Miami city attorney Victoria Mendez, husband sued for alleged real estate fraud

Johnnie Pratt

A former Miami−Dade County resident filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Miami city attorney, her husband and his real estate firm, accusing them of using their ties to the city to make a hefty profit on a home they bought from him at “below market value.”

In the lawsuit, Jose Alvarez alleges he was forced to sell his family home “under false pretenses” when he sought the help of Miami City Attorney Victoria Mendez to deal with building code violations on the property and she referred him to her husband, Carlos Morales, who owns Express Homes, a real estate company.

Morales advised Alvarez that the building code violations were so high — more than $271,000 — that he should sell the home to his firm for $205,000. After purchasing the property in 2017, Morales made renovations to the property and got the city’s code enforcement board to waive the violation fines and remove the lien. Morales sold the property in August of 2018 for $165,000 more than what he originally paid Alvarez for the home, the lawsuit contends.

Alvarez, in his lawsuit, said the city attorney took advantage of his vulnerable position to take his family home to enrich herself and her husband’s business, and used government power to selectively enforce the city building code. He said the family had owned the home for more than 50 years, and had wanted to keep it.

“This is not the outcome I wanted for the house. I wanted to keep the house within the family,” Alvarez said during a press conference Wednesday at the offices of his attorney. He is being represented by the AXS law firm. Alvarez now lives in The Villages, Florida.

Reached by WLRN via text, Mendez declined to comment on the specific allegations raised in the Alvarez lawsuit. Morales did not respond to a WLRN request for comment.

In the complaint, Alvarez said Mendez recommended he get in touch with her husband because his company, Express Homes, was experienced in buying properties that had code violations.

“He offered to buy the house, because he says that the violations were increasing because it was $500 a day. I couldn’t afford that,” Alvarez told WLRN. “So I had no other alternative but to sell the house.”

The lawsuit contends that Morales remodeled the property over several months with custom cabinets, appliances and new bathroom tiles and fixtures, according to photos of the house on a real estate listing from June 10, 2018. Alvarez alleges he did the work without obtaining city permits.

“This is not the outcome I wanted for the house. I wanted to keep the house within the family.”

Jose Alvarez

According to City of Miami building records, the only permits taken out for work on the property in 2018 were for new doors and windows. No permits appear for the remodeling Morales purportedly did on the property advertised on the listing.

A month after posting the listing, Morales contacted an assistant city attorney who was supervised by Mendez, and asked for help quickly getting himself before the Miami Code Enforcement Board to appeal the fines and penalties on the Alvarez property. The reason, Morales wrote, was that he was soon planning to sell the property.

The agenda for the upcoming meeting had already been posted, but Morales’ email request was granted just six days before the scheduled code enforcement board meeting. Morales had also sent his request to City of Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo, although the property was in District 1, which is represented by Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla.

At the July 25, 2018, Code Enforcement Board meeting, the board reduced the $271,250 in fines on the property to zero.

“Somebody said we had the Santa Claus suit on. So, I will keep it in on your motion for $0,” a board member said during the meeting, according to a transcript included in Alvarez’s lawsuit.

A month later, Morales sold the property for $370,000 on Aug. 20, 2018 — $165,000 more than what he originally paid Alvarez.

The lawsuit accuses Mendez, Morales, and Express Homes of violating the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. Morales and his business specifically are accused of “fraudulent inducement,” because Morales allegedly made false statements, telling Alvarez it would be difficult and costly to remove the fines on the property. All defendants, including the City of Miami, are accused of Civil Conspiracy as part of the alleged code enforcement scheme.

Alvarez is seeking a jury trial in Miami-Dade County circuit court.

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