Fourteen more plead guilty in Las Vegas HOA fraud, corruption case

Article Courtesy of The Las Vegas Review-Journal

By Jeff German

Published June 3, 2012  

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

U.S. District Judge James Mahan began accepting the pleas in two waves a little after 10 a.m. in one of the biggest group deals federal prosecutors have put together in Nevada.

A total of 15 defendants are part of the group deal, engineered by trial attorneys with the Justice Department's Fraud Section in Washington, D.C. But one defendant's plea was continued because he was still recovering from double pneumonia.

All of the defendants pleaded guilty to a single felony count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and all but one agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in an investigation that has focused on a massive scheme to take control of nearly a dozen homeowners associations between 2003 and 2009.

Charles La Bella, a Fraud Section deputy chief, asked Mahan to delay the sentencings of the latest defendants into next year because prosecutors planned to continue presenting evidence over the summer to a federal grand jury in the far-reaching investigation. They are seeking to indict as many as a dozen more co-conspirators.

Mahan set the sentencings for early February and allowed all of the defendants to remain free on their own recognizance.

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 legal, construction and community management 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 said for the first time that the conspirators funneled more than $8 million through five secret bank accounts to fund the elaborate scheme. Quon and her law firm were alleged to have deposited a total of 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 lead conspirators and made numerous wire transfers 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.

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 homeowners association board member, Robbi Castro, died in 2010 of a drug overdose.

Authorities have said they 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 board member of at least two homeowners associations dragged into the investigation, including Park Avenue. Sutton, who is alleged to have been on Benzer's payroll, and his lawyer, Richard Wright, declined comment afterward.

Another former Las Vegas police officer, Morris Mattingly, 51, also pleaded guilty. He is alleged to have served on the Vistana condominium association's board while working for Benzer.

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 several of the associations tied to the investigation.

Former Las Vegas attorney Brian Jones, who worked for the now-dissolved law firm Kummer, Kaempfer, Bonner, Renshaw & Ferrario, also pleaded guilty. The politically connected firm broke up in 2009, and

Jones, 38, who is said to be practicing law in Utah, admitted in his plea agreement that he helped rig association board elections at Vistana and Chateau Nouveau.

Another defendant who entered a guilty plea was former lawyer Jeanne Winkler, 44, who was disbarred in November over allegations she misappropriated about $233,000 from her client trust account.

Winkler, who also was arrested and charged with theft and embezzlement last year, admitted in her plea agreement that she failed to disclose 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.

Two other former Vistana board members, Charles Hawkins, 51, and Patrick Bergsrud, 44, also pleaded guilty.

Straw buyers were among the other defendants pleading guilty: Paul Citelli, Alcantar, Robert Bolten, Glenn Brown, Michelle Deluca, Sami Robert Hindiyeh, and Anthony Roy Wilson.

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

La Bella and Justice Department attorney Mary Ann McCarthy laid out the conspiracy in previously filed court papers.

"As charged and admitted in the filed plea agreements, the conspirators, through a coordinated scheme to control the HOAs' boards of directors, general counsel and property managers, instructed the board members to vote in a particular manner that was in the interests of the conspirators," they wrote.

"This included designating lawyers to handle construction defect litigation at the condominium complexes, construction companies to perform construction defect repair work and emergency repair work, attorneys to advise the particular HOA board and community management companies to manage the condominium properties."

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