High-rolling developer of collapsed Florida condo faced legal, money woes during project

·10 min read

Nathan Reiber retired to Florida in the 1970s, carrying more baggage than a suitcase.

The Canadian lawyer was hailed for his philanthropy, rubbing elbows with celebrities and world leaders and donating time and money to charitable causes. His South Florida building career was described as a happy accident, a case of a shrewd retiree spotting a property and launching the second act of his business career.

By the time Reiber was building the Champlain Towers in Surfside in the 1980s, he faced tax evasion charges in Ontario stemming from allegations of siphoning coin laundry money from his apartment buildings there. A warrant was issued.

Reiber’s background and the history of the towers have come under scrutiny since more than half of Champlain Towers South collapsed in the early morning hours of June 24. Search-and-rescue teams confirmed 22 deaths, and 126 people were unaccounted for as of Friday night.

Canada Revenue Agency, a government arm similar to the IRS, sent an investigator to Miami to find out whether Reiber's Canadian real estate company had run afoul of tax law when it bought a Florida yacht. Looking at that transaction in 1999, a Canadian tax hearing officer determined it was legal but “professionally and ethically bereft.” Ultimately, Reiber was allowed to surrender his law license in that country, according to Canadian Law Society Tribunal records.

The legal troubles were at odds with Reiber’s reputation in South Florida as a successful builder and generous philanthropist. A Miami Herald obituary in 2014 praised him for his support of hospitals, faith organizations and the arts. Reiber was on the board of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto and involved with the Young Men's Hebrew Association and Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach, according to the obituary. And he was heralded for his signature development, the Champlain Towers.

There’s no evidence that Reiber or his associates committed any wrongdoing in connection with the Champlain Towers construction. It’s not known whether the developer knew of the South Tower’s “major” design error, identified in an inspection report in 2018.

The report warned of critical errors in waterproofing that led to concrete deterioration and damage to the columns and walls in the lower levels. The cause of the collapse has not been determined and finding out may take more than a year.

Though one Surfside official told residents the building was in good shape after that report, owners and the condo association board were concerned about the repairs, and the sky-high price tag, which led to years of delays in getting work started.

We have discussed, debated, and argued for years now,” Jean Wodnicki, president of the association’s board of directors, said in a letter to owners April 9.

Conditions had worsened since the report in 2018, she said: “When you can visually see the concrete spalling (cracking), that means that the rebar holding it together is rusting and deteriorating beneath the surface.”

Wodnicki survived the condo collapse.

Bribery accusations

Reiber chose a bad year to build in Surfside. In 1980, the cost of all construction materials, including such structural necessities as rebar, neared a 30-year high, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bank prime lending rate topped 15%, a staggering burden to anyone hoping for a loan.

Reiber already had been burned by the Florida market. Along with Canadian developer Max Citron, his company had bought two Miami-Dade apartment projects in the early 1970s as the market peaked. One faced foreclosure; the other was reportedly sold at a loss. The investors even struggled to pay landscaping bills: An unpaid Miami firm filed liens in 1975 naming Reiber and Citron to get the $3,850 owed.

Shepherding Reiber through 1980s development was Miami attorney Stanley Joel Levine.

Like Reiber, Levine was praised for his philanthropy when he died in 1999, raising money for the Fight for Sight League of Greater Miami, a nonprofit group started by his mother to research blindness.

Also like Reiber, Levine came to the Surfside development after a brush with the law.

In 1969, Levine’s lawyer walked him to the Dade County jail where Levine turned himself in. A grand jury had indicted Levine, along with Miami City Councilman Malvin Englander, for allegedly conspiring to get $8,000 in bribe money from a woman seeking a building variance. Both men denied wrongdoing. And the charges didn’t stick. A judge ruled that Englander’s grand jury testimony had been coerced because he believed he might lose his council job if he did not testify. The case fell apart.

Reiber’s out-of-country tax charges might not have put off potential financiers in the 1980s South Miami condo market. In the cocaine cowboy years, the city had more serious problems: Billions of dollars in drug money was flowing into South Florida, and an unknown amount of that cash was being laundered through real estate deals in a red-hot condo market. The DEA sounded alarms. The IRS sounded alarms. The cash kept flowing. The New York Times wrote in 1987 that Miami had a reputation as “a juvenile delinquent” among cities.

Grand juries in Dade County in 1989 and 1992 identified numerous issues with the construction industry during decades of rapid growth, including when the Champlain Towers were erected.

“(Dade County’s Building and Zoning Department) does not have enough building inspectors to competently conduct the necessary number of inspections,” the 1989 grand jury wrote. “Inspections are frequently conducted in a short, perfunctory manner and some are not performed at all.”

Its report includes stories of roof inspectors who never climbed ladders, building inspectors that checked off properties they never visited, instead napping or going bowling, and unlicensed contractors operating in the county with little repercussion if caught.

The 1992 report focused on whether shoddy design and construction contributed to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Andrew, and found in many cases it did.

Surfside, a tiny town of roughly 6,000 sandwiched between BalHarbor and Miami Beach, had more mundane building problems in 1979: Its outdated sewer system couldn’t handle new development. Reiber and his partners wanted to build twin luxury towers, Champlain Towers North and South, just when the town could no longer build anything.

