Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Carmel on the Case: Tax Throwdown
It has all the elements of a reality TV show: A challenge between a public official and a former cop, each accusing the other of not telling the truth about how many people are cheating on their homestead taxes. Investigative reporter Carmel Cafiero is on the case.
WSVN -- Jim Dibernardo is a man on a mission.
The recently retired Miami-Dade Police major ran the Economic Crimes Bureau.
Before he left the department, his team was working on cases involving property tax cheats, and he is convinced the county is losing a huge amount of money.
Now he's investigating on his own time.
Jim Dibernardo, Retired Police Officer: "Well, I think it's hundreds of millions of dollars that the taxpayers are losing here in Miami-Dade County."
But property appraiser Pedro Garcia doesn't buy those numbers.
Pedro Garcia, Miami-Dade Property Appraiser: "When he mentions hundreds of millions of dollars, that's completely out of whack."
Dibernardo says what's out of whack is this list.
He won't say how he got it but says it shows more than 12,000 dead people currently claiming homestead exemptions in Miami-Dade.
Homes are often left to family members who never bother to officially change ownership.
By doing that, they keep the value of the home low and limit tax increases.
This is one of the homes on Dibernardo's list.
Jim Dibernardo, Retired Police Officer: "I'm looking for Elena C. Duarte?
Elena Duarte: "That's me. Who are you?"
Jim Dibernardo, Retired Police Officer: "I'm doing an investigation, because I show the Elena C. Duarte, I show her deceased."
She walked away, but then returned and admitted her mother passed more than ten years ago.
Jim Dibernardo, Retired Police Officer: "Right, 2000."
Elena Duarte: "Right."
Jim Dibernardo, Retired Police Officer: "But this house is registered to your mother."
Elena Duarte: "No, you are totally wrong."
But he's not wrong, according to the county which checked Dibernardo's information.
As a result, it says a notice will be sent to this family telling them to pay more than $38,000 in back taxes, plus another $43,000 in penalties and interest.
That's more than $82,000 for just one home.
Jim Dibernardo, Retired Police Officer: "Oh, you rent? How long ago did he die?"
We followed Dibernardo to five properties from his list.
The county later told us there are issues with all five.
Pedro Garcia, Miami-Dade Property Appraiser: "We receive the information every time the people pass away. We receive the information to this office."
Garcia insists his office is going after people trying to cheat the system.
He says he's returned more than $1 billion to the tax rolls over the last three years, but his chief critic claims it's not enough.
Jim Dibernardo, Retired Police Officer: "He's not running death certificates, he's not running utility bills, and he's not doing proactive investigations."
Pedro Garcia, Miami-Dade Property Appraiser: "Well I'm sorry to tell you the one who's lying is him, and I can put it in black and white, and I can put it on TV, and I challenge him to prove that we are not doing anything here."
Carmel Cafiero, Investigative Reporter: "This throwdown could be decided soon. Garcia says the county is getting a computer program designed to weed out cheats, and no matter which man wins the debate over the numbers, honest taxpayers will be the real winners."
IF YOU HAVE A STORY FOR CARMEL TO INVESTIGATE: