UNGUARDED: The Guardianship Program of Dade sells properties of ‘incapacitated’ people to a Miami realtor, who reaps big gains
When Carlos and Racquel Rodriguez could no longer take care of themselves, the elderly couple from Hialeah came under the supervision of the Guardianship Program of Dade County.
The private, nonprofit agency cares for those deemed by a court to be incapacitated and who don’t have the money to afford a private guardian, and who have no friends or family willing to take care of them. The staff takes control of their assets — including vehicles and real estate — and sells them to help pay for future care and living expenses.
In the Rodriguez case, the Guardianship Program sold their home in 2012 for $52,000 to Express Homes, a Miami real estate company. The very next day, Express Homes sold the property for $64,000, for a reported gain of $12,000.
In 2013, the Guardianship Program sold another home — again to Express Homes — that had been owned by 89-year-old Amanda Solis, also declared incapacitated. That same day, Express Homes sold it for $240,000, a $50,000 gain in less than 24 hours.
Last February, the Guardianship Program sold a Kendall home owned by Annette Sasportas, a woman unable to care for herself. The purchase price: $430,000. The buyer: Express Homes. Four months later, Express Homes sold the property for $695,000.
It’s unclear if Express Homes made any renovations to the Kendall home, but Miami-Dade County records show no permits for major work done on the property. An online sales listing claimed a new roof, along with other renovations.
Following a monthslong review of probate court records, real estate sales data and other public documents, a WLRN investigation found that the Guardianship Program has been selling homes of those under its care for years to the same realty company, Express Homes. The program has worked with other real estate companies, but Express Homes has appeared 14 times over 12 years in sales linked to the agency.
WLRN found that Express Homes sold three Guardianship properties within the same week — or even the same day. In two other instances, the properties were fixed up and sold within a year. The rest were sold more than a year later or are still owned by Express Homes. The gains collected from those subsequent sales, however, did not go towards the care of the program’s incapacitated clients.
Other findings of the WLRN investigation:
- Guardianship Program of Dade County former President Sergio Mendez owns a private law firm that was involved in five property sales in connection with Express Homes.
- Carlos Morales, owner of Express Homes, has gotten more than $400,000 in fines removed by the city of Miami Code Enforcement Board on properties purchased from “incapacitated” owners or their relatives, city records show.
- Morales is the husband of Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez. The couple was sued last week in Miami-Dade Circuit Court by Jose Alvarez, a former Miami-Dade resident who accused the couple of using their ties to the city to make a hefty profit on a home they bought from him at "below market value." Each said the allegations are baseless.
- Public records show Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, during his time as a city commissioner, was involved in several transactions with Express Homes as a real estate attorney.
In response to WLRN, the executive director of the Guardianship Program, Carlos McDonald, said the nonprofit works with multiple realty companies, and that realty companies sell homes from the program at higher prices because they typically require extensive repairs and renovation. He said the program secures a court order before selling any home, as required by law.
Carlos Morales, through his attorney, said his company is helping the Guardianship Program care for their incapacitated wards.
“Morales and his company, Express Homes, are in the business of buying properties in disrepair and remodeling them,” wrote Matthew E. Ladd, Morales’s attorney in a statement to WLRN. “Everything, EVERYTHING, was completely above board.”
“Carlos has and continues to pay market price or higher for homes on the cusp of tear down to allow wards to liquidate their homes and cover the costs of the care that they and their families so desperately need,” wrote Ladd. “Every sale Carlos has made through the Guardianship Program has been approved by independent and experienced judges after full participation of attorneys working on behalf of the wards.”
Advocates for the elderly and a former judge of guardianship cases say the Guardianship Program of Dade County illustrates the lack of transparency of financial transactions and dire need statewide for more oversight of such agencies serving as public guardians.
“There is such a limited amount of information available not just to the public, but to everyone involved in this process,” said Karen Murillo, the associate state director of advocacy at AARP Florida, a group that works on behalf of people 50 and older.
READ MORE: Reporters behind WLRN's 'Unguarded' talk to Sundial about their investigation
'Doing God's work'
The Guardianship Program of Dade County receives virtually all of its funding from the Florida Department of Elder Affairs. Since 2021, the state has funded it with nearly $5 million to provide guardianship services to an estimated 1,500 people. Miami-Dade County also provides funding.
The program, the largest in Florida, is charged with taking care of incapacitated people who don’t have the money to afford a private guardian, and who have no friends or family willing to serve in that capacity. Half the state’s public guardianship cases are from Miami−Dade.
