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Taking the Heat

Two recent cases of the Miami Heat being targeted by con men show that South Florida’s sports franchises aren’t immune to the city’s hustler culture — they’re part of it.

By Miami standards, the con pulled by Ibes Gomez seems minor. Small potatoes. Mostly just bad checks. A little hot paper to launch a tire business. Another bad check after a car sale went south. And also, yes, a few more checks, totaling an amount of some substance, that caught everyone’s attention and really got him in trouble.

“Normally, worthless checks aren’t even prosecuted, they just ask for restitution,” says his lawyer, Ted Mastos. “But Ibes’s problem was that he was so flagrant about it. He went after the Miami Heat!”

The state of Florida charged Gomez with stiffing the basketball team for at least $113,963, the tab he ran up while renting a luxury box during the 2012 NBA playoffs. Gomez used the box to entertain clients of another start-up venture, something to do with medical software. He conjured up a buffet and an open bar and  most attractively  the chance to be in the center of everything as the Heat defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder to win a championship.

When I read about Gomez’s arrest  a Miami Herald article used the words “conman,” “swindled,” and “catered booze and food”  I was struck not so much by his alleged crime, but by the victim. Hadn’t the Heat just been fleeced by someone else? Only three months earlier, a more traditionally audacious Miamian pleaded guilty to taking former Heat player Mike Miller for $1.7 million. That con artist, who claimed to be a connected Pakistani businessman, said he was going to invest Miller’s money back in his homeland. Instead, he used the cash to pay for courtside Heat tickets, along with the requisite flashy cars and catered booze and food and such. Two other former Heat players, Rashard Lewis and James Jones, also lost millions. All three athletes met the con man though a Heat vice-president, an executive who reportedly vouched for the Pakistani, calling him “the real deal.”

Hustlers flutter around sports teams in every city. Sometimes they get deeply entwined in the operations. Financial fraud landed former L.A. Kings owner Bruce McNall and former Nashville Predators owner William “Boots” Del Biaggo III in prison. Baseball fan Bernie Madoff propped up the New York Mets with the largest Ponzi scheme in American history. Not two years ago, a judge ordered Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf to pay $84.5 million to resolve a real estate fraud described as “organized crime-type activities.” The IRS and the FBI raided a truck stop company run by Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, and the company later agreed to pay a $92 million fine to avoid prosecution.

Hustlers operate everywhere, but they seem to do their best work in Miami. South Florida reigns as the Ponzi scheme capital of the country. It’s the welfare fraud capital and the insurance fraud capital, too. Florida resident Rick Scott was forced to resign as CEO of a chain of hospitals after the company received a record fine in what the government called the “largest health care fraud case in U.S. history.” State voters have since elected him governor. Twice. Newspapers here list gas stations that skim credit cards. Miami is the tax fraud capital of the United States, and also no. 1 when it comes to identity theft. So pervasive is that last crime that two former U.S. Attorneys General have had their credit ratings obliterated by Miami thieves. One victim was Janet Reno, a native. The other was Eric Holder, who doesn’t even live here.

It’s only natural for Miami’s criminal culture to bleed into our sports. Lawyer Scott Rothstein used cash from his massive Ponzi scheme to sponsor the Dolphins, the Heat, and the Florida Panthers. Just this spring, federal authorities in Fort Lauderdale arrested former Dolphins cornerback Will Allen, charging him with running a $31 million pyramid scheme of his own. A teenage con man named Jimmy Sabatino once posed so credibly as a Dolphins executive that FedEx couriers handed over to him $260,000 worth of Super Bowl tickets, which Sabatino resold.

Naturally, Miami also figures in the FIFA corruption scandal. FBI agents raided the organization’s regional offices on South Beach. Feds allege that the president of a Miami-based soccer marketing group took millions of dollars in bribes, investing the dirty money in properties around South Florida. In a neat little synchronicity with Miami’s real estate shadiness  the city leads the nation in both mortgage fraud and money laundering  it came out that the head of socialist Venezuela’s soccer federation was somehow able to buy eight homes here.

Even our colleges play the game. A couple of years ago, Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro almost killed off University of Miami football and basketball by diverting more than $2 million of his ill-gotten cash into the programs. Of all the teams down here, only the Miami Marlins have so far avoided an association with a con artist, though some fans might accuse Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, who convinced taxpayers to shell out more than $2 billion for a new stadium, of running a legal con himself with his sports franchise.

