excerpts from story published in the South Florida Business Journal on May 8th, 2010
Mario Egozi, the Cuban-born developer of a $24 million luxury condominium in North Bay Village, is citing the controversial Helms-Burton Act in a legal battle to fend off a foreclosure lawsuit by a development group with past connections to a resort in Cayo Coco, Cuba.
Egozi, 52, worked primarily as an architect rehabbing upscale homes in New York until 2005, when he convinced his longtime family bank, Northern Trust Bank, to provide a $16.9 million construction loan for his dream project, the 16-story Cielo on the Bay. But Northern Trust sold the loan last year to a company called 7835 NBV LLC, some of whose principals are affiliated with French-Canadian real estate firm Thibault Messier Savard & Associates. At least one member of that firm, professional hockey legend Serge Savard, was also involved in tourism development in Cuba several years ago.
That connection with Castro’s government should disqualify the new owner from doing business in the U.S., Egozi alleges. An attorney for 7835 NBV disputes Egozi’s allegations; the case is now before a bankruptcy judge in Miami. Egozi is stung by Northern Trust’s decision to sell the loan. In an e-mailed statement, attorneys for 7935 NBV denied that the company was in violation of the Helms-Burton Act. “Neither 7935 NBV nor its members have conducted business with the government of Cuba,” said Jose Casal, a litigation partner with Holland & Knight. “A separate foreign entity indirectly related to one of the investors of 7935 NBV’s owner held an interest in a joint venture with other foreign investors who invested in a hotel project in Cuba.”
Egozi has alleged that Northern Trust breached its fiduciary duty to him by suggesting midway through the project that he pledge $3.5 million to cover his personal guarantee, then walking away from the project. Cielo on the Bay includes 35 units originally priced from $750,000 to $1.8 million.
The building is considered a top-flight luxury condo with incredible views, said Grant Stern, a mortgage broker at Morningside Mortgage. “Northern Trust didn’t work with Mario, they just kicked him around,” Stern said. “Northern Trust Bank was always such a chi-chi service-oriented bank that took care of long-term customers,” Percal said. “But the bank was very aggressive and self-centered here.” On a recent balmy day, Egozi glanced up at the building, and said: “I was prepared to walk away with the loss of equity, but there was this pledged collateral also. What I am hoping for now is that they will leave me alone and let me do my project."