It was created in 1982, the same year that a Dade County grand jury report found widespread issues with how guardianships were being handled in the area, and called for increased oversight.
Last year, the program marked its 40th anniversary with a special presentation at a Miami-Dade County commission meeting.
“They are doing God’s work. These men and women make sure that every day that people are not exploited, that people have the means they need to be healthy, whether they are disabled or aging,” Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at the meeting.
Guardianship programs play a vital role in helping those in need, said AARP Florida’s Murillo. Often the important work is done behind the scenes, and the only time the public tends to pay attention is when abuses arise, she lamented.
“We know that there are plenty of guardians out there who are doing an excellent job. But the handful that make the press highlight some of the concerns and issues,” she said.
In 2019, for example, a professional guardian was arrested in Pinellas County for exploiting an elderly man under her care. A 77-page report from the Pinellas County Inspector General’s office released last year found widespread issues with the guardian’s behavior, and the utter lack of oversight. Properties owned by people under her care were often sold below market value, the report found.
WLRN found that many of the elderly and mentally incapacitated people whose homes were sold by the Guardianship Program have no living relatives, or have family members who do not wish to care for them near the end of their lives, according to interviews, real estate sales records and other public data.
Most who fall under public guardianship don’t have much money. But some have property.
To assist them, the Guardianship Program asks a county court for permission to sell their property. In 14 transactions, according to probate court records reviewed by WLRN, the program told the Miami-Dade court that Express Homes was ready to buy the property and made an offer.
The court agrees to the sale — sometimes within a few days of the request — and then Express Homes either quickly sells the home for profit, renovates the home to sell later, or keeps the building as a rental property. But the Guardianship Program client only gets the funds generated from the original sale to Express Homes — not the money the real estate firm gets from the subsequent sale.
Express Homes also buys properties and renovates over a period of time, sometimes months or even years.
A very particular business model
Real estate sales records show that among the first properties purchased by Express Homes from the Guardianship Program was the Hialeah home of then-85-year-old Lilia Bohne. In May 2011, the company bought the property at 5680 E. 1st Avenue where she previously lived with her two sisters. The price paid: $75,000.
Bohne’s next-door neighbor, Pedro Diaz, told WLRN that she came knocking on his door when county officials came to take her to a nursing home. He said she asked Diaz to hide her so she wouldn’t have to go, but she was taken away right from his front porch.
City of Hialeah permitting records show that a contractor, Free Flow Construction, took out a building permit in 2011. Work wasn’t completed until 2014. Permitted work included driveways, window installation, and “reworks.”
Bohne died in 2013. The following year, in May of 2014, Express Homes sold the house for $273,000, nearly quadruple what it paid for the property.
Gloria Walker lived at 271 E. 35 Street in Hialeah with an elderly relative, in a quiet suburban neighborhood near Hialeah Park and Casino. A neighbor, Maria Casteno Molina, told WLRN she knew the residents, explaining they needed help living day to day because they couldn’t take care of themselves.
“They didn't have enough money to cover the food… The house was full of books and furniture they couldn't move themselves. They were living in the living room instead of the bedrooms,” Molina said.
Neighbors would help pay the Walkers’ power bill, or else they’d go days without air conditioning, according to Molina, who said neighbors would buy them groceries because they weren’t feeding themselves.
Molina said one neighbor eventually contacted the Florida Department of Children and Families, which led to Gloria Walker becoming part of the Guardianship Program.
Express Homes eventually bought the Walkers’ Hialeah home from the Guardianship Program for $70,000 on June 28, 2012. The very next day, according to property sale records, Express Homes deeded the house to Lorenzo Homes, Inc. for a price of $0. Less than six months later, Lorenzo Homes sold it for $160,000, more than double the original sale price. It’s unclear why Express Homes signed over the property to Lorenzo Homes without any payment.
Efforts to reach Lorenzo Homes were unsuccessful.
Code Enforcement Board 'making exceptions'
Last week, Morales and Victoria Méndez were sued by Jose Alvarez over a transaction involving Express Homes and his family property in 2018.
Alvarez claims he reached out to Victoria Méndez for help with code violation fines, and then she referred him to her husband to help him. Morales’ attorney said this is untrue.
“The City Attorney never referred Alvarez to Carlos (and never would),” Ladd, Morales’ lawyer, wrote in an emailed statement to WLRN.
Jose Alvarez’s family home belonged to his mother, Humiliana. Unlike many of the other properties Express Homes buys, the Alvarez home did not involve a guardianship case.