The arrest of Ibes Gomez shows how teams in Miami must protect themselves from the city’s criminal inclinations. But the earlier and more costly Heat con shows something else: The front-office executives and athletes here are themselves of Miami. Hustling is in this city’s DNA. It’s hard not to get caught up in it.

“There’s very little old money in Miami,” says Billy Corben, director of Cocaine Cowboys and other documentaries about Miami excess. “Everyone’s nouveau riche. If you’re in New England, your last name is your entrée; you can’t just pop in somewhere like the Great Gatsby and throw money around. In Miami, nobody cares. It’s such a transient population. There’s such a permissiveness. As long as you have that cash, doors open for you.”

Former Heat forward Mike Miller considered suing the team for introducing him to a con man who defrauded him and other former Heat players of more than $7 million.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images Former Heat forward Mike Miller considered suing the team for introducing him to a con man who defrauded him and other former Heat players of more than $7 million.

“I always wanted to be that flashy guy, with the baller life,” Ibes Gomez tells me. “Expensive cars, the ability to support the whole family and everything else. I have always thought that was going to be my life. I’ve always thought I was going to make it somehow.”

I find Gomez sitting on a bench on the second floor of Miami’s Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building. A file folder occupies his hands. He’s wearing an oxford shirt, flat-front trousers, and polished brown loafers. The look  young professional  contrasts with other defendants clogging the hallway outside his courtroom. It’s all sneakers and camouflage fatigues and, on women, the highest heels and the shortest skirts. A man standing near Gomez sports a 305 area code neck tattoo. Another man wears a baggy T-shirt embossed with the oversize words “F— THIS.” When he steps closer, it turns out his shirt is carefully shaded to spell “FREE THIS,” transforming it from spectacularly unwise courtroom attire into an optimistic request.

“I wish they’d blow up the whole building,” Gomez says. “Oh, man, I hate this place.”

He’s been here before. Twelve years ago, in a courtroom just down the hall, he received his first felony conviction, for grand theft in the third degree. A records center up on the seventh floor contains the paperwork from that case, and from several others he’s generated.

Almost everything involves bad checks. One case file details his failed attempt to sell a used Jeep. After receiving a $7,600 deposit, Gomez “squandered the money for his personal gain,” according to prosecutors. He dodged several requests to deliver the car. When the buyer demanded the return of his deposit, Gomez stalled, ultimately writing a check that bounced. He caught a robbery charge 10 years ago for taking rings and a Rolex watch from a friend’s mom. In another case, he cut a hot check for Dolphins tickets to a game against the Patriots.

“He really loves sports,” says Mastos, his attorney.

Gomez’s case file for the Heat references him “knowingly, unlawfully and feloniously” obtaining tickets and concierge services. If convicted, Gomez can expect prison time. Gomez tells me he’s not going to go to jail, that he’ll probably just get probation. “The judge can see my life is on a good path,” he says. His wife is pregnant with his third child, his first son. He swears he won’t screw up again.

He does admit that this thing with the Heat is his fault. He acknowledges that he did something wrong.

Back in 2012, when the Heat were still a championship-caliber team, Gomez worked as a health care marketing rep. He noticed that the doctors he called upon used diagnostic software that didn’t work on Apple products. “I said to myself, ‘Man, you know how easy would it be for me to start something where you can see your patients on your iPhone?’”

Designing the software turned out to be simple, Gomez says. Securing capital required more effort. Gomez tapped into his Miami network  “attorneys and stuff like that.” One potential investor looked promising. “He was a friend of a friend, an accident attorney,” Gomez says. “He does real well for himself. Young guy, we hit it off. He promised to buy a large percentage of the company. He said he would sign by the end of the week.” To seal the deal, Gomez booked the suite.

“When you’re in business, you’re competitive,” he explains. “You’ve got to have a nicer suit than the next guy. Got to drive a nicer car. If you don’t drive a nice car, people are looking at you and saying, ‘This guy is trying to sell me something?’ It’s just a mentality. Everybody is hustling in Miami. That’s what Miami is about  a constant hustle, a constant grind.”

Gomez ordered up that catered food. He kept the drinks flowing. The accident attorney brought some doctor friends to the Finals, and they needed to be comped, too. Gomez took care of everybody, recognizing that the doctors could possibly step right in as clients. The Heat beat the Thunder to take the title.

“It was great, I’ll be honest with you,” Gomez says. “I thought my business was booming, it was about to take off. I was kind of in a different tier now. I was hanging out with doctors and attorneys. I was hanging out at Heat games. The suite was totally worth it. It was a big, big plus.”

