By Jay Weaver
For more than a decade, a Pinecrest couple ran a little racket at a VIP lounge in Miami International Airport, catering to well-heeled airline passengers while skimming from the county-owned facility.
Their take totaled millions.
Elena and Lazaro Iglesias admitted they stole more than $7 million as operators of Club America in Concourse F. After pleading guilty, they were looking at the possibility of 10 years in prison.
But, thanks to a strategic move by their lawyers, the couple got a fraction of that time after they agreed to return $2.6 million of the loot they stole from Miami-Dade County’s Aviation Department — including giving up their homesteaded property in the affluent suburb of Pinecrest at a sentencing hearing on Thursday.
“My clients are not trying to be greedy,” defense attorney Bradley Collins told a Miami-Dade judge, as he asked to cut an initially proposed three-year sentence in half.
Miami-Dade prosecutor Isis Perez disagreed, arguing “there was no change in the circumstances,” so the couple should get three years in prison. She said they spent most of the stolen MIA money to pay off credit-card bills, car loans and mortgages, stressing the county is still losing about $5 million.
But Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Martin Zilber sided with the defense — crediting the couple with giving up their home — and reduced their sentence to two years and four months each.
Lazaro Iglesias, 50, surrendered after the sentencing hearing in the courtroom. His wife, Elena, 49, will start her prison term when he completes his in 2020.
In February, Elena Iglesias, the former account manager of Club America, and her contractor husband pleaded guilty to organized fraud, grand theft and two counts of money laundering.
A third defendant, Malena Rodriguez, 50, a secretary who worked under Elena Iglesias, pleaded guilty to the same four charges and was sentenced to six months on Thursday after her defense attorney, Harry Solomon, argued it was fair in light of her minor role in the airport scheme. She was ordered to pay $355,705 in restitution.
Here’s how the MIA lounge scam worked:
The airlines provided moneyed passengers with vouchers for use at MIA’s Club America, run by a company called International Airport Management Inc. The airlines reimbursed the company with checks, which were supposed to be deposited into a county bank account.
Investigators found that for years, the three defendants were depositing about 20 percent of the total revenues received from airlines into their personal accounts, fooling tellers by using an account with a similar name: IAMI Club Amer Inc.
The paper trail stretching from 1999 to 2012 was irrefutable, leading the three defendants to plead guilty with no plea deal.
Elena Iglesias began working at the airport lounge at just 18 years old, starting out as a hostess. A mother of four, she also wrote the weekly newsletter and managed databases for Glory House, a nonprofit devoted to helping victims of sex trafficking.
As for Lazaro Iglesias, he worked for 13 years at Miami-Dade’s Aviation Authority, moving up from checking parking permits to supervising terminal operations.
Elena and Lazaro Iglesias have already paid back $1.6 million to the county, which included the sale of a second home the couple owned in Pinecrest. In addition, they plan to sell their primary residence and turn over valuable jewelry and the proceeds of the sale of an office building, totaling an estimated $1 million.
Elena Iglesias’ defense attorney, Sam Rabin, said the total restitution is unusual in this type of theft case because normally little to no money is recovered.
“There has never been a case where they’ve given back so much of the money,” Rabin told the Miami Herald. “It’s huge.”