In The News

Cracking Down On Board Theft

Last month's arrest of a Palm Beach County Century Village board president on larceny charges in connection with $33,000 in missing association funds highlights a top concern for those who live in Florida shared communities: Whom do you turn to when you think a board member is stealing?

Unless the robbery is at gunpoint, the answer is: You contact authorities and provide any evidence you have of theft. While Florida statutes and authorities offer some relief, for the most part condo owners are on their own when it comes to providing proof of stolen or missing money.

"Our office always gets calls from condo owners who believe that their board is misusing the association funds. It is one of the most common complaints that we get," said William Raphan, a South Florida supervisor with the Florida Office of the Condominium Ombudsman. "Since we do not have investigators, or enforcement power, we refer them to the appropriate agency."

In many cases, that means the local police.

Rosemary Leslie Darrigan, president of the 26-unit Camden H Condominium Association at Century Village for seven years, was arrested last month by the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. During her tenure, Darrigan transferred more than $33,673 from association bank accounts to personal accounts to pay for anything from grocery bills to gambling debts, according to police reports.

Darrigan's alleged crimes were caught by fellow board member Patricia Cobus, police reports show, after Cobus became a director in 2009 and began asking to see financial records. Initially rebuffed by Darrigan, Cobus was able to use copies of board records and an audit to reveal Darrigan had been signing checks to herself, according to a police report.

When reached by phone, Cobus declined to comment. Darrigan could not be reached for comment.

But experts warn that before you head to the police station, you better do your homework.

"I am often [contacted] by unit owners who claim that their board is stealing or robbing them blind. They often tell me that they don't have proof, but rather a 'feeling,' " said Eric Glazer, a condo attorney based in Hallandale Beach. "[But] this is not enough to get the police interested in investigating further."

Most of the theft of condo or homeowners association funds are uncovered once unit owners get possession of the association's records, Glazer said. "Directors get caught writing association checks to themselves or family members," he said. "The checks often contain only one signature or they are written to stores like Office Depot and Home Depot to buy items solely for that director and not for the good of the association."

There is really only one way to catch a thief: Obtain copies of all bank statements, canceled checks, deposit receipts and checking them carefully.

Florida condo law even allows an owner to write a "unit owner inquiry" which requires the board to answer a question posed by a unit owner within 30 days. Don't be afraid to ask for a breakdown of a specific check and access to the documents that support the Board's answer to the inquiry.

If you suspect that something is wrong, you may send a certified letter to your board of association asking to inspect the official records of the association, specifically financial records. Here is a link to a form: http://www.myfloridalicense.com/dbpr/lsc/documents/Accesstorecordsrequest2010.pdf

If you find that money has been misused, you can file a complaint with the Compliance Office of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Here is a link to a form: http://www.myfloridalicense.com/dbpr/lsc/documents/complaint_001.pdf

If you have proof that fraud has been committed, you can contact - along with the local police - the Economic Crimes Division of the Office of the Attorney General by calling or visiting http://myfloridalegal.com/direct.nsf/EC/Fort+Lauderdale.

Other resources:

Office of the Condominium Ombudsman at 954-202-3234 or 850-922-7671 or go to http://www.bpr.state.fl.us/condos/index.shtml. "Although we cannot interpret the law or give legal advice, we can provide [callers] helpful educational information," Raphan said.

Classes: Raphan also recommends attending state classes at Broward College (954-201-7800) and Palm Beach Community College (561-868-3599). There will be at least one class each month.

Florida law: Copies of the Florida Statutes are available at the local library or online at http://www.flsenate.gov.

Daniel Vasquez can be reached at CondoColumn@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4219 or 561-243-6686. His condo column runs Wednesdays in Your Money and at SunSentinel.com/condos. Check out Daniel's Condos & HOAs blog for news, information and tips related to life in community associations at SunSentinel.com/condoblog. You can also read his consumer column Mondays in Your Money and at sunsentinel.com/vasquez.