Yet here he is, at the courthouse. His hearing today is brief, a request to loosen the conditions of his house arrest. He’s already allowed to visit the doctor with his pregnant wife, but can he also go to the grocery store for her? And can he go to Connecticut for a week of training for his new job? Yes for the training in New England, the judge rules. No to grocery runs or anything else extracurricular. Still no movies. Definitely no basketball games. A GPS monitor remains strapped to Gomez’s ankle.

He and I leave the courthouse together. (His attorney runs upstairs to defend another client, a woman caught decapitating chickens in fetish videos.) We ride down an escalator, then step past metal detectors before heading out to the parking lot. When we reach his car, Gomez sheepishly notes that it’s a Nissan Versa. Not very Miami. He used to drive an Audi.

“You know the way it is down here,” he says. “Everyone gets caught up in it. You look at the guys who come over from Cuba, OK? That’s the first thing they see, the flashiness. The cars. You have to have the best clothing here. A nice watch, a nice suit.”

Before he drives off, I ask Gomez why the funding for his software start-up fell through. If that accident attorney was so impressed by Gomez and the playoff suite, then why didn’t he invest? Turns out he did invest. The deal closed.

“But then I gambled it all away,” Gomez admits. “I have a gambling problem. I’m addicted to action.”

David Beckham sitting courtside at a Heat playoff game in 2013. The Heat were one of the hottest tickets in sports back then, and anybody who wanted a piece of the action in Miami hoped to be seen at the American Airlines Arena.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images David Beckham sitting courtside at a Heat playoff game in 2013. The Heat were one of the hottest tickets in sports back then, and anybody who wanted a piece of the action in Miami hoped to be seen at the AmericanAirlines Arena.

Haider Zafar, whose Heat scam pulled in about 70 times more than Gomez’s, came to Miami in the usual way for a man of his ilk. The emigrant from Pakistan had been living quietly outside Columbus, Ohio, until he decided to relocate to South Beach and assume a new life as “the Bling King.” He acquired luxury cars: Lamborghini, Mercedes, Aston Martin, and more. He wore diamond watches and other bedazzled jewelry. He bought so many bottles in so many clubs that he earned a second nickname, “the Prince of Dubai.” (Not to be confused with Prince Mohammed al-Fassi of Saudi Arabia. That guy  not really a prince  reigned over Miami in the early ‘80s, eventually skipping out on millions in debt, including an unpaid hotel bill for $1.5 million.)

We know now that Zafar fueled his transformation with a massive real estate scam perpetrated back in Ohio, where he convinced an investor that he was the nephew of Pakistan’s minister of defense. (Not true in any way.) His uncle supposedly controlled land purchases for the government. Zafar told the man that he’d been tipped off on which land to buy, which they could quickly resell to the government at a fantastic profit. The investor, who looks a bit unscrupulous himself here, handed over more than $10 million. Zafar did not invest it, though he forged documents to make it look like he had. Instead he bought a Rolls-Royce Phantom convertible. He also bought that Lamborghini and other cars. He hired a chauffeur. One of his many new watches cost $34,000. He started getting his Miami on.

“I think about this all the time,” says Fred Grimm, a columnist for the Herald. “So many of us come from other states and other countries that we seem to lack that sense of shame that doing wrong would bring to someone living in, say, small-town America, where people have known you and known your family for years. What we have instead is a place where someone who flashes money and drives luxury cars and lives the high life can find instant social acceptance.”

How shady was Zafar? In 2008, several bullets pierced his Cadillac Escalade in a drive-by shooting outside a strip club. A rapper named Toro, who was riding in the SUV, died in the attack. Zafar owes $286,000 to a Miami Beach recording studio. He hired a convicted cocaine trafficker to serve as his armed bodyguard. Another bodyguard shot two people outside the exclusive Bal Harbour mall. (One victim had argued with Zafar earlier. The other victim, a 90-year-old woman, was hit by a stray bullet.) Soon after that shooting, Miami Beach police arrested Zafar for writing bad checks to settle a six-figure tab at the Fontainebleau hotel. The FBI searched his Ohio home back in 2009. There’s also something about a Haitian drug ring and Zafar serving as a government informant.