In July of 2018, after buying the property from Alvarez for $205,000, Carlos Morales sent an email to Rachel Dooley, the assistant city attorney under Victoria Méndez that oversaw code issues and unsafe structures hearings.
He asked Dooley for help appealing the lien on the property originating from unpermitted work done when Alvarez’s parents owned it. The exchange of emails was obtained by WLRN through a public records request.
“I own the above referenced property and realized there is a lien on the property that I need to satisfy prior to closing. We are set to close later this month beginning of August [sic] Can you please get us on the calendar for later this month,” he wrote to Dooley.
Morales stressed that closing the sale of the property “will not occur if I cannot address the lien causing me serious financial loss.” He continued: “Please help me get on one of those July existing calendars.”
Dooley put Morales’ property on an agenda that had already been posted, just six days before the meeting. She got permission from the city administration to do so, but was told that the board would not make such an exception again.
“The last thing I want is for anyone to accuse me or Hearing Boards of making exceptions,” Olga Zamora, chief of the city’s hearing boards, wrote to Dooley.
Thirteen minutes after receiving permission, Dooley wrote to Morales: “You’ll be on.”
In the hearing, Morales told the Code Enforcement Board that he felt the property was incorrectly cited, but in any case the violation — an illegal unit in the structure — had been cleared.
“It’s been complied, we fixed the property up, it’s ready for sale, and my attorney tells me hey – by the way, did you ever resolve that lien?”
Morales told the board that he purchased the property from the family of an “incapacitated” woman. Jose Alvarez told WLRN his mother was never declared incapacitated by the courts.
Ultimately, the board voted to waive the fines for Morales, erasing more than $270,000 in penalties.
A few weeks later, Express Homes sold the property for $370,000.
"This is not the outcome I wanted for the house. I wanted to keep the house within the family," Jose Alvarez said.
Later, in 2019, Morales was able to remove $117,500 in code enforcement fines on another property he bought in the city of Miami from a woman under the care of the Guardianship Program. Morales bought that property for $160,000 and sold it for $390,000 just over a year later.
Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, said Morales’ ability to reduce his liens to such a degree within the city of Miami gives the perception of impropriety because of his wife’s position.
“It may be that the code enforcement people know that the realtor is married to the city attorney and feel some pressure. I believe if that pressure is being applied directly by the attorney, that could be a conflict of interest,” Petersen told WLRN.
Florida’s Code Of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees prohibits public officials and local government attorneys from using their positions, or information they have access to because of their positions, to personally benefit themselves or others connected to them privately.
Méndez and Morales currently live in a home in unincorporated Miami-Dade that was purchased through the Guardianship Program. The home serves as the registered address for Express Homes.
In an emailed statement to WLRN, Méndez said she has no involvement with her husband’s business.
“I do not have anything to do with Express Homes or my husband’s business dealings, especially if any are in the city of Miami,” Méndez wrote. “I would never tell my attorneys to do anything wrong.”
The mayor and the board member
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, back when he was a city commissioner in 2012 and 2013, prepared documents involving transactions related to three properties purchased by Express Homes. For two of those homes, Suarez also prepared documents for reselling the homes for profit within the same week. The properties were owned by “incapacitated” people under the supervision of the Guardianship Program.
Neither Suarez nor his spokesperson responded to questions from WLRN about his work with Express Homes.
Around the same time he was doing business with her husband, Carlos Morales, Suarez worked with Méndez in his official capacity as commissioner. He later advocated for Méndez and cast a deciding vote for her to get the job that she still holds today.
“I would have loved to have spent twice, three times, four times, maybe five times the amount of time with all the candidates or more,” Suarez said at the time, as he explained his decision to vote for Méndez. “But, you know, it is what it is. I think I've made every effort to be fair.”
Sergio Mendez is a longtime board member and former president of the nonprofit Guardianship Program of Dade County, a position for which he is not paid, according to federal tax filings. He also works as a real estate, guardianship and probate attorney, and owns a law firm, Mendez & Mendez.
In five transactions where Express Homes bought a ward’s property from the Guardianship Program, the sale documents were prepared by Mendez’s law firm. In some of those transactions, Mendez represented Express Homes as the company’s attorney when the firm sold properties purchased from the Guardianship Program. On two properties, Mendez acted as the escrow agent during the original sale.
In the sale of Servan Marrero’s property near West Little River, Mendez was involved in several phases of the transaction. Marrero was under the supervision of the Guardianship Program.
