Several affiliates of Aventura-based Cabi Developers spent the year in bankruptcy court fending off creditors trying to foreclose on loans backed by development sites in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Cabi 301 Commercial is fighting MUNB Loan Holdings, which is seeking to recover $15 million in a defaulted loan. Cabi SMA Tower 1 has a plan to restructure nearly $30 million backed by 2.27-acre site in Miami's Brickell area. Affiliate Cabi New River agreed to sell 5.9 acres on the New River in Fort Lauderdale for $11.75 million to emerge from bankruptcy. Sagamore Hotel Unable to reach a deal with the special servicer of its debt despite being in the midst of one of its most profitable years, the Sagamore Hotel in Miami Beach filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Oct. 6. Sagamore Partners, managed by Bay Harbor Islands-based real estate executive Martin Taplin, said in its Miami bankruptcy filing that the 93-room hotel at 1671 Collins Ave. is not in distress and blasted the special servicer, LNR Property of Miami Beach, for a "lack of cooperation." The case is pending. ON THE BENCH Adalberto Jordan Just as South Florida is in line for three new district judges, it's losing one of its most respected jurists. U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan is awaiting confirmation to the 11th U.S. District Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Jordan's hearing in front of the Judicial Nominating Commission was practically a love-in. He weighed in on recent reversals in highprofile cases, saying deference to a district judge has its limits. Jordan still has some work left to do in Miami. He is overseeing a bench trial on whether Florida skimped on medical care to poor and disabled children under Medicaid. Kathleen Williams It took nearly two years, but former Federal Defender Kathleen Williams finally was confirmed to the bench in August. The delay was part partisan politics to block President Obama's judicial nominees and part as effort by U.S. District Judge William Zloch to derail Williams. The Fort Lauderdale judge took umbrage that Williams, in a staff-stretching move, used a research attorney in her office to appear in court in some criminal cases. The attorney never appeared without another staffer, but Zloch wrote the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee saying Williams put a number of criminal sentences in jeopardy. She was confirmed anyway. Robert Scola Jr.
8 Former Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Robert N. Scola Jr. was confirmed as a federal district judge in October. He has been a state judge since 1995 and was chosen after applying three times for open federal judicial seats. His wife, Jacqueline Hogan Scola, is a Miami-Dade circuit judge, and his father was a judge in his home of state of Massachusetts. Robin Rosenbaum President Obama made it a trifecta when he nominated U.S. Magistrate Judge Robin Rosenbaum for a federal judgeship last month. Rosenbaum would become the first South Florida magistrate to ascend to the bench. She was a federal prosecutor for nearly 10 years and served as chief of the economic crimes section in Fort Lauderdale. Ivan Fernandez The governor selected a former police officer for the 3rd District Court of Appeal, making Judge Ivan Fernandez the newest addition to the 10-member court. Fernandez was named in August to replace retired Judge David Gersten. Burton Conner Burton Conner, a civil judge from Fort Pierce, became the latest addition to the 4th District Court of Appeal after his appointment in February by Gov. Rick Scott. Scott initially tried to reject the candidate list he inherited from outgoing Gov. Charlie Crist, but the 4th DCA Judicial Nominating Commission refused to expand it from four to six names. Chief Judges With two terms as chief Broward circuit judge under his belt and plans to leave the bench, Victor Tobin opened the door to an election between Circuit Judges Susan Greenhawt and Peter Weinstein. Weinstein, a former state senator, outpolled his opponent and officially took office July 1. Unlike his predecessor, Weinstein has dropped out of cases, focusing his attention on administrative and legislative issues. Chief Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Joel H. Brown and Chief Palm Beach Circuit Judge Peter Blanc were re-elected in February. LEGISLATURE Court Split State House Speaker Dean Cannon tried a major overhaul of the courts. The most ambitious part of the plan was to split the Florida Supreme Court into separate criminal and civil courts. Three new justices would have been added to the civil division. Opponents called the moves an attempt to politicize the bench and