HOA conspiracy pleas set for this week

Article Courtesy of The Las Vegas Review-Journal

By Jeff German

Published May 31, 2012  

Justice Department lawyers spearheading the investigation into the takeover of Las Vegas Valley homeowners associations expect to be busy in federal court this week.

On Tuesday, retired Las Vegas police Lt. Benjamin Kim is to plead guilty before U.S. District Judge James Mahan to one count of misprision of felony in a related bank fraud scheme involving the Courthouse Cafe, once a popular restaurant at the Regional Justice Center.

Kim's estranged wife, Lisa Kim, is to plead guilty to the same charge on Thursday, as well as a separate charge of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in the homeowners association investigation. Her company, Platinum Community Services, managed some of the associations dragged into the four-year investigation.

In all, Mahan is to accept guilty pleas from 15 new defendants on Thursday, including two other retired police officers, Morris Mattingly and Frank Sutton, a captain.

All 16 defendants are co­operating with prosecutors, along with 10 other defendants who previously pleaded guilty.

Mahan has informed prosecutors and defense lawyers that he will accept the guilty pleas in two waves of defendants Thursday morning.

Agreements with prosecutors detailing the roles of each defendant in the scheme will be unsealed after their pleas are entered.

The pleas will set up the last stage of the far-reaching investigation, allowing prosecutors to present evidence to a federal grand jury to obtain indictments against as many as a dozen more targets, including former construction company boss Leon Benzer, accused of being one of the conspiracy's leaders.

Trial attorneys with the Justice Department's Fraud Section in Washington, D.C., have alleged in court papers that the scheme involved stacking association boards with members who steered legal, construction and community management contracts to favored firms.

"The defendants conspired together and with each other in the same series of acts or transactions in order to obtain control of the HOA boards, to direct the voting by the boards of directors to control the management of the HOA and to secure the award of services contracts to themselves or their conspirators," prosecutors wrote in recently unsealed court papers.

Many of the defendants entering guilty pleas on Thursday have admitted in their still-sealed agreements with prosecutors to being straw buyers of condominiums at the victim homeowners associations. A dozen associations were targeted.

Prosecutors have alleged that the conspirators paid for their mortgages and association dues and got them elected by stuffing ballots and other dirty campaign tactics. One of the straw buyers who previously pleaded guilty, longtime political strategist Steve Wark, was elected president of the Vistana association in southwest Las Vegas. He also was a political consultant in the takeover conspiracy, prosecutors have alleged.

Another defendant who previously pleaded guilty, attorney David Amesbury, was found dead of an apparent hanging on March 25.

Amesbury was partners with Benzer and Ben Kim, who retired from the Metropolitan Police Department in 2010.

Prosecutors contend that Benzer and the late construction defects attorney Nancy Quon pulled the strings in the massive homeowners association scheme.

Quon, 51, who was not charged in the federal investigation, was found dead in the bathtub of her Henderson condominium on March 20. Police don't suspect foul play.

The three Courthouse Cafe partners had a falling out as pressure mounted in the investigation. In January 2011, their county-approved restaurant rights were assigned to the Capriotti's sandwich shop chain. Kim and Benzer are locked in civil litigation over what is left of their company.

In his plea agreement, Amesbury admitted scheming to commit bank fraud while seeking refinancing for the cafe.

The scheme, which occurred from October 2008 through July 2009, involved striking a secret deal to let a businessman identified as "S.K." handle the daily operations of the cafe without informing the county or the bank, according to court documents in Amesbury's case.

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