Campaign donations

Dade County slapped a moratorium on construction in Surfside because of the sewer concerns. The town needed $400,000 for updates before it could green-light construction.

Reiber’s Champlain Towers Associates agreed to pay half the bill. Though the moratorium was still in effect, Surfside officials gave Reiber the go-ahead. However, the town would not issue a certificate of occupancy allowing anyone to move into the condos until sewer upgrades were complete and the county lifted the moratorium.

Buyers snapped up condos in the towers as soon as construction began. An ad on Aug. 10, 1980, in the Miami Herald touted the towers’ “breathtaking views from every room” and claimed there were just 18 units left for sale between the two 136-unit buildings.

In 1980, Reiber and several associates bought a third piece of land between the North and South towers, which became Champlain Towers East.

Accusations flew at town council meetings that Reiber’s company was trying to buy friends on the Surfside Commission. According to newspaper reports, the developers gave $200 to one commission member and $100 to another. Project Manager Joseph Miller, who made the donations, told the Miami Herald the intention had been to donate to all 10 people running for council that election, but two had asked for money early.

A look at the pre-collapse state of a Surfside, Florida condo.
A look at the pre-collapse state of a Surfside, Florida condo.

When the contributions sparked controversy, Miller asked for the money back. Councilman Saul Gromet, a perennial opponent of the project, said he’d already spent it.

A second round of controversy started just as the county lifted the construction moratorium in 1980. Zoning laws limited construction to 12 stories or 120 total feet.

Reiber and his partners had revised their initial plans for the towers to include penthouses, bringing the total height to 123 feet: 12 stories plus one large penthouse on the top floor of each building.

According to media reports, the council voted to approve the zoning variance because the wording on the books was vague when it came to penthouses. Members feared the developers would sue if they weren’t allowed to add them. The mayor vowed to change the zoning codes to be more clear so they wouldn’t be put in that position again.

One resident was so angry about that special variance that he started a drive to recall the mayor, vice mayor and two commissioners who voted for it.

The exact date the South tower opened to residents is unclear, but a newspaper report about a theft of personal property at that address appeared in 1982 and ads reselling furnished condos ran in 1983.

In 1981, work had begun on the site of the East Tower, but that was abandoned. Eight years later, the Miami Herald reported, that site sat as an eyesore where construction debris was left behind and stagnant water attracted mosquitoes where excavation of a pool and elevator shafts had begun.

Surfside gave the go-ahead to resume that project in late 1989 but not without more controversy, including some residents screaming down Reiber in public meetings, according to media reports. They wanted assurances that the property wouldn’t be left abandoned again. Construction didn’t start until 1994, but the East Tower was completed.

A big splash

By the late 1980s, Reiber was enjoying success.

In 1988, when Elizabeth Taylor came to Miami to throw a major AIDS fundraiser, donors paying up to $2,500 spread out across the city for celebrity co-hosted parties at mansions, clubs and on yachts. Zsa Zsa Gabor, singer Donna Summer, Tommy Tune and supermodel Lauren Hutton attended.

Reiber and his wife, Carolee, reportedly hosted one of the parties on their 80-foot yacht RYE-BAR along with fashion designer Fabrice, actress Susan Anton and actor Eric Roberts.

Rescuers continue to search through the rubble  of the Champlain Towers south condo collapse in Surfside, Fla. on Tuesday, June 29, 2021.
Rescuers continue to search through the rubble of the Champlain Towers south condo collapse in Surfside, Fla. on Tuesday, June 29, 2021.

He built a lavish home on Miami’s posh Star Island on a site formerly owned by an in-law of Saudi royalty.

Reiber’s charity work was equally high-profile.

According to his obituary, he met world leaders from Spain, Hungary, Germany, Ethiopia and Uzbekistan while serving as the national executive vice president for the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.

Records show money troubles never went away. Three subcontractors on the Star Island home filed liens over unpaid bills. In 1994, Florida’s Department of Revenue demanded Reiber's Nattel Construction pay $6,611 in back taxes and interest.

In 1996, Reiber returned to Canada to settle up with tax authorities over the tax evasion charges. According to an Ontario newspaper, he paid a fine of $60,000.

Tax authorities investigated the purchase in 1974 of a 60-foot yacht, which landed in Florida. Reiber was asked why no loan paperwork backed up the sale. “This is the way we did all our business,” said Reiber, according to Canadian tax court records. “All our other companies, the same thing. It was not backed up by a note or anything else.”

It was other documents that the Canada Revenue Agency inspector who looked at Reiber’s Florida yacht records had been sent to Miami to examine. “This investigation started with a lead ... not related to this boat,” the inspector said in the tax court proceedings. “It was to do with other false contracts.”

There are no online records showing tax authorities found problems or filed tax actions against Reiber over other contracts. The yacht loan dispute was decided in Reiber’s favor, though the hearing officer criticized Reiber’s conflicting statements, writing, “The appellant's credibility is elastic.”

Asked about its inquiry, Canada Revenue Agency declined to comment, citing confidentiality restrictions.

Reiber and his wife sold their Star Island home in 1999. He died in 2014 after a lengthy cancer battle, remembered as a philanthropist and by his daughter as a sharp businessman.

“He enjoyed the game of business and was good at that,” Jill Meland told the Miami Herald.

Members of Reiber’s family could not be reached for comment.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Condo collapse in Florida: Developer hounded with legal, money woes

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