strip the high court of its independence. By session's end, Cannon lacked support to divide the court. He isn't planning anything major for courts in the session starting in January. Many observers say it will be tough for lawmakers to accomplish two mandatory missions: pass a budget and redistricting maps. Justice Funding Florida's court system and the clerks of court went broke last spring, borrowing and begging to get through the fiscal year. Gov. Rick Scott provided loans to make ends meet only after it became clear the courts would otherwise have to furlough employees. The Legislature created a committee to devise alternative funding plans to stabilize the system. A report submitted Nov. 1 recommends a "first in line" priority on available court system revenue streams. Scott is recommending funding from general revenue to make the courts less fee-dependent. Gated Communities For decades, one of the little-known benefits of living in gated communities was freedom from process servers. Giving notice of a lawsuit to residents in condo towers and other secure communities was more challenging and more expensive for plaintiffs, until state Rep. John P. Julien, himself a veteran process server, pressed a bill to change that. As of July 1, private process servers and sheriff's deputies have the right to enter gated enclaves unannounced, and security guards cannot warn residents of their approach. Florida is only the third state after California and Georgia to pass such a law. GAMBLING Genting Group's Big Bet
9 Talk about out-sized wagers. Genting Group may have changed South Florida forever when it plunked down $236 million for The Miami Herald property on Biscayne Bay. It soon unveiled a stunning Arquitectonica-designed plan for a massive $3 billion destination resort that would include, if Genting gets its way, a casino. Genting also took control of the neighboring but foreclosed Omni Mall, by anteing up another $206 million to purchase its mortgages. The plan shocked neighboring cities such as Miami Beach, and generated hastily organized opposition from retailers statewide, as well as from Disney and religious groups. Next up: The Legislature, which takes up hotly contested destination resorts legislation when it convenes in January. BANKING AND FINANCE Resurgent BankUnited It's a clear-cut case of life after death. In 2009, BankUnited was taken over by regulators, costing the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. nearly $5 billion, one of the most prominent casualties of the Florida real estate bust. Enter John Kanas, the ex-head of New York's North Fork Bank. His investor group injected some $900 million into a newly chartered BankUnited, and also landed a lucrative bad loan loss-covering agreement with the feds. BankUnited is back in the black, and its shares are trading on the New York Stock Exchange. It's also purchasing Herald Bank, a tiny Manhattan institution that Kanas envisions as a beachhead for the New York market. BANK BUYOUTS BankAtlantic Fort Lauderdale's BankAtlantic was a reliable South Florida financial institution since 1952, when the former Atlantic Federal opened its doors. No more. Although it avoided the ignoble end of being seized by regulators, a hobbled BankAtlantic agreed to be bought by North Carolina's BB&T for around $300 million. All things considered, not a bad deal, analysts said. Until the financial crisis, BB&T had lived in the shadows of Tar Heel titans Bank of America and Wachovia, the latter of which was acquired by Wells Fargo. With those two reeling, BB&T is now coming into its own. Longtime BankAtlantic chief Alan Levan said the deal makes business sense. But when he told employees of the deal, "there were tears and hugs." Bank Seizures Where have all the small banks gone? In Florida, a great many of them were seized by regulators in According to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data, there were 12 government-assisted bank takeovers in the state in The largest local example was Lydian Private Bank of Palm Beach County, which fell in August. Its five branches and $1.7 billion in assets went to Sabadell United Bank in Miami. If there's a silver lining to this trend, the Florida bank seizures were down more than 50 percent from REAL ESTATE TRENDS Eurozone Buyers As Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland we could go on, but you get the drift limped through a debt crisis, one of the ripple effects was Europeans with money buying bargain-bin real estate in South Florida. According to a National Association of Realtors survey of the Miami area, roughly one in five local international sales is to someone from Europe. With international sales generally, the