Read the main story: Florida Bank, Used as ATM by Insiders, Won TARP Loan But Now Teeters.
One of the men at the center of U.S. Century, the tottering Miami bank that received more than $50 million in TARP money, is Sergio Pino. A refugee from Cuba who transformed himself into a multimillionaire, Pino is a major force in Miami business and politics.
Despite repeated requests and emailed questions, Pino declined to speak with ProPublica. He has never been charged with any wrongdoing.
Pino served as vice chairman of U.S. Century's board of directors. He also appears to have used the bank to secure millions of dollars in loans for himself, his family members and companies with which he or they are associated.
Pino's family fled Cuba for Miami in 1969 when he was a boy, according to local news accounts. He began his career as a plumbing salesman in Miami at age 20, starting out in a company he launched with his father in 1977 called Century Plumbers Wholesale, according to the company website. He served a term as president of the influential Florida construction trade group, the Latin Builders Association. In 1997, he decided to branch into real-estate development, founding a group called Century Partners. Today he is a major real-estate developer in Miami-Dade County.
Pino is well-known in South Florida and Washington, D.C., as both a prolific political donor and bundler of contributions. No evidence has emerged that political contributions led to U.S. Century's TARP loan.
His campaign contributions and the benefits local officials have lavished on him and his business associates have landed him in several controversies. In 2002, the Miami-Dade County inspector general criticized the Miami Airport Duty Free Joint Venture, in which Pino was an investor. The joint venture won a lucrative contract to operate at Miami International Airport, in part because it had significant minority ownership. The inspector general claimed that the four minority partners of the joint venture were paid $14.6 million for not doing any substantive work but merely serving as a front to satisfy county requirements under the federal Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program. Pino's company, Century Duty Free, had a 14 percent interest in the joint venture. When the airport concession contract expired three years later, Pino ended his association with the joint venture. He told The Miami Herald that the allegations amounted to "guilt by association," and he "never did anything wrong."
In 2006, the U.S. attorney in Miami launched a probe after Miami-Dade County Commissioner José "Pepe" Diaz voted for a zoning change in his district that benefited Pino -- without revealing that the developer had flown him to Cancún on his private plane for a weekend fishing trip shortly after the application for the development was filed, according to local news reports. No charges were ever filed from the investigation, and all involved maintain their innocence.
Pino is a politically active Republican, who occasionally gives to Democrats. He has supported Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and Democratic National Committee Chair and South Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Pino was a “Ranger,” a category reserved for those who raised more than $200,000 for President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.
On Oct. 15, 2008, he and his family played a major role in a one-day fundraising bonanza that reaped almost half a million dollars for congressional Republicans. The fundraising demonstrated of the depth of Republican support from Miami's community of real-estate developers. At least six current or past U.S. Century board members, as well as executives from two prominent developers, Lennar Corp. and Flagler Development, gave money that day.
The group raised $499,500 for Congressional Trust 2008, a federal political action committee that in turn gave most of the funds to the National Republican Congressional Committee. According to federal records, 30 people from Miami-Dade gave money to the Trust. Six had the last name Pino, including Sergio, who gave $30,000, and his wife Tatiana, who gave $28,500. Another $76,000 came from other current or past U.S. Century board members. Of the remaining donors, one appears to own a title company that did business with U.S. Century. At least six received loans from U.S. Century. One of them, Homero Meruelo, is an owner of a family company that later defaulted on a $27 million loan from U.S. Century. The company, Merco, also defaulted on millions of dollars worth of loans from other Miami banks.