Express Homes bought Marrero’s property through the Guardianship Program for $171,033 in September of 2018. Seven months later, in April of 2019, Express Homes sold it for $269,000. Miami−Dade County records show no permits for major renovation work at the property.
Mendez acted as the escrow agent, and prepared the legal documents for both the original sale to Express Homes and the resale of the home to another buyer.
“It certainly doesn't have a good look to it, does it? At all,” said Linda Allan, a retired Pinellas County judge with extensive experience overseeing guardianship cases. “It just seems that that person is conflicted.”
Sergio Mendez and Miami city attorney Victoria Méndez, the wife of Express Homes’ owner Carlos Morales, are not related.
Sergio Mendez did not respond to phone calls, emails, and messages left with his assistant requesting comment for this story. But Ladd, Morales' attorney, told WLRN “everything’s above board” in Mendez’s work as an escrow agent and real estate attorney.
"Nothing untoward, nothing nefarious, no smoke, and there's certainly not any fire,” Ladd said.
A legal obligation
The latest sale of a property to Express Homes through the Guardianship Program took place in September of 2022. The Miami Beach waterfront condo sold for $245,000.
The property belonged to an elderly woman, Silvia Kline, who had just been declared incapacitated, and the sale was needed to raise money for her care, Guardianship Program officials said in court filings.
A property appraisal found that the median price for similar homes in the market was $450,000 for the previous year, and that the unit was in “fair condition.” But the appraisal said the unit needed some repairs, and it estimated the market value at $245,000.
Court records do not show any public bidding for the condo. The Guardianship Program submitted Express Homes’ offer to buy the property to the court, and the court approved the sale, as it did with nearly every other property Express Homes put in an offer for, according to probate court filings.
The lack of bidding on properties sold to Express Homes raises concerns, said Allan, the retired Pinellas County judge.
The legal obligation of a guardian is to make decisions in the best interest of the person under guardianship, something known as a fiduciary responsibility, according to Florida law.
Allan said a legal guardian should always place a property on the open market to achieve the full market value. While the law does not explicitly say that a property has to be put on the market, she stressed that it would be the only way for them to get the maximum money to put towards the incapacitated person’s well-being.
“Even if you knew somebody who wanted to buy it, it still needs to be offered [on the market] in order to preserve your fiduciary relationship to the ward,” she said. “And it needs to be sold at the highest possible price. Just one person coming in and saying, ‘I'll pay that’ — it just doesn't fly for me.”
Absent open bidding that would reveal the actual value of the asset, however, selling to one entity over and over just doesn’t make sense, according to Allan.
“It suggests to me that the purchase price from the Guardianship [Program] was likely problematic and not based upon the actual fair market value of the property,” said Allan, the former judge.
McDonald, the executive director of the Guardianship Program, contends that bidding processes are not always recorded in public dockets.
“That information doesn’t have to be included [in court records],” said McDonald. “We always sell at the highest offer.”
Lack of transparency and oversight
Guardianship cases are very difficult to track through the court system. Because they are heard in probate courts, state law prohibits the court filings from being made available online.
In order to access the records, courts charge to process and print filings that aren’t confidential. In Miami-Dade, the clerk of courts office charged WLRN $1 per page to review the documents. WLRN reviewed hundreds of pages of court filings for this story.
“Each court has its own policies and procedures and ways of carrying out and reporting certain information,” said AARP Florida’s Murillo. “So if you were to ask me, for example, how many guardianships there are in Florida, I couldn't tell you that because we have not been collecting that information at the state level. And there's really not a way for us to identify that.”
The lack of any kind of central tracking system is a major obstacle for oversight and identifying trends when they pop up.
“So expecting the judge or judges of a circuit or a county to be the parties that are catching this simply isn't practical,” she explained.
Murillo said there are potential red flags that a central tracking system would be able to pick up on, like a single investor or entity repeatedly buying properties under guardianship.
Murillo said she’s hopeful of legislative changes to the system.
The AARP worked with the Legislature to pass a new law last year that will create the first-ever database of guardianship cases in Florida by 2024. Without the centralized database for guardianship cases, it has been nearly impossible to track professional guardians, contractors, sales of property and potential abuses across 67 counties and legal circuits.
“Those are questions that we should be able to look at. But the way that the system is set up, it isn't tracking it that way. It wasn't designed to track it that way,” said Murillo. “Hopefully the database is going to get us there.”
The Fund for Investigative Journalism provided support for this story.
The illustration art was produced by Camila Kerwin.