preference is for condos, the median price is $222,500, and most pay cash. But local real estate professionals told the NAR that many sales get killed by property taxes, insurance and a lack of financing. BIGGEST DEALS Miami Tower One of Miami's most recognizable office buildings, the Miami Tower, was sold in December 2010 for $105.5 million to Chicago investor LaSalle Investment Management, an affiliate of Jones Lang LaSalle. The seller was Blue Capital US East Properties, an affiliate of Atlanta-based Wealth Capital Investments, which owned the 600,000-square-foot building for about seven years. Previously known as Bank of America Tower at International Place, the 47-story building is known for its colorful nighttime illumination. SunTrust Sale
10 SunTrust International Center, home of Akerman Senterfitt, Shutts & Bowen and a branch of the building's namesake bank, changed hands for about $80 million Aug. 5. Crocker Partners of Boca Raton purchased the 420,000-squarefoot tower in downtown Miami. The seller was a partnership of Stiles and Boston-based Guggenheim Real Estate. The seller paid $57.6 million for the 38-year-old tower in Lauderdale Trophy The $164 million sale of the Bank of America Plaza at Las Olas City Centre in Fort Lauderdale broke a price record for the real estate downturn. The 408,079-square-foot tower sold for $401.2 per square foot. A partnership of Fort Lauderdale-based Stiles and San Francisco-based Shorenstein Properties sold the trophy office building to JP Morgan Investment Management in October. Office Depot HQ Coral Gables-based Flagler Development and pension fund manager TIAA-CREF sold Office Depot's Boca Raton headquarters for $171 million in January. The buyer was HUB Properties Trust, a Maryland REIT. Flagler's Boca 54 North and TIAA-CREF completed the 625,000-square-foot facility on 27 acres inside the Arvida Park of Commerce on Military Trail and Clint Moore Road in The office supply retailer has a 15-year lease on the three five-story buildings. Doral Resort Donald Trump is poised to buy the 692-room Doral Golf Resort and Spa. Trump submitted a $150 million offer to be the stalking horse bidder at a yet-to-be-scheduled bankruptcy auction. The resort's owner, a joint venture of New York hedge fund Paulson & Co. and Winthrop Realty Trust, is selling the Doral property as part of a $1.5 billion debt restructuring. Keys Resort Cheeca Lodge & Spa, one of the most prominent resorts in the Florida Keys, was sold on Aug. 1 for about $102 million. A New York company managed by principals of the real estate investment firm Northwood Investors acquired the 214-room resort at Overseas Highway in Islamorada. The seller, Cheeca Holdings of Wyoming, spent more than $30 million on improvements in 2003, then converted 92 of the resort's villas into condo hotel units. In late 2008, the main lodge was seriously damaged by fire. After closing the resort for 11 months, Cheeca completed a complete reconstruction of the lodge. CityPlace Tower The CityPlace Tower office building in downtown West Palm Beach sold for $126.5 million. The 295,933-square-foot tower in April fetched $427 per square foot, similar to prices for trophy properties during the region's real estate boom. KBS Real Estate Investment Trust II, a nontraded public based in Newport, California, bought the 18-story tower from an affiliate of New York-based Related Cos. The building was the final component of the massive mixeduse CityPlace project. London Square In the priciest sale of an open-air retail property in South Florida since 2008, Chicago-based RREEF paid $95.25 million on Dec. 29 for the London Square complex in the West Kendall neighborhood of Miami-Dade County. RREEF bought the center on behalf of an institutional client it declined to name. The seller was Woolbright Development of Boca Raton, which built the center in 2008 and The complex includes the 299,103-square-foot retail center and 60,665 square feet of office space. RREEF paid about $318 per square foot for the SW 120th St. complex. Royal Palm The Royal Palm Hotel represented one of the largest real estate flips of the year. Sunstone Hotel Investors of Aliso Viejo, California, sold the Royal Palm for $130 million in April, seven months after it acquire the hotel at a foreclosure auction for $126.1 million. Sunstone earned a quick $4 million profit. Denver-based KSL Capital Partners acquired the 407-room property at 1545 Collins Ave. Sunstone helped finance KSL's acquisition by providing a $90 million loan, a pivotal move when financial institutions were reluctant to fund large transactions. The hotel now is under the James brand, a group that operates high-end properties in Chicago and New York.
