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Cabrera, Lee County manager take stand, testify

By Staff | Jan 13, 2009

When Lee County Manager Don Stilwell and son-in-law, Samir Cabrera, testified before a jury on Monday, only one was under federal indictment.
Both appeared to be on trial.
Prosecutors hammered each about their involvement in a handful of failed south Fort Myers developments between 2005 and 2007.
Cabrera, 32, is the one facing prison time if found guilty of any of 12 counts for fraud and money laundering. Prosecutors allege Cabrera scammed investors in two south Fort Myers development projects for $2.8 million when he marked up land prices in a property flip without telling them and then pocketed the difference, or “kicker fees.”
Cabrera blames his chief operating officer and a real estate attorney for not making the disclosures.
Stilwell, who was referred to in the indictment as receiving more than $125,000 from Cabrera’s gains, was not a target of the indictment and faces no charges.
That was not obvious Monday.
When the 15-year county manager took the stand in the morning, Assistant United States Attorney Robert Barclift detailed roughly $650,000 in loans and investments Stilwell made to his son-in-law between 2005 and 2007.
He all but accused Stilwell of breaking Florida’s usury law, noting Stilwell received 60 percent annual interest on a loan for one of Cabrera’s projects.
Florida law sets a maximum interest rate of 18 percent for loans under $500,000.
“You went to law school,” Barclift told Stilwell at the end of his questioning. “Do you know what a usurious interest rate is?”
Stilwell replied he did.
On Friday, Stilwell told reporters he looked forward to testifying. It would be his first chance to detail his relationship with Cabrera’s deals since the county manager’s initials appeared in the indictment.
On Monday, he appeared a bundle of nervous energy, fidgeting with his hands and gesturing animatedly as he spoke. He often jumped ahead of questions from Cabrera’s attorney, John Mills, and he became cagey with Barclift at moments.
When the prosecutor cited last year’s county investigation into Stilwell, which ultimately cleared him, Stilwell told him, “I’m glad you read the report. I didn’t know it from some of the questions you were asking.”
The county determined Stilwell did not use his position for gain. Stilwell oversees county road planners, who were looking into a road extension near Cabrera’s projects. He invested $100,000 in one of the Fiddlesticks projects, which would have benefitted from the route.
Stilwell said the road plan had been scrapped by the time he invested, but that he now regrets getting involved.
“I normally would not have even done that,” he said of the investment. “I did it because it was family and because the Board (of County Commissioners) had decided (Fiddlesticks) wasn’t going to be widened. I didn’t see a conflict.”
Stilwell portrayed himself as a reluctant investor, bound by family ties and little interested in the use of his money.
At the same time, he was close friends with Frank D’Alessandro, a former real estate guru and Cabrera’s mentor and boss, and he hosted a meeting between D’Alessandro and Cabrera’s associates when Cabrera’s projects began souring.
D’Alessandro died in 2007 during a kayaking trip in New Jersey.
Barclift pressed Stilwell on e-mails that suggested he was more deeply involved in his son-in-law’s dealings. One regarded an eagle nest on one of the project’s properties, in which state officials urged county authorities to drop their concerns.
“You are the man,” Cabrera replied in an e-mail.
Stilwell said the comment related to another matter Cabrera mentioned in the e-mail.
If Stilwell was combative on the stand, Cabrera was attentive and forthcoming. He leaned forward in his seat, spoke precisely and referred to Assistant United States Attorney Jeffrey Michelland as “sir” with every response.
Under his attorney’s questioning, Cabrera recalled a slate of well-meaning projects that failed after a falling out with his business partner in the development company intended to work each project. The partner, Tony Turner, withheld crucial consultant studies from Cabrera until he received an $850,000 settlement for money he claimed he was owed.
As projects stalled, loan payments piled up.
“I was under an enormous amount of pressure,” Cabrera said.
“My partners, the fund-raisers, were seeing how much we were spending and not getting anything done … “ he told jurors.
By the end, he felt “like a loser,” he said.
“It was my long-term plan to become a respected developer in the area,” he added.
Michelland hammered at the defendant. With his first question, he noted Cabrera’s personal haul from the $2.8 million in kicker fees split among associates in 2006.
“As a matter of fact, between 13701 and 13800 (Fiddlesticks Boulevard), you were a big winner, right?” he asked.
“Depends on your definition of winning,” Cabrera responded.
“You took out $600,000 in a matter of months. That’s a big win, isn’t it?” Michelland asked.
“Yes, it is,” Cabrera said.
Michelland detailed two Las Vegas trips in which Cabrera spent about $35,000 of his gains. He spent thousands at nightclubs and high-end clothing stores. In one night alone, Cabrera spent more than $10,000 at the PURE nightclub in Caesar’s Palace.
“Today, it makes me feel foolish,” he said.
Yet, those kicker fees, foolish or wise, were never intended to be hidden from investors, Cabrera said. They were commissions for he and his associates’ work finding investors. Their inclusion in documents were overlooked, he claims.
Prosecutors will continue their cross-examination of Cabrera today, after which Mills is likely to respond with more questions of his own.
Thomas Pence, Cabrera’s former chief operating officer, might be called to testify again today. He was called by prosecutors last week, but Mills said he might recall him for his own case.
Closing arguments should begin today.
If convicted, Cabrera faces a maximum 190 years in prison.

Steven Beardsley is a staff writer for the Naples Daily News.