This is the guy a Miami Heat vice-president reportedly called “the real deal” when he introduced Zafar to Mike Miller, Rashard Lewis, and James Jones.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of Florida, Zafar approached the Heat in October, 2012, at the peak of Heatlemania. The team had won an NBA championship four months earlier, in the same series that Ibes Gomez watched from his suite. With LeBron James still in town and the team primed for another title run, Heat games were Miami’s place to be seen. Zafar wanted in. He reached out to team vice-president Stephen Weber, seeking a three-season courtside ticket package worth just over $1 million.

Weber’s bio remains on the Heat website. He started his career as a research analyst for the state of Illinois. The Phoenix Suns gave him his first job in sports, selling tickets and corporate suites. He worked the same gig for the Toronto Raptors for a year before landing with the Heat in 1997. His responsibilities in Miami included corporate partnerships, season ticket sales, and “all aspects of the Premium Services and Corporate Services departments.” Weber took care of the high rollers. He rolled pretty high himself. Real estate records show that in 2009, he and his wife bought a $1.9 million house on Old Cutler Road, in an exclusive subdivision across from Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. They launched a comprehensive remodel: marble floors in the kitchen and bath, a wine cellar, heated pool, top-of-the-line everything. Their neighbors included Ray Allen and Juwan Howard.

When Zafar approached Weber, the Pakistani sported a new fake name and a fresh background story. This time he said he was Haider Hashwani, and that his family controlled Hashoo Group, a massive (and legitimate) Pakistani conglomerate. He claimed to own a penthouse in New York’s Essex Hotel. (Not true.) He also said he owned apartments in Miami’s Setai and Mondrian, and in another condo tower across from the Heat arena. He definitely had the cars and the chauffeur and at least one Gucci watch. He looked like a proper Miami hustler.

Regarding the courtside seats, Zafar asked Weber to let him defer payment until he could free up some funds. This might have been considered a red flag, but Weber agreed to the delay. Zafar then asked if Weber could hook him up with some Heat players; he had investment opportunities he wanted to float. Weber again agreed, and he introduced Zafar to Miller, Lewis, and Jones.

“The persona he presented to Mike seemed convincing,” an attorney for Miller told the Herald. Weber, when he introduced Zafar to Miller, reportedly conveyed that the con artist was trustworthy.

Zafar certainly appeared generous. He offered to invest millions of dollars in three of Miller’s side businesses, including a sports drink brand and a mining concern. (This may be the most curious detail of the whole affair: Mike Miller owns a mining company.) Zafar cooked up phony bank statements to show he’d transferred the money into a Swiss account, from which he said Miller could withdraw it later. Zafar also said he’d let Miller invest in a private fund with the Hashoo Group. The returns would be tremendous, he promised, but Miller had to deposit $2 million immediately. (This, in hindsight, should have been another, gigantic red flag.)

There was no private investment fund. Zafar never worked with Hashoo. He used Miller’s money and the millions he collected from Jones and Lewis  more than $7 million altogether  to pay for cars and condos and strip-club visits with aspiring rappers. He even used the players’ money to pay down the season tickets he’d bought. Miller’s attorney eventually discovered the fraud and alerted his client. Zafar fired off texts to Miller and the other players, telling them not to worry, that their investments were legit and safe. (They weren’t.) Within a month, IRS agents arrested Zafar at the Columbus, Ohio, airport. His Louis Vuitton bag held $10,000 cash, an expired Pakistani passport, a pistol, and 40 bullets. Miller’s attorney testified that when he confronted Zafar before his arrest, the con man told him, “They can’t touch me in Pakistan.”

Zafar pleaded guilty last year to 19 federal charges of wire fraud, all related to his original land scam. At a later hearing, he also pleaded guilty to five more counts of wire fraud stemming from his Heat con.

Zafar’s in jail now. Weber no longer works for the Heat. Soon after the fraud surfaced, during the middle of the Heat’s 2013 playoff run, Weber left the team, without public explanation. (Miller, through his attorney, publicly contemplated a lawsuit against the Heat, claiming that Weber knew Zafar was shady before he introduced him.) According to his LinkedIn page, Weber then helped launch a “boutique brand enhancement agency” on South Beach, whose clients include the traditional high-end brands that signal South Florida excess. He did not respond to attempts to reach him through the agency, where does not play a role in day-to-day operations, but it appears that Weber has continued to sell the high life.

I keep in touch with Gomez as his case moves through the system. In April, at a procedural hearing, it comes out that Gomez still hasn’t paid back a broker for some airplane tickets and those Dolphins-Patriots tickets from seasons ago. The broker is not happy about this.