11 Weston Industrial The sale of the Weston Business Center was the most expensive industrial transaction in Broward County for two consecutive years. After paying $65 million for the 679,000-square-foot industrial park at 2915 Weston Road and 2925, 2955 and 2965 W. Corporate Lakes Blvd. in May 2010, RREEF of Chicago posted a nearly $20 million profit in the Aug. 26 sale of the complex. Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA- CREF), paid $84.62 million, or $125 per square foot. The four buildings in the park are fully occupied. Tenants include American Express, Office Depot and Watson Pharmaceuticals. COMPANIES Office Depot's Struggles Are things looking up for Office Depot? Maybe. The stock price? Not so much. After losing over $2 billion from , when it closed dozens of stores, the Boca Raton office supply chain notched another loss, of $43.95 million, in the first half of Third-quarter income was $91.66 million, due to a one-time tax benefit. Otherwise, the company had a slight loss. Its stock is trading below $3 per share; the all-time peak was $40-ish. Analysts said Office Depot is third in a three-way race with Office Max and Staples. The best hope for shareholders may be a merger. St. Joe Play Talk about your bad years. Miami's famed Fairholme Capital Management, run by one-time wunderkind Bruce Berkowitz, had a total return of around negative 30 percent this year. In October, Berkowitz's president and Coral Gables neighbor, Charlie Fernandez, abruptly departed. As fund tracker Morningstar recently noted: "Much has been written and said about Fairholme's epic collapse in 2011." Among the epic contributors, analysts said, was a protracted boardroom coup to take control of St. Joe Cos., a historic Florida company with massive Panhandle land holdings. Berkowitz eventually became chairman. But the real estate bust and St. Joe's slumping share price made it a Pyrrhic victory, at least so far. Equity One Equity One, the North Miami Beach shopping center investor, had another active year buying retail properties in top markets and disposing of secondary assets. The year was highlighted by Equity's $55.5 million purchase of the Aventura Square retail center on Oct. 4. The company also received $125 million in sale of an office building and a 50 percent stake in an apartment building in California. Also in October, Equity boosted its borrowing capacity by at least $175 million when it closed on a $575 million unsecured revolving credit line. In September, Equity sold a portfolio of 36 shopping centers for more than $473 million to Blackstone Real Estate Partners. Foreclosure Fallout Plantation-based DJSP Enterprises was one of the largest foreclosure processing firms in the nation at the peak of the foreclosure crisis. This year, DJSP a publicly traded company spun off from the Law Offices of David J. Stern all but shut its operations. DJSP was hurt when Stern's firm lost its largest clients. Loan servicers and big financial institutions like Fannie Mae took their business elsewhere when the law firm was targeted for its handling of foreclosure documents. Turnberry Sale Aventura-based Turnberry and Associates had a difficult year. It is being sued in Florida, Las Vegas and New York by multiple creditors seeking more than a $1 billion related to defaulted construction and mezzanine loans. The debt from the troubled Fontainebleau Las Vegas Resort project. Turnberry shed several high-profile assets: The 372,000-squarefoot Tower Shops in Davie, $68 million; an 113,450-square-foot Aventura retail center, $55.5 million; and Aventura's One Turnberrry Place office building, $53 billion. Rialto Thrives on Workouts Think home-builders can't make money in today's economy? Don't tell Lennar or its chairman, Stuart Miller. The Miami company saw profits of $61.92 million in the first nine months of fiscal True, housing industry is still busted. But Lennar subsidiary Rialto Investments is finding diamonds in the rough. Rialto turns around distressed real estate assets, including non-performing mortgages and underperforming properties, often from failed banks. In the
12 first three quarters, Rialto reported operating earnings of $57 million. Rialto is modeled on LNR, the workout firm now independent that Lennar formed during the last real estate bust. It's headed up by Jeffrey Krasnoff, who along with Miller got LNR up and running over 20 years ago. LNR Overhaul Citing a need to realign its resources to meet client, market and regulatory demands, Miami Beach-based special servicer LNR in September overhauled its corporate structure and made a slew of personnel moves. LNR's new operating structure comprises three business units: LNR Asset Services, which it says is the world's largest commercial mortgage special servicer; Archetype Investment Management, which handles CMBS and commercial real estate debt investment; and Archetype Capital Markets, a lending division. Verizon-Terremark Verizon Communications made its mark on Miami's Terremark Worldwide in In fact, Verizon bought the IT services provider in whole for $1.4 billion, a 33 percent premium to Terremark's market value when the deal was announced last January. Verizon views Terremark, which operates data centers, as a competitive advantage in the hotly competitive cloud computing field. CEO Manny Medina called it a "defining moment'' for