Margarita Méndez opened the doors of her Gallego Homes real estate company in 2010. Her firm, co-owned with her daughter until 2019, has since collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in gains from resales and rental income on properties bought from one seller: the Guardianship Program of Dade County.
In all, Gallego Homes purchased six properties from the Guardianship Program between 2010−2019, according to real estate records and court documents obtained by WLRN.
The nonprofit Guardianship Program uses proceeds from the sales of its “incapacitated” clients’ properties to pay for their care. But the gains Gallego Homes collected from its subsequent sales did not go towards the care of the program’s incapacitated clients.
The Guardianship Program’s real estate transactions are currently being reviewed and investigated by the Miami−Dade County Inspector General’s Office. Miami−Dade Mayor Danielle Levine Cava previously ordered all payments halted to the Guardianship program pending the investigation’s findings. The county has since resumed funding on several conditions, including that it pause all real estate sales until the probe is complete.
The inquiry by county officials comes on the heels of WLRN’s reporting last month on the Guardianship Program’s sale of 14 properties to Express Homes. The Miami real estate company, like Gallego Homes, generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in gains from resales of those properties.
In reviewing probate court filings, real estate sales records and other documents, WLRN has learned that Gallego Homes and Express Homes are linked to the same family.
Gallego Homes is owned by Margarita Méndez, the mother of Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez. Victoria is listed as the company’s president in 2011, and vice-president from 2012−2019, according to state records. Corporate records show Carlos Morales, owner of Express Homes, was once referred to as an “assistant” with Gallego Homes. Morales and Victoria Méndez are married and currently own a home that was purchased from the Guardianship Program.
The Guardianship Program is a private, nonprofit agency funded by county and state dollars that cares for those deemed by a court to be incapacitated and who don’t have the money to afford a private guardian, nor 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.
Asked about her work for her mother’s real estate firm, Victoria Méndez, in an email to WLRN, said her role with Gallego Homes was minimal and that she is not familiar with the properties bought by her mother’s company. The most recent purchase was in 2018, when she was listed as vice president of the corporation.
"I do not have any information on the few properties my mother purchased over the years,” she wrote. “I was on Gallego Homes for estate planning purposes as her only daughter.”
“I always disclosed Gallego Homes on my City of Miami financial disclosure forms,” she said. “My mother has not purchased anything in years since she was slowing down due to her age and health.”
When reached by phone, Margarita Méndez hung up on a WLRN reporter who was inquiring about Gallego Homes and its purchase of Guardianship Program properties. She did not respond to text messages.
Carlos Morales’ attorney, Matthew Ladd, told WLRN that Victoria Méndez had no involvement in sales involving Gallego Homes.
“I cannot stress this enough: neither Carlos nor his mother have received any kind of improper benefit from Vicky working with the city,” Ladd said. “There’s nothing untoward, nefarious or improper about it.”
Guardianship Program officials declined comment on their relationship with Gallego Homes. They previously told WLRN that the agency obtains a court order before selling any home, as required by law, and that it works with multiple realty companies. They also said realty companies sell homes from the program at higher prices because they typically require extensive repairs and renovation.
In an email sent to probate attorneys on March 14 and obtained by WLRN, Carlos McDonald, the executive director of the Guardianship Program of Dade County, called WLRN’s reporting “incomplete.” He wrote that since 2012, the program has represented more than 4,000 people in guardianship cases, and that “less than 3% involved real property transactions.”
Using McDonald’s calculations, Guardianship’s property sales could have roughly involved up to 120 clients. WLRN’s reporting has found members of the Morales/Méndez family and their companies have purchased at least 21 homes from the program over that time frame, representing a significant percentage of the estimated total.
Advocates for the elderly and critics who want to see reform for all guardianships have told WLRN that more transparency of financial transactions and more oversight is needed of agencies serving as public guardians.
"You’ve got a system in Florida — particularly with a high per capita of disabled and senior population — that's really operating with very little oversight at all,” said Rick Black, executive director of the nationwide advocacy group the Center for Estate Administration Reform. "It's a gold mine ... This is a big business nationwide and in Florida."
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Pennsylvania, chaired a congressional committee hearing last week about guardianships and introduced legislation to give more protections for people under these programs.
“In many cases, guardianship is a blunt legal tool that transfers all decision making power about the life of a person to someone else. Guardianship can also put a person at risk for abuse, neglect and exploitation,” Casey said at the hearing before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging.
The March 30 hearing came in part as a response to stories by WLRN and Bloomberg Law showing a lack of oversight and accountability in guardianships.
