Homeowners group's ex-leader accused of theft

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

By Meghan Meyer

Published February 27, 2007


Something had gone wrong in the quiet Boca Rio Townhomes neighborhood near the Broward County line, residents noticed last year. The sprinklers stopped working. Broken fences weren't mended. The grass turned brown in their orderly suburban community.

No one answered the phone at the clubhouse anymore, and those who did get through to homeowners association President Betty Marshal met obstinate refusal to let them see the books.

One resident, Randy Gavitt, started digging further. What he says he uncovered led to Marshal's resignation as board president and a lawsuit filed Friday in Palm Beach County Circuit Court.

Marshal, a 68-year-old grandmother, gambled away nearly $500,000 of her association's money and fled to Pennsylvania, residents allege in the lawsuit.

Over three years, she used the association's debit card and withdrew as much as $30,000 a month on what appear to be personal expenses at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, online gambling sites and the chocolate factory in her hometown of Hershey, Pa., and for airline tickets and other items, the lawsuit says. She left the neighborhood in disrepair and $662,070 poorer.

The suit also names Marshal's husband, Albert, and former board member Mike Addessi.

Addessi could not be reached for comment Monday.

Betty Marshal hired Fort Lauderdale criminal attorney Leah Mayersohn after resigning as president Jan. 16. Marshal claimed that other board members who had access to the debit cards acted inappropriately, Mayersohn said.

The attorney added that she's looking into seeking criminal charges against some of the residents who engineered Marshal's ouster.

"This all stems from some of her enforcement of community rules," Mayersohn said Monday. "It's limited to a group of people who are unhappy and started taking systematic action against her."

The lawsuit is the latest example of money problems within homeowners associations, and the case shows the need for better regulation of the groups, said Boca Rio's new attorney, Jean Winters.

"What's really important about this case is that it is representative of what does happen in associations," she said. "In my opinion, you have an industry that talks frequently about how it's just a few disgruntled homeowners. Here, you have 263 homeowners who are disgruntled. This is not an isolated situation."

In Marshal's three years as president, bills went unpaid, resulting in a lawsuit from Nations Fence Co. and a near loss of insurance coverage after the board levied an assessment on residents to pay an inflated premium, the suit alleges. Marshal even neglected to pay her own homeowner bills. The association has a lien on her house.

Gavitt, now secretary of the association's board, discovered the missing money after a lonely bout of sleuthing that started about three months ago, after a dispute with Marshal over painting his house. Looking around the neighborhood, he saw the state of disrepair and could get no satisfactory answers from Marshal.

Gavitt started a recall petition, and Marshal resigned in January.

"It was a fiasco," said Darlene Anderson, who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years. Marshal filed a restraining order against her in November. Anderson said it was in retaliation for confronting her about the state of affairs in the neighborhood. The order was thrown out.

"Everyone wants to see her do time," Anderson said. "I don't want to see her go to jail. I would just like to get some money back. I want her to write a letter of apology."

For the past month, Gavitt pushed the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office to investigate Marshal. Detectives finally contacted him last week after residents called state legislators.

The sheriff's financial crimes division is investigating a criminal complaint involving the alleged theft, sheriff's spokesman Paul Miller said earlier. The sheriff's office does not comment on ongoing investigations and would not release the name of the person under investigation.

Now, all the association's checks are signed by two people and no one has a debit card, said Gavitt, who is becoming certified as a community association manager.

"We're trying to protect everyone," he said. "There are so many associations here in Florida with bad problems. Maybe now people will start paying attention to their associations."


The Boca Rio Townhome "Embezzlement" Lawsuit