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The Sheriff and the Fraudster: Lee County’s top cop won’t answer questions about his association with a crooked campaign donor

On paper, Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno and alleged serial swindler Malek Khalil line up as natural adversaries, not friends. 

Marceno is a popular lawman who grandstands over drug offenders and other defendants sent to the Lee County Jail, or “Marceno’s Motel,” as he calls it. Khalil has been found by civil courts to have committed fraud, racketeering, and theft in ripping off at least $2 million dollars from his victims in the murky world of pain and rehab clinics that cater to plaintiffs in personal injury lawsuits.

By all rights Khalil should have been on the sheriff’s office radar as a potential target of an investigation. Instead Marceno formed an association with Khalil, with whom he shares a mutual love of gambling, and Khalil became a significant supporter of the sheriff’s PAC, Friends of Carmine Marceno. 

A former Khalil friend and business associate, Samer Merhi, said Khalil introduced him to Marceno personally last year, while Kahlil was helping the sheriff raise PAC money. At Khalil’s urging, Merhi contributed $15,000 to the PAC, Friends of Carmine Marceno, in 2022.

Khalil claimed to have donated more than $20,000 to the sheriff himself, said Merhi, but the Florida Trident was able to identify just $7,000 in donations from Khalil-related businesses to Marceno.  

“Maybe that was another one of his lies,” said Merhi, who alleged that he too is a financial victim of Khalil. 

By the time Khalil, whom Merhi says hails from Jordan, began raising money for the sheriff’s PAC, he’d already been sued twice for failing to repay loans and was facing an October 2021 lawsuit alleging he and his wife and partner, Sara Hippeli, had committed fraud, racketeering and a host of other unlawful acts while using fictitious shell companies to disguise the theft of $1.7 million. 

photo of sara hippeli
Khalil’s wife, Sara Hippeli, shown here in a 12-year-old promotional video, is wanted on a felony warrant in Hillsborough County.

Hippeli and another close female Khalil associate, Camila Espitia, both face felony fraud warrants in Hillsborough County for their alleged roles in using one of those shell companies to divert checks meant for another business. Both women are currently at large.

The 2021 lawsuit alleged, and a judge agreed, that Khalil and Hippeli embezzled the money to “fund their extravagant lifestyle of ostentatious automobiles, luxury homes, and high-roller gaming.” 

The latter, gambling, is a pursuit Khalil and Marceno share. In financial disclosures to the Florida Ethics Commission, Marceno admitted to earning more than $450,000 in “gambling income” from Seminole Hard Rock casinos during the past two years, a sum that eclipses his public sheriff’s salary over the same period. 

Khalil regularly gambled at the same establishments, according to court records. “He would go to the casino when he owed everyone money and he would blow $100,000,” Merhi said. 

Merhi and another former Khalil associate who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Trident that Marceno bestowed Khalil with an honorary Lee County sheriff’s badge and that after Hurricane Ian struck, Khalil was given a police escort by sheriff’s deputies. 

An anonymous tipster claimed in an email to the Trident that Marceno and Khalil met at the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood on a specific date: March 7, 2022. The sheriff did not respond to emailed questions about the alleged casino meeting, honorary sheriff’s badge, and police escort.  

Florida physician Jordan Kuppinger complains in his own lawsuit that Khalil ripped off his medical practice of more than $3 million.

“He bragged to me all the time that there was nothing we could do because he had the police in his pocket,” said Kuppinger. “He laughed at us. These are extremely bad people. I cannot believe they are not in jail.” 

Khalil’s location is a mystery to Kuppinger and other victims as they try to recover lost funds. 

“No one can find him,” said Merhi. “He’s like a ghost right now.” 

“He was very nice” 

When Ismary Ibarra, a physician’s assistant in Miami, was introduced to Malek Muhammed Ali Khalil in 2020, she found the polished and well-dressed businessman charming. =

“He’s a very smart person and he was very nice,” said Ibarra. “He would make you feel like you were his friend. He would make you comfortable. He went to my wedding.” 

photo of malek khalil
Khalil photographed while attending Isbarry’s wedding.

Now she knows it was an act that began when Khalil sold her father, Jose Ibarra, on the notion of partnering in a pain and rehab clinic in Miami that Khalil claimed would be a big money-maker. 

The Ibarras didn’t know then that Khalil had already been accused of bilking money. In August 2018, a financing company sued Khalil in Lee County after he allegedly misrepresented his finances and failed to repay $18,000 in loans. 

