Fourteen more plead guilty in HOA fraud, corruption case

Article Courtesy of The Las Vegas Review-Journal

By Jeff German

Published June 4, 2013


Fourteen more defendants pleaded guilty Thursday in the sweeping investigation into fraud and corruption at Las Vegas Valley homeowners associations.

It was one of the largest group plea deals ever engineered in Nevada by federal prosecutors. Yet the prosecutors made it clear in court they're not yet done.

Halfway into the group plea of the 14 defendants, Charles La Bella, a deputy chief of the Justice Department's Washington-based Fraud Section, told U.S. District Judge James Mahan that he planned to continue presenting evidence this summer to a federal grand jury.

The goal is to obtain indictments against still more defendants, La Bella said.

Prosecutors are looking to charge as many as a dozen more co-conspirators in the scheme to take control of nearly a dozen homeowners associations between 2003 and 2009.

More than $8 million was funneled through secret bank accounts to fund the scheme, which allowed the conspirators to land lucrative legal, construction and community management contracts at the associations, prosecutors revealed in court documents Thursday.

After listening to La Bella, Mahan pushed back the sentencings of the 14 defendants, most of whom are cooperating with prosecutors, into early February. All of the defendants are free on their own recognizance.

They join 11 other co-conspirators who previously pleaded guilty in the case. Another defendant pleaded guilty in a related bank fraud scheme, bringing the number of people convicted, so far, to 26.

Word of the Justice Department's push for more charges drew praise afterward from Bruce Wallace, president of the southwest valley's Vistana homeowners association, one of the associations victimized in the takeover scheme.

"We're extremely pleased to see these people finally brought to justice," Wallace said. "We're really looking forward to the indictments they've indicated they're pursuing."

Wallace and other board members from Vistana and the south valley community of Park Avenue, another victim homeowners association, were in court as Mahan began accepting the pleas in two waves a little after 10 a.m. The defendants in each group stood in a large semicircle with lawyers at their sides, as Mahan peppered them with questions.

A total of 15 defendants are part of the group deal, but one defendant's plea was continued because he is recovering from double pneumonia.

All of the defendants pleaded guilty to a single felony count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. They each agreed to pay restitution to the victims, from as little as $6,000 to as much as $369,252. The combined restitution sought from all 14 defendants is more than $1.2 million.

Prosecutors have alleged that the conspirators, through election rigging and other dirty campaign tactics, stacked association boards with straw buyers who voted to award them millions of dollars worth of contracts.

Former construction company boss Leon Benzer and the late construction defects attorney Nancy Quon are alleged to have pulled the strings in the takeover conspiracy. Benzer, who hasn't been charged, is alleged to have made down payments for the straw buyers.

In an eight-page charging document unsealed Thursday, prosecutors alleged that the $8 million passed through five bank accounts. Quon and her law firm are alleged to have deposited nearly $3 million into the fund on three separate occasions.

One of the defendants, Rosalio Alcantar, 60, admitted in his plea agreement that he set up the bank accounts in August 2005. He said the accounts were opened under the names of phony limited liability companies to hide the involvement of the lead conspirators.

Alcantar also admitted that he managed the accounts for the lead conspirators and made numerous wire transfers from the accounts to pay other participants in the scheme.

Without naming Quon's firm in his agreement, Alcantar said he made the nearly $3 million in deposits into the accounts for the firm.

Quon, 51, who wasn't charged in the investigation, was found dead in the bathtub of her Henderson condominium on March 20. She was one of four people tied to the four-year investigation who died under unusual circumstances.

One of the defendants who pleaded guilty last year, longtime attorney David Amesbury, 57, was found dead March 25 in an apparent hanging at his brother's property in Northern California.

Retired Las Vegas police Lt. Christopher Van Cleef shot himself to death a few days after a September 2008 FBI-led raid in the investigation. And a former Vistana board member, Robbi Castro, died in 2010 of a drug overdose.

Authorities do not think a murder conspiracy was behind the four deaths.

Among those who pleaded guilty Thursday was Frank Sutton, 58, a retired Las Vegas police captain, who was a straw buyer and board member at Park Avenue. Sutton admitted in his plea agreement to being on Benzer's payroll.

Another former Las Vegas police officer, Morris Mattingly, 51, also pleaded guilty. He admitted in his plea agreement that he did security work for Benzer's construction company and served on the Vistana board as a straw buyer.

On Tuesday, a fourth retired officer, Lt. Benjamin Kim, 51, pleaded guilty in a related bank fraud scheme involving the Courthouse Cafe, once a restaurant at the busy Regional Justice Center in downtown Las Vegas. Amesbury and Benzer were partners with Kim in the cafe, which is now a Capriotti's sandwich shop.

Kim's estranged wife, Lisa Kim, 48, pleaded guilty Thursday in both the bank fraud and homeowners association schemes. She ran Platinum Community Services, a company that managed the Vistana association.

According to her plea agreement, Kim admitted, among other things, to helping rig elections at Vistana and thwarting an effort by state real estate officials to uncover ballot stuffing at Park Avenue.

Former Las Vegas attorney Brian Jones, 38, admitted in his agreement with prosecutors that he misled state officials about his knowledge of election rigging at Vistana and Chateau Nouveau. He also acknowledged that he allowed co-conspirators to stuff ballots at his law office.

Jones, who is now said to be practicing law in Utah, worked at the time for the politically connected law firm of Kummer, Kaempfer, Bonner, Renshaw & Ferrario. The firm broke up in 2009.

Disbarred attorney Jeanne Winkler, 44, admitted in her plea agreement that she failed to disclose that she had done legal work for Benzer before becoming general counsel for the Vistana board. She told Mahan that both Benzer and Quon asked her to take the position.

Once on the job, she looked after the interests of both alleged conspirators at the expense of the Vistana board and its homeowners, Winkler acknowledged in her plea agreement.

Winkler lost her law license in November over allegations she misappropriated about $233,000 from her client trust account. She also was arrested and charged with theft and embezzlement last year.

Two other former Vistana board members and straw buyers, Charles Hawkins, 51, and Patrick Bergsrud, 44, were among those who pleaded guilty Thursday.

More straw buyers were among the remaining defendants who pleaded guilty: Paul Citelli, 59; Robert Bolten, 44; Glenn Brown, 52; Michelle Deluca, 51; Sami Robert Hindiyeh, 54; and Anthony Roy Wilson, 34.

The guilty plea of Arnold Myers, another admitted straw buyer, was continued because of his bout of double pneumonia.