Gallego Homes incorporates
Margarita Méndez first incorporated Gallego Homes in 2010 after a series of real estate transactions involving a West Flagler condo. It was originally bought from the Guardianship Program by Express Homes that same year.
Express Homes purchased the property from the Guardianship Program for $5,000. The home was owned by a woman named Maria Sanchez who was under the program’s care. Even for a real estate market that was then battered by the 2008−09 financial crisis, the price was low.
Two months after the purchase, Carlos Morales, owner of Express Homes, transferred the title to Margarita Méndez, his mother-in-law.
Shortly after assuming ownership of the condo, Margarita formed a Florida company called Gallego Homes, according to state corporate records. Two days after the company was incorporated, Margarita transferred ownership of the West Flagler condo to her new company.
According to the property deed for the condo, Victoria Méndez prepared the legal documents for transferring the property from Express Homes to her mother, and later from her mother to Gallego Homes. In one property deed, Victoria’s signature appears next to her husband’s.
Victoria Méndez previously told WLRN that she is not involved in her husband’s business.
Matthew Ladd, Morales’ attorney, said that “anyone” can draft a quit claim deed between two people, and that doing so does not constitute Méndez being involved with Express Homes in her official capacity.
“It’s kind of a ‘so what?’ She does not involve herself at all in her husband’s business. Gallego Homes has always been her mom’s business,” Ladd said.
At the time of the transaction, Victoria was working in the Miami City Attorney’s office. She first started working for the city in 2004. In 2013, she was promoted to be the city’s top litigator when the previous City Attorney stepped down.
Carlos Morales was referred to as an “assistant” with Gallego Homes, according to incorporation correspondence Margarita Méndez filed with the state in 2010. An email included in the document was written by Margarita Méndez but sent from Morales’ current email address.
Morales’ phone number was listed as a contact for the “owner” on one property listed by Gallego Homes in 2013, according to records on an online listing service.
After the series of real estate transactions involving the West Flagler condo, Gallego Homes rented it until 2019, and sold the property that year for $121,500 — a 2,330% increase from the original purchase price.
Selling and reselling for big gains
WLRN found that Gallego Homes made hundreds of thousands of dollars in gains by reselling some properties within months of purchasing them from the Guardianship Program.
Thomas Cheesborough, a North Carolina native, worked on railroad cars in Miami before retiring in his Coconut Grove home. When he was 79 years old in March of 2012, with no living family, Cheesborough entered into the Guardianship Program — which soon took steps to sell his property to help pay for his care.
Sales records on an online listing service show that the Guardianship Program, through their real estate agent Javier Llanes, listed Cheesborough’s two-bedroom townhouse for $110,000. The property spent “zero” days on the market, according to the listing service, and was sold to Gallego Homes for $76,000 — $34,000 less than the asking price.
A guardianship deed recorded by the clerk of courts shows that Gallego Homes closed on the property on Aug. 3, 2012, two weeks before Cheesborough died.
Four months later, on Dec. 12, 2012, Gallego Homes sold Cheesborough’s property for $170,000 — more than double its original purchase price.
The real estate listing for the resale highlights “new updates” to the property including “24x24 tile downstairs, bamboo flooring upstairs, brand new kitchen,” and other additions. City of Miami building records show no permits taken out for any work done on the property.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who is a real estate attorney and was a city commissioner at the time, prepared the deed for Gallego Homes in the December sale. The deed was signed by Margarita Méndez, president of Gallego Homes, and Carlos Morales, who signed as a witness.
Suarez also prepared documents for Express Homes for the sales of three Guardianship Program properties during his time as a commissioner, according to property deed records.
Neither Suarez nor his spokespeople responded to multiple emails from WLRN requesting comment for this story.
Among other properties the real estate company purchased from the program and resold, for a profit, within months:
- The Westchester home owned by an incapacitated woman named Isabel Montero at 8251 SW 27 Lane was sold to Gallego Homes for $130,000 in March 2013. Eight months later, the company resold the house for $280,000, more than double the original purchase price. No permits for major renovation work were filed with the county.
- The Homestead house Gallego Homes bought in July of 2013 from the Guardianship Program for $36,500 was owned by Juana Raymond. A month after the purchase of the property at 15495 Leisure Drive, Gallego Homes resold it for $60,000 — a $23,500 gain.
- In March of 2018, Gallego Homes purchased a South Miami home that belonged to an incapacitated person named Gerdhilde Albrand for $235,000. No permits were filed for major renovation work at 6610 SW 63 Avenue, but Gallego Homes sold the house nine months later, in December 2018, for $435,000, a $200,000 gain.
‘They sold your home for $30,000’
WLRN’s investigation did find one property purchased by Gallego Homes that was sold for a loss.