A month after that complaint was filed, Miami physician Lawrence Alexander filed suit against Khalil alleging he had induced him to invest $50,000 in a “start-up wellness center” and then simply took the money in what the doctor called a “sham.” 

Khalil agreed to settle the Lee County lawsuit for $15,000. After two years of litigation, Alexander’s complaint was dismissed when the plaintiff failed to appear for trial. 

With the Ibarras, Khalil provided financial statements showing that a pain management and rehabilitative clinic he owned in Tampa, Neurospine Institute of Florida, brought in millions of dollars each year. He said he needed a partner to duplicate that success in Miami, according to a lawsuit filed by the Ibarras in August 2022. 

The new clinic, Khalil said, would operate under a state license held by his Lee Wellness & Rehab clinic in Fort Myers, which, like Neurospine, treated patients with personal injury claims. Khalil said he would provide the needed medical equipment, handle all the marketing, and hire the doctors required to staff it. 

Ibarra agreed to invest $300,000 in the venture and, after the family signed a lease for office space, Khalil claimed the state license had been secured, the physicians had been hired, and patients were lined up to be treated. 

“These statements were false and Khalil knew they were false when he made them,” wrote Ibarra’s attorney in the complaint. 

Khalil instructed Ibarra to wire the money to a Wells Fargo escrow account that was supposed to be used only in furtherance of the partnership. The Ibarras then spent another $50,000 on renovating the office space for the clinic. Both Khalil and his wife, Hippeli, claimed they were ready to get the business humming. 

Then the music stopped. 

“[Khalil] never obtained the ACHA license, never purchased any medical equipment, never procured treating physicians, and never sent a single patient to the clinic,” wrote Garcia. 

After a year of delays, the Ibarras demanded their $300,000 back. Khalil, according to the lawsuit, admitted he had spent the $300,000 on “a separate business venture completely unrelated to the partnership.” 

The Ibarras were awarded a default civil judgment of $300,000 but now can’t find Khalil or Hippeli and are attempting to locate assets that might be seized to make them whole again. 

Even if they do find any such assets, they’ll have to stand in line with other alleged victims, including a Las Vegas-based financing company called ProMed Capital Ventures, which advanced more than $2 million to Khalil-related businesses only to discover that accounts earmarked for return to ProMed were diverted to various shell companies controlled by Khalil, according to the company’s lawsuit filed in Clark County, Nevada in 2020. 

In his judgment against what plaintiff’s attorneys dubbed the “Khalil Syndicate,” Clark County District Court Judge Mark Denton found that at least $800,000 of that money went to a personal account belonging to Khalil and Hippeli and was used to pay for a home mortgage, Ferrari car payments, and personal credit cards. The judge additionally found that  $70,000 of the stolen money was withdrawn at a casino. 

Denton determined that Khalil and Hippeli had committed fraud and awarded ProMed $1.7 million in compensatory damages. The judge also found the pair engaged in racketeering, which allowed him to triple the ProMed damages to $5.1 million plus interest. Adding on $1 million in punitive damages and interest, the couple faces a total judgment in Clark County of $6.5 million. 

photo of Dr. Jordan Kuppinger
Dr. Jordan Kuppinger

With the slippery Khalil nowhere to be found, ProMed’s attorneys are targeting his former business associates in an attempt  to recover the money. One of those associates is Kuppinger, the physician who founded Nexus Spine of Fort Myers with Khalil last year. 

Earlier this year, Kuppinger and his physician partner, Angelo Rubano, filed a lawsuit in Hillsborough County against Khalil, Hippeli, and Espitia alleging they defrauded them of $3.2 million. 

“Malek sold all of our accounts receivable to a funding company and didn’t tell us, and then stole the money that he was supposed to pay to the funding company,” said Kuppinger. “We were robbed blind and it seems there’s nothing we can do about it.” 

Kuppinger and Rubano also filed criminal complaints against Hippeli and Espitia with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, alleging the two women had misdirected $45,000 into a fraudulent shell company account. The HCSO filed felony warrants for the arrests of Hippeli and Espitia in April and May, respectively. Neither has been apprehended.

Kuppinger said the only reason they didn’t name Khalil was because he was “smart enough not to put his name on the checks.” 

“The guy is an expert con artist,” said Kuppinger. “To say this has been a nightmare doesn’t do it justice.”