“They’re gunning for you, Ibes,” Mastos, Gomez’s lawyer, says after the hearing. “You’re digging yourself such a hole it’s going to be a bitch for me to pull you out.”

“I’m not worried,” Gomez replies. “The judge trusts me. I’ve earned her trust.”

Gomez was born in Cuba in 1979. He immigrated to Miami with his parents as a young boy. After attending Miami Springs High, and then a few semesters of community college, he launched what can fairly be called his entrepreneurial career. His two-bit criminal career advanced in lockstep.

“I was telling my wife the other day, I don’t know why I live my life the way I do,” he says. “I don’t understand it. I don’t get it. I could have probably been that corporate-level guy making lots of money if I would have just done things right.”

He used to live downtown, in the heart of everything. Now he hides out in the far south suburbs, closer to Key Largo than to the glitz of South Beach. Everything’s downscaled, he says. Yet when I visit one Saturday I notice a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label in his bar. A high-end flat-screen plays a Disney cartoon for his daughter.

We step out onto his porch and talk about his history with gambling. Gomez says he’s got it under control: meetings, a sponsor watching over him, regular visits with a therapist. While it was wrong to write hot checks and live beyond his means, those days are behind him. Look where he’s living. Look at his economy car. He presents himself as proof that Miami’s temptations can be overcome. His very pregnant wife steps out, bringing along their young daughter, who wants to ride her pink tricycle. The girl’s feet don’t reach the pedals yet. She asks her father to push her.

“This is what it’s about for me now,” Gomez says, charting a lazy circle with his daughter. “I like my house and I like my little Nissan. I like playing with my kids. I don’t care to sit courtside anymore or go to a casino. I don’t want to let my kids fall into the same trap. I just don’t want them to fall for the rat race here. That’s my dedication now. I’m obviously a good citizen and a good person.”

The whole time he tells me this, another bad check bounces around Miami. Did he think it would never turn up? It’s a little embarrassing when it’s finally located; the story in the Herald almost reads like a joke. “Notorious Miami swindler” arrested  and incarcerated this time  for symbolically adopting a Bengal tiger cub named Esha.

Back last fall, Gomez visited a private petting zoo with his daughter. The check he wrote earned him 50 visits to the park per year and a certificate declaring his daughter to be a “zoo parent.” The “adoption” cost $3,000, money Gomez didn’t have in his account. The judge canceled his house arrest. When I next see him, back at the courthouse, Gomez wears an orange jumpsuit. Chains bind his hands and feet.

“He’s fucked,” his lawyer tells me. “I’ve never seen a case like his. I feel like I’m standing on quicksand. Every time I take a step, it all collapses underneath me. He was arrested, which you would think might be the moment that he’d be scared straight. And yet, in September, he goes and pulls this tiger stunt thing. I don’t know if it’s the thrill of writing a check and hoping he’ll get away with it or what.”

I can’t talk to Gomez in the courtroom. He uses his hands to flash me a phone number where I can reach him, but when I call the number  several times  there’s no answer and the mailbox is always full. In the courtroom, he also uses his hands to signal that his son was born two days earlier, while Gomez sat in jail.

It’ll take some time to play out, but eventually, on the Monday after Father’s Day, Gomez pleads guilty to all charges. His wife and children are not in the courtroom when he does this. Gomez stands up on the judge’s command, raises his shackled right hand, and swears he’s telling the truth. When asked about medications, he says he takes drugs for ADD and ADHD and anxiety. His lawyer tells the judge that at sentencing, later this month, he will argue that Gomez’s gambling addiction merits leniency. (Later, Gomez will be sentenced to 15 years in a state penitentiary.)

This is the Miami story, too: a narrative that ends badly, and often with prison time. Three Heat players lost millions because they bought the sales pitch of a ludicrously over-the-top con artist. The Bling King, Haider Zafar, lives in Pennsylvania now, at the Moshannon Valley Correctional Institution. And Ibes Gomez sits behind bars.

“Miami is a honey trap, let’s be real,” says Corben, the filmmaker. “It promises glitz and gloss and glamour, but it’s a hollow shell and a money pit in the end. Miami very rarely fulfills the promise. It’s selling the dream. But they don’t come true just because you buy them.” 

Robert Andrew Powell (@robertandrewp) is a contributing editor at Howler magazine and the author of three books. He lives in Miami.

Correction: This story was updated to clarify Stephen Weber’s role with the PR agency he was involved with after he left the Miami Heat. Although Weber helped get the company off the ground, he does not participate in its current day-to-day operations.