FBI calls 2001 HOA scheme springboard for larger, more recent Operation GrandMaster

Article Courtesy of The Las Vegas Review-Journal

By Jeff German

Published August 5, 2013


It had the makings of a lucrative construction defect scheme.

A California law firm, an architect and a construction company were conspiring to pack the homeowners association board at the Starfire condominium complex in southwest Las Vegas with straw buyers to win contracts to pursue construction defect litigation and eventual repair work.


Phony defect claims were devised, and HOA board members were bribed with cash and prostitutes to steer business to the conspirators.

A little-known investigation into the scheme was conducted by the Nevada attorney general’s office in 2001, but no charges were ever filed.

The investigation, however, is considered the forerunner to Operation GrandMaster, the six-year Justice Department probe into a similar takeover of 11 homeowners associations across the valley, according to the FBI.

And it may be what triggered the involvement of the late construction defect lawyer Nancy Quon in the valleywide takeover scheme, which occurred between 2003 and 2009.

In an FBI report made public in court by a defense lawyer this week, Mike Stasba, the 

Construction defects attorney Nancy Quon appears in Clark County District Court on Aug. 18, 2011. In an FBI report made public in court by a defense lawyer this week, Mike Stasba, the retired investigator who uncovered the Starfire allegations for the attorney general, said Quon's name surfaced in his investigation.

retired investigator who uncovered the Starfire allegations for the attorney general, said Quon’s name surfaced in his investigation.

Stasba told the FBI that Quon represented a homeowner who was suing the Starfire complex for defective windows, and he speculated it was her first “experimentation into the construction defect litigation arena.”

Quon, one of the accused masterminds of the valleywide takeover scheme, committed suicide in March 2012 under the weight of the federal investigation. At the time, she was not charged.

Attorney Chris Rasmussen brought up the Starfire investigation as part of an effort to get charges dismissed against his client in Operation GrandMaster. He wants to know why his client was charged in the federal investigation, while no criminal charges were filed in the similar Starfire investigation.

In a search warrant affidavit made public last month, the FBI said Stasba was interviewed in January 2008, several weeks after agents had launched their joint investigation with Las Vegas police into the massive HOA takeover scheme.

Quon and the other person accused of being a mastermind, former Las Vegas construction company boss Leon Benzer, were alleged to have followed the Starfire model for corruption. They recruited straw buyers and stuffