Excerpted from bloombergbusinessweek.com:
As Las Vegas’s housing supply exploded, so did the competition among lawyers and contractors to represent new homeowner associations in so-called construction-defect lawsuits. It was in this environment, according to plea agreements recently unsealed in an ongoing FBI investigation, that a shadowy outfit cooked up a brazen scheme.
When a new development was nearing completion, the group would buy a couple of units in the community and then transfer partial ownership of the condos to individuals secretly on its payroll, according to court documents.
While pretending to be residents of the communities, these “straw buyers” would run for leadership positions on boards of the new homeowner associations. By paying off community managers, hiring private investigators to find dirt on legitimate candidates, and rigging elections, the documents allege, the straw buyers were able to infiltrate boards at several new developments in Las Vegas from 2003 to 2008. Once in control of the boards, the straw buyers would then use their governing positions to steer millions of dollars in construction and legal fees back to their co-conspirators. Targets included the condo complex called the Vistana.
In the fall of 2007 the Vistana board announced it had reached a $19.1 million settlement with Rhodes Homes. Of that—according to a recent accounting by current Vistana board members—about $11 million in legal fees and reimbursement expenses went to two firms: Spilotro & Kulla and Quon Bruce Christensen. That left $8.1 million for repairs.
One night that September, Amesbury, a lawyer for Silver Lining Construction, stood up at a meeting in the clubhouse. Amesbury, who owned a small firm in Las Vegas, specialized in criminal law. He was also a co-owner, along with Benzer and Kim, of the Courthouse Cafe. That night, Amesbury told the Vistana residents that in 2005 the board had signed a “right-of-first-refusal” contract with Silver Lining Construction. The contract essentially guaranteed Benzer’s company 100 percent of the construction remediation money from the settlement. Moving forward, he said, there would be no competitive bids with other contractors. Amesbury did not respond to a request for an interview sent to his attorney.
Over a roughly six-month period, from the fall of 2007 through the spring of 2008, various teams of subcontractors working for Silver Lining Construction came and went from the Vistana—painting buildings, replacing windows, and patching roofs. By May 2008, all but $450,000 of the $8.1 million was gone.
Shortly after, as the money ran out, the board members connected to Silver Lining Construction stopped showing up at meetings. “They just disappeared,” says current board member Wallace.
In the meantime, thousands of people who bought condos during the boom are still coping with their own financial hardship. Two-bedroom, two-bath condos at the Vistana were going for $200,000 in 2007. In November a 929-square-foot two-bedroom, two-bath unit sold for $59,000.
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