9 Investigates

9 Investigates: Seminole County tax collector claims predecessor abused system

SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. — Investigators with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is reviewing a complaint made by Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg. Emails show the Department of Homeland Security is digging as well, after Greenberg said he uncovered data he believes indicates his longtime predecessor may have used the office for personal gain.

Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray looked through evidence Greenberg turned over to law enforcement. Greenberg said he believes Valdes was using aliases to bid on tax certificates and rigging the system to make money.

Greenberg said he has IP addresses linking two accounts and that those accounts have a direct link to Valdes.

Those allegations are similar to those made in an ethics complaint filed weeks before the primary election last summer. The Florida Commission on Ethics could not confirm or deny that it looked into that complaint.

Valdes reported his net worth at more than $4 million last year.

“I think he did very well for himself, and I think it’s up to the public and law enforcement to decide whether those means were legal,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg provided 9 Investigates and law enforcement spreadsheets detailing thousands of bids submitted during 2014, 2015 and 2016 tax certificate auctions. The online auctions, which are put on by the Seminole County Tax Collector’s office but administered by a third party company, allow investors to pay off delinquent tax bills. Those investors profit on interest when property owners settle the bill.

Greenberg said someone with inside knowledge could work the system to guarantee higher interest rates on certificates. He pointed out two accounts, under the names of relatives of Valdes, bidding from the same five IP addresses over the course of three years.

“Both of these entities were bidding at the same time, same place,” Greenberg said.

Computer experts said the duplicate IP addresses indicate the two accountholders would have to be in the same location, or on the same device. 9 Investigates confirmed one IP address, which was used more than 500 times between the two accounts, is assigned to Seminole County Government. That IP address is available for use only inside county-owned buildings, including the one where Valdes kept his office for years.

“If it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck,” Greenberg said.

When asked whether Greenberg has anything to definitively prove that Valdes was making the bids himself, Greenberg said, “That would take someone being under oath, and that’s what we hope to get.”

9 Investigates tried to ask Valdes whether he submitted those bids. After calling and leaving him a voicemail on his cell phone, Karla Ray spoke to his wife, Denise, at the couple’s Longwood home.

Valdes’ wife said the 80-year-old “had no interest” in hearing about the allegations or responding to them. However, she couldn’t say why two of her husband’s relatives would have been bidding from the same computers, when both women live hundreds of miles from Central Florida.

“I have no answer to that. I’m not even going to pretend to have an answer to that. Anything he has accusations of, he can go through an attorney, or whoever he wants to go through,” Denise Valdes said.

Valdes was ultimately reached by phone, but he said he did not want to talk and hung up. 9 Investigates also reached out to one of the alleged accountholders, but did not hear back.

Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.