Wealthy Venezuelan brothers lose $1 million super-yacht battle in Miami

Jay Weaver

A couple of billionaire brothers from Venezuela won’t be getting back their $1 million super yacht anytime soon.

A Miami lawsuit brought by Luis and Ignacio Oberto was thrown out this week when a federal judge found that their company, which claimed to own the Italian-made vessel, had been dissolved a few years ago so the brothers could not assert ownership.

U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno said the Obertos’ Panamanian company, Violet Advisors S.A., no longer existed at the time that the brothers filed their suit in April to reclaim the Leonardo II yacht. And though the brothers reactivated the company in September, it did not help boost their bid for the boat, Moreno said in his decision released Wednesday.

The judge’s decision means that a Hialeah company, Excellent Auto Group, which claims to have bought the 98-foot blue-and-white yacht for $200,000 from Violet Advisors in 2015, can keep it.

“Our clients are pleased to be secure in possession of their boat, now named M/V Nicole,” Miami attorney William Norris told the Miami Herald Thursday. “I was impressed that Judge Moreno’s instinct that the claim against us was false proved to be true.”

Moreno, who at a hearing last month called the dispute over the boat’s ownership a “mess,” left open the door for the Oberto brothers to refile their suit. But it might be a lost cause. The judge cited Panama’s law saying that even if the brothers recently reactivated their company, they could only do so for the purpose of selling off any final assets — including the yacht.

And that, of course, was never the intention of their suit.

The legal battle was joined in April when the two wealthy Venezuelan brothers said their company bought the twin-engine Leonardo II yacht for $2 million in 2013 and later brought it to South Florida, where they claimed it was stolen in March from a dock in North Miami Beach.

During the dispute, the Obertos’ claim of ownership has been overshadowed by a lingering federal criminal investigation into their past. The brothers, who until recently were living in a pair of Miami Beach waterfront condos, are under investigation for alleged corruption and money-laundering activities totaling $4 billion, extending from Venezuela to Switzerland to South Florida. Federal records show that most of their money, which U.S. authorities believe was embezzled from the Venezuelan government, is in Swiss bank accounts, including under the name Violet Advisors. Their defense attorneys in Miami say the brothers have committed no wrongdoing.

In their suit, the brothers say they bought the super yacht in 2013 and had it transported to Palm Beach later that year. The brothers assert they obtained a “certificate of British registry” from the Cayman Islands verifying that their Panamanian company, Violet Advisors, owned the yacht and held the title. But court records show the brothers dissolved that company in May 2015.

In 2019, the brothers say they moved the vessel to a residence on the water in North Miami Beach, where it remained docked until March, when it went missing and ended up docked in front of an apartment building along the Miami River near the 12th Avenue Bridge. This summer, the boat was moved again to an Aventura marina at 173rd Street and Biscayne Boulevard.

The Obertos’ suit named both the yacht itself and several defendants, including Excellent Auto Group, the Hialeah company that says it acquired rightful ownership of the vessel. Court records suggest that Excellent Auto Group bought the yacht, previously called “The Round,” from Violet Advisors in 2015, but the brothers and their attorney assert the bill of sale was fabricated.

The brothers’ lawyer, Bryan Busch, told Moreno at a court hearing last month: “I think there was fraud.”

Despite their civil claim, the Obertos did not show up at that hearing. Both brothers left Miami in July to visit the Dominican Republic and possibly other countries. They have not returned to South Florida and it’s not clear if they plan to come back, authorities said.