In 2015, Gallego Homes bought a Liberty City home that belonged to an incapacitated woman named Rebecca Shaw Ladson for $31,000.
The following month, Gallego Homes sold the house for $30,000 — a loss of $1,000 — to a company called Maia Investments. That now-defunct company was managed by Antonio Lorenzo, a business associate of the Méndez/Morales family.
Lorenzo and his companies have been involved in at least seven transactions connected to Guardianship−owned properties, according to real estate and court records.
The sale of the Ladson home shows the impact such a transaction can have on the families of Guardianship Program clients.
Rebecca Shaw Ladson became a ward of the program in 2011 when she was 88 years old. She had Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Rebecca lived at 784 NW 56 Street in Liberty City since the 1960s. She raised children, grandchildren and many foster daughters and sons at her house.
In a petition to the court on March 9, 2011, the Guardianship Program asked that a judge “remove” certain rights from Rebecca, including her right to manage property, as she had been declared incapacitated. The program was then in charge of her care.
In early 2012, the Guardianship Program put Rebecca into a nursing home and began eviction proceedings against Emma Louise Ladson, Rebecca’s biological daughter who had lived with her mother for years and helped to pay her bills.
The program claimed in court filings that Emma was her mother’s tenant and she had ceased paying rent, and therefore needed to be removed from the home she grew up in.
“A tenant is somebody who pays you to live there. How am I a tenant? This is our home. That's my mom. This is my daughter's grandmother. When did I become a tenant?” Emma Ladson told WLRN in an interview.
Miami-Dade County Court Judge Gladys Perez approved the eviction in October of 2012. The following month, five days before Thanksgiving, Emma Ladson came home with her daughter to find their belongings strewn about on the lawn. She says she saw people from the Guardianship Program there, saying she had been evicted and had 30 minutes to clear out anything else she wanted from the house.
Emma then had to move with her daughter into a homeless shelter, where they stayed until she could get back on her feet.
When she found out that the Guardianship Program had sold her family home in 2015, she said she was shocked by how low the amount was for a well-maintained property on high ground in South Florida.
“A family member from Georgia called me to say: ‘When did you sell the house? They sold your home for $30,000.’ I go: ‘What are you talking about?’” Emma said. "Are you kidding me? I just couldn’t believe it."
A company owned by Antonio Lorenzo still owns and rents the family home. Lorenzo did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The family home of Méndez and Morales
The family home of Victoria Méndez, Carlos Morales and Margarita Méndez was purchased through the Guardianship Program, although not through one of their companies.
The home was originally owned by Ariko Bezaryan, a Turkish immigrant of Greek and Armenian descent.
Bezaryan was enchanted with Miami when he arrived in the 1970s, his niece, Dellilah Sabah, told WLRN. He worked on boats and fell in love with scuba diving.
Through his efforts he bought a home in unincorporated Miami-Dade County, near Coral Way and SW 67th Avenue.
As he got older, Bezeryan became increasingly forgetful and physically weak, and began falling. In 2014 a nurse visited his home and found him on the floor, according to court filings reviewed by WLRN. The Florida Department of Children and Families got involved, and the Guardianship Program stepped in to take control of Bezaryan’s life and property.
Sabah lived in California, and her own mother was facing escalating medical conditions. The state of Florida asked if she might be willing to become Bezaryan’s legal guardian, but it was impossible.
“I regret bitterly now that I did not become his guardian,” said Sabah. “I was miles away, there was no way I could be so involved.”
A few months after Bezaryan was declared incompetent by the court, the Guardianship Program sold his home to Margarita Méndez for $165,000.
At the time, Sabah said, her uncle “protested” that the house was being sold for too little money.
“It was an unusually large parcel, and it had a small home on it,” said Sabah. “We all felt that it should have sold for more. It went for a pittance.”
The day after she bought Bezaryan’s property, Margarita Méndez added her daughter to the title — Victoria Méndez.
The old home of Ariko Bezaryan was demolished, and in its place a shiny new development cropped up over the course of several years. The market value for the property is now an estimated $1.5 million, according to Zillow.
In 2018, a third name was added to the title: Carlos Morales, Victoria Méndez’s husband. The address now serves as the legal address for Express Homes, Morales’ real estate company.
Bezeryan died in 2017. When he died, his niece recalled warm days spent with her uncle in Istanbul, and the close connection she always felt between them.
At the time that he passed, Bezeryan had $6,979.95 left in a bank account, according to court records. Sabah was given the option to recover this money, since she was his last known living relative, but she said she declined to recover the funds.
Because, she told WLRN, it was never about the money.
The Fund for Investigative Journalism provided support for this story.