By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
As president and CEO of Antillean Marine Shipping Corp., Sara Babun lords over a Miami River business empire worth at least an estimated $100 million. But a toxic sibling rivalry with her brother, Jose Jesus Babun, threatens to upend the shipping and logistics enterprise that their late father, Jose Babun Selman, co-founded nearly 60 years ago.
The vicious estate battle between the Babun scions over the vast wealth amassed by one of the most successful Cuban-American families in Miami is entering its third year, but has gone unreported until now.
Jose Jesus accuses Sara of masterminding a plot to gain sole control over privately held Antillean Marine and its affiliate companies by freezing out him and their 83-year-old mother, Cristina Babun, according to his 2019 complaint that has been amended three times, most recently on March 11. In a recent court filing refuting the allegations, Sara claimed that their father banished Jose Jesus from the family business; that her brother has no say in the day-to-day operations of the Babun companies; and that he has fed lies to their mother about his sister. A third sibling, Maria Varela, is not a party to any of the legal actions.
Sara did not respond to requests seeking comment, but her attorney, Luis Barreto, told Florida Bulldog that Jose Jesus has not produced any evidence to back up his salacious allegations. “It has all been bluster,” Barreto said. “These allegations are the farthest thing from the truth. They are on their third amended complaint and they still haven’t gotten it right.”
Jose Jesus’s dogged pursuit to stake his claim of the Babun fortune has taken a toll on his client, Barreto added. “Every time she gets a court pleading from her brother, she cries,” Barreto said. “His attacks have been relentless when all she is trying to do is run this business and keep things afloat amid a pandemic.”
Scott Margules, Jose Jesus’s lawyer, said his client has a strong case backed up with proof that Sara has wronged her brother and their mother. “The latest amended complaint has more than 300 pages of exhibits currently under seal because some of it is confidential medical records,” Margules said. “And there are about 14,000 pages of documents that have been produced in discovery. There is a lot of support [to back up the allegations] here.”
Babun family origin
When Fulgencio Batista was still running Cuba, Jose Babun Selman and his two older brothers, Habraham Babun and Teofilo Babún Sr., were wealthy loggers who operated a sawmill in Santiago, a coastal city on the island nation’s southern coast. An entry in the University of Miami Cuban Heritage Collection states the Babuns emigrated from Palestine in the early 1900s and that Teofilo was an early financier of the Cuban Revolution.
In 1960, a year after Fidel Castro took power, the communist dictator declared Teofilo a traitor and the Babuns fled to Miami. Teofilo was also a member of Brigade 2506 that participated in the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion. Two years later, the Babun brothers formed Antillean Marine with a single bulk ship on a large strip of land along the Miami River fronting a street that today bears Teofilo’s name. Teofilo was the company’s president until he died in 1987, while his brothers were vice presidents of the company. Habraham passed away six years later, leaving Babun Selman as Antillean’s majority shareholder.
During its 58-year existence, Antillean grew into the Miami River’s largest shipping company with five container ships, three tugboats, a subsidiary that repairs containers and three trucking companies with a fleet of 50 18-wheelers. The Babun conglomerate, which generates $27.8 million in annual revenues, has 180 full-time employees, according to a 2017 Miami Herald article.
According to Antillean’s website, Sara has worked in virtually every department of the company, providing her with vast amounts of hands-on experience in the shipping industry. When her aunt Adela Babun stepped down as Antillean’s top executive in 1993, Sara was appointed president and CEO, a position she has held for nearly three decades.
Her brother Jose Jesus, who was a company director and senior vice president, didn’t fare as well, according to Sara’s March 22 answer to her brother’s third amended complaint. The document states that the relationship between her brother and father had been “terribly strained” for at least 20 years before Babun Selman died. Their father realized that his son’s “sole motivation in life was easy money,” Sara alleged.
As a result, in 2009, Babun Selman took it upon himself to ensure her brother would never gain control of any of the Babun businesses by removing him as an officer and employee of various companies the family owned, Sara claimed. “That year, Mr. Babun Selman quite generously offered to buy Jose Jesus out of Antillean in order to remove him from the business,” the affirmative defense document states.
Sibling feud explodes
Four years after their father exiled Jose Jesus from the family business, Sara began laying the groundwork to completely isolate him and their mother from Babun Selman, who at the time was 86 years old, according to Jose Jesus’s amended complaint and a May 3, 2019 sworn affidavit by their mom, Cristina. “Sometime during 2013, Sara removed my husband from our home where we lived together and moved him into her house,” Cristina attested. “She kept him from the family and prevented me from visiting him outside of Sara’s presence.”