“A very bad guy”

Kuppinger said that while he was dealing with the fallout of the fraud, he received calls from the Lee County Sheriff’s Office detectives related to complaints filed by Khalil against him

“[Khalil] filed false reports against us and they said they had to investigate us,” relayed Kuppinger. “I said, ‘What do you have to investigate? He filed false police reports.’ They called me several times and I finally got angry and told them that if they continued on the road they were going down, I would take legal action against them. Then it stopped.” 

The Trident requested all complaints and incident reports pertaining to Khalil from the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. The query was returned without a single document released by Marceno’s Public Information Office, which is quick to publicize the sheriff but has proven slow and only intermittently responsive in its legal obligation to provide public records.

Marceno Motel promotion
Marceno has an active publicity machine. Here he touts the arrests of low-level offenders.

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office response to the Khalil public records request came with the caveat that the agency was unable to confirm or deny the existence of any reports involving “open active investigations” or that apply to Marsy’s Law, which shields the names of crime victims.

In the ProMed lawsuit, Merhi is depicted as an accomplice in Khalil’s fraud and details how Merhi and his firm, 4 Your Referral Service, were paid tens of thousands of dollars a month by Khalil’s business entities, including $80,000 in March 2021 alone. 

Merhi however insisted he’s strictly a victim and that Khalil ultimately stiffed him.

“I worked with [Khalil] and then he screwed me over,” said Merhi. “I made him all the money he had.” 

Echoing Kuppinger’s claims of intimidation, Merhi said that as their business relationship crumbled, Khalil lashed out at him physically, even threatening him with a knife during a meeting at Outback Steakhouse in Fort Myers last year, prompting Merhi to file for a restraining order against Khalil in November. 

“He tried to hit me a couple of times and he pulled a knife on me in the restaurant,” said Merhi. “He is a very bad guy.” 

The 36-year-old Merhi has had run-ins with the law as well, having been charged in 2015 with felony sexual battery after a woman alleged he assaulted her in the back room of a hookah bar he owned at the time. The charge was eventually dropped by prosecutors.  

In 2016, Merhi was charged at the same establishment, the now-defunct Oasis Hookah on Tamiami Trail, with selling alcohol to his customers without a liquor license. Merhi eventually pleaded no contest to a related misdemeanor charge of disturbing the peace in that case. In addition four women have filed for restraining orders against Merhi over the years, alleging violence. He called them “psycho girlfriends” and said they made false allegations against him after he refused to give them money. 

His decision to contribute $15,000 to Marceno’s PAC was instigated by Khalil, said Merhi, but he claimed, despite the ProMed lawsuit, he didn’t know at the time that Khalil was engaging in fraud. He also said he is unaware of any ulterior motive his former business associate may have had to contribute to the sheriff. He said he agreed to give simply because felt Marceno was doing a good job. 

“Malek told me the sheriff of Lee County is doing a campaign and would I give and I said sure,” Merhi said. “I live in Lee County, why wouldn’t I?”

Marceno is the first politician he’s ever supported, said Merhi. The fact that he is a registered Democrat while Sheriff Marceno is a staunch Republican makes the contribution even more incongruous. 

Merhi said he gave the first $5,000 check personally to Marceno after being introduced by Khalil, and two subsequent $5,000 checks were passed along to a sheriff’s office intermediary. He maintained that he had “no idea” why Khalil was fundraising for the sheriff and that he asked for nothing in return for his money.  

“I didn’t ask for any favors because I don’t want anyone to do me any favors,” Merhi said. “If I do something wrong, I’ll stand in front of a judge and if I’m guilty, I’m guilty.” 

He said it was only after he contributed to the sheriff’s campaign that he had his tumultuous falling out with Khalil. 

Marceno’s association with Malek Khalil falls well outside the public image the sheriff cultivates as a lawman who mercilessly cracks down on criminals.  He routinely posts mugshots of people charged with low-level drug crimes on social media touting his “Marceno Motel,” and once perp-walked a ten-year-old suspect for the television stations as well. 

But on the topic of Khalil, the sheriff has remained silent. Khalil, too, has refused to provide any substantive statements on his association with the sheriff or the myriad cases against him. When the Trident reached him via text, Khalil said he would “talk later,” but then went silent and didn’t respond to further questions.  

“I just want this guy to be stopped,” said Kuppinger of Khalil. “It’s amazing to me he already hasn’t been.”

About the Author: Bob Norman is an award-winning investigative reporter who serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Florida Trident and journalism program director for the Florida Center for Government Accountability. He can be reached at