Terremark. His take: About $87 million, based on 4.6 million shares held when the 2010 proxy was issued. Victory Petroleum Miami-based Victory Petroleum in May acquired 38 stations owned by oil giant ExxonMobil and obtained a $36 million loan from Miami-based TotalBank. Victory, led by chairman Carlos Fontecilla, added 36 more stations in Broward and Palm Beach counties in the first week of December. The deals reflect an industry trend in which companies like Exxon sell their stations while retaining fuel distribution rights. State and federal laws requiring station owners to clean up environmentally contaminated sites resulted in large oil companies moving away from station property ownership. PLANNING / LAND USE Prominent Agency Gone The Florida Legislature, with support from Gov. Rick Scott, consolidated the department, and most state economic development functions, into a new Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. The Department of Community Affairs was once a major player on issues like growth management and community planning, but Scott had dubbed it a "jobs killer" that impinged on local autonomy. The new agency bears a striking resemblance to the old state Department of Commerce, which was axed by Gov. Jeb Bush. INTERNATIONAL TRADE Canal: Region Plays Catch-Up The $5.25 billion Panama Canal expansion promises to change international trade when the project is completed in But South Florida could fall behind its competitors despite the region's natural geographic advantages. The Panama project is expected to double the canal's cargo capacity, which could result in much more demand for industrial space in South Florida. Investors who have not already acquired sites for large-scale industrial development could struggle to find suitable land, at least in Miami-Dade County. About 1,900 acres of industrial land are available in the county. If it was completely developed, it would only increase the inventory about 15 percent. OTHER HIGHLIGHTS Media on the Move South Florida's most prominent daily newspapers, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald, have called out the moving vans. The Sun-Sentinel in July signed a long-term lease to occupy 30,000 square feet at the Broward Financial Centre at 500 E. Broward Blvd. and moved out of its former home in the New River Center, 200 E. Las Olas Blvd., in early December. Terms of the Broward Financial lease were not disclosed. The Herald's next home is still unknown but it has until May 2013 to move. Malaysia-based Genting Group paid $236 million in May for the Herald's downtown Miami headquarters with plans to build a $3 billion resort on the site.
13 600 Brickell While the newest office buildings in Miami's central business district raced to fill vacant space, developer Foram Group brought attention to its slow-moving 600 Brickell at Brickell World Plaza project in February by obtaining a $130 million loan from Los Angeles-based Canyon Capital Realty Advisors. The financing covered remaining construction, future leasing efforts and tenant improvements for the 600,000-square-foot project at 600 Brickell Ave. Since then, Foram landed its first tenant: an affiliate of Paris-based Credit Agricole Group. The bank in May signed a 12-year lease to occupy 20,137 square feet at the tower. Global Investors The financial crisis in Europe and economic turmoil in the U.S. have not diminished the appetites of international investors as they look for real estate deal in South Florida. From international conglomerates like Malaysia-based Genting Group and Hong Kong-based Swire Properties planning transformative projects in Miami's central business district to Brazilian investors gobbling up condominiums, foreign buyers still view the region as one of the most desirable markets in the world. The most active international buyers and builders in South Florida include Spanish real estate giant Espacio USA, which purchased two Biscayne Boulevard office buildings in the past year; Agave Holdings, a Miami company with ties to Mexican tequila giant Jose Cuervo that acquired a stalled project site in Coral Gables; and Argentine developer Consultatio, which plans to build 165 condominiums at the site of the former Sonesta Beach Resort in Key Biscayne. Agave Busy Agave Holdings is taking a shot at becoming a major real estate player in South Florida. Agave is close to completing its first major South Florida development, the 396 Alhambra office complex in Coral Gables. The company is also attempting to revive the stalled Old Spanish Village project, which the previous developer lost to foreclosure, after acquiring the Coral Gables site at a discount. Agave on June 30 paid FirstBank Puerto Rico $30.55 million for the 5.8- acre mixed-use site. In January, Agave paid $19.4 million for 17 office condominiums in the SBS Tower at 2601 S. Bayshore Drive. Miami Worldcenter The owner of the site of the proposed Miami Worldcenter got a boost in November when Los Angeles-based CIM Group bought stake in the nine-block parcel. The price was not disclose. Miami Worldcenter is co-owned by Boca Raton-based Falcone Group and California-based Centurion Partners. The new equity partner may help get the massive-mixed project off the ground. In 2008, Miami approved plans to build nearly 11 million square feet of retail, hotel, convention office and residential space.