Jose Jesus, who lives with Cristina, alleged that their father was suffering from severe dementia and declining physical health when Sara whisked him away. For the next five years, according to Jose Jesus’ complaint, Sara did not tell them Babun Selman had four strokes, had a toe amputated and had a variety of severe ailments, including chronic anxiety, insomnia and depression. She would also not allow Jose Jesus and Cristina to visit Babun Selman without her being present.
On one occasion when Jose Jesus and Christina went to Sara’s house, a security guard hand-delivered him a note from his sister, which is attached as an exhibit to the complaint. It said, “Your recent appearance outside my home caused our father extreme anxiety, to a point which caused me to consider returning him to the hospital,” Sara wrote. “Please stay away from my home, and the area in which it is located, in order to avoid future provocations which adversely affect our father’s health.”
When Babun Selman died, Sara did not notify her brother and their mother about his passing and continued to use her position as their father’s legal guardian to consolidate control of the family enterprise, Jose Jesus alleged. In addition to being the personal representative of a trust their father established for all his children, Sara is the sole officer and director of more than 30 Babun companies, including Antillean Marine.
Under her management, Sara has misused company assets for own personal gain such as taking out a $3.5-million bank loan using land on the Miami River owned by one of the family companies, the complaint states. Jose Jesus accused his sister of using the proceeds to enrich herself and enhance her own financial interests.
She also made $2 million in profits by selling properties owned by another family company that she attempted to hide from her brother, who says he was entitled to a 16 percent share of the windfall. The complaint states she paid Jose Jesus only after his lawyers confronted her attorneys about the sale. Sara also controls companies that own various parcels along the Miami River worth an estimated $22 million and Antillean’s headquarters and terminal on 3038 Teofilo Babun Drive that is worth an estimated $16 million.
In her response to Jose Jesus’s complaint, Sara denies all the allegations against her. Barreto, her lawyer, said her brother is motivated by greed and the fact that their father separated him from the family business. “It’s callous what her brother has done,” Barreto said. “Their father knew if he put Sara in charge, the business would be around for generations of future Babuns. If you put the son in charge, there probably wouldn’t be two sticks to rub in a few years.”
Judges quit Babun cases
The sordid Babun saga was chugging along in probate court when Milton Hirsch, the judge presiding over three cases involving Sara, Jose Jesus and their mother Cristina, who is also suing Sara, dropped a bombshell on Feb. 18. In a disclosure statement, Hirsch revealed that Cristina’s court-appointed attorney Liz Messianu, Barreto’s law firm associate Esla Van Gorp and Mark Raymond, an attorney from another firm also representing Sara, had all agreed to be on his reelection committee. Messianu declined comment.
Rather than step aside, Hirsch wrote that he could still hear the cases fairly and objectively. But he left an opening for Jose Jesus to seek his removal. “If any party wishes to seek my disqualification, I will go quietly and without any hard feelings,” Hirsch wrote.
In a Feb. 24 motion to disqualify Hirsch, Jose Jesus’s lawyer Margules attested that his client fears bias and prejudice by the judge. “Jose Jesus has grave cause for concern that the court cannot be impartial given the magnitude of self-interest and of the court with respect to the movant’s adversary counsel,” the motion states. “All of the attorneys representing the parties on one side of this matter have zealously engaged themselves in supporting the court’s reelection bid.”
Hirsch recused himself on March 2, but not before taking a parting shot at Margules and Jose Jesus. “The motion is nothing more than a tissue of malicious lies, sneering half-truths and puerile insults,” Hirsch wrote, noting that “the judge may not rebut the lies, correct the half-truths or return the insults.”
Eight days later, Hirsch’s replacement, Judge Jorge Cueto, also walked off the Babun cases after reading Margules motion, which he described as “full of irrelevant, extraneous, scandalous and serious allegations against the court and opposing counsels…amounting to petty cheap shots totally unnecessary to achieve the goal of disqualification.”
Cueto also informed Margules that he would not preside over any case involving the attorney: “I have lost confidence in you as a lawyer and it would be unfair to any client you would represent.” Miami-Dade Judge Yvonne Coldny is now presiding over the cases.
Raymond, Sara’s other attorney, told Florida Bulldog that lawyers fundraising and sitting on judges’ political committees have nothing to do with gaining a quid pro quo, but rather keeping honest, ethical people on the bench. “It was an unwarranted and chicken shit attack,” Raymond said. “Any lawyer who donates to judges and thinks that will cause rulings in their favor is both naive and insulting the integrity of our bench.”
Margules said his client has the right to seek the disqualification of a judge. “What’s in the motion is true,” he said. “It’s not scandalous. It represents the feelings of my client.”