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A Miami jury has hit a Florida businessman with a $3.75 million punitive damages verdict for fraudulently representing himself as the owner of a Miami Beach hotel and selling it to a third party. The verdict in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court ends the civil portion of the rambling, stranger-than-fiction story of Angelo Pizzuto and the Angler Hotel, which is located in South Beach. But on the criminal side, both the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office and the U.S. Treasury Department are still investigating Pizzuto, said Fort Lauderdale lawyer Franklin Zemel, who represented the plaintiff in the civil trial last month. “I’m glad our clients were vindicated,” Zemel said. Jorge Piedra, the Miami attorney representing Pizzuto, would only say that he is appealing the June 23 verdict. The case of Pianeta Miami v. Angelo Pizzuto was filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court in 2001. Pianeta Miami, an Italian company, alleged that Pizzuto fraudulently sold the Angler to Miami Beach hotel mogul Alan Lieberman for $2.75 million that year. When Pianeta found out about it, the company promptly filed suit against both Pizzuto and Lieberman, as well as the mortgage holder, SunTrust Bank. Pianeta also filed a police report. When questioned by police, Pizzuto presented records for offshore bank accounts that held $3.6 million. According to Zemel, Pizzuto falsely presented himself as a lawyer and representative for Pianeta. As a result of the ruse, Zemel said, the Italian Consulate in Miami recommended Pizzuto to Italians looking to open businesses in Miami-Dade. A representative of the consulate could not be reached for comment. Zemel also showed jurors testimony that Pizzuto had stolen another property, the Theorema, before the Angler, then fraudulently sold the Angler to pay a settlement agreement in that case. In 2003, the Florida Bar permanently enjoined Pizzuto from engaging in the unlicensed practice of law after he allegedly represented himself fraudulently as a lawyer and negotiated a settlement in an auto accident case. Pianeta’s suit alleged that Pizzuto was not the property owner’s registered agent, and that he altered state corporate records to make himself appear to be the president of Pianeta. The suit also claimed that Lieberman failed to use an attorney in the purchase and failed to perform due diligence to determine whether Pizzuto had the authority to sell the property. The case was broken up into five pieces, with Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Ronald Friedman presiding over all the parts. In 2002, jurors ordered Pizzuto to return the hotel title to Pianeta. The jury also ordered SunTrust’s mortgage canceled. A separate suit brought by Lieberman against Pizzuto apparently was settled, according to Zemel. In 2002, Friedman held Pizzuto in contempt after Pizzuto refused to reveal where the money from the hotel sale went and the whereabouts of the offshore bank accounts. Pizzuto spent five months in jail before appealing the contempt finding. Then last month, jurors decided on punitive damages. After a three-day trial, jurors found that Pizzuto had “a specific intent to harm Pianeta” and awarded the Italian company $3.75 million in damages. Zemel said he was pleased with the verdict and was confident he would be able to collect the judgment. He noted that Pizzuto is married to the daughter of a wealthy Miami real estate investor. “He had a spectacular wedding at the Biltmore Hotel in the midst of our lawsuit, and he lives in Bal Harbour,” Zemel said. “I think he has the money.” In April, Pianeta sold the Angler Hotel for $5 million to an investment group led by entrepreneurs Gregg Covin and Kevin Venber. Built in the 1930s, it will be renovated as a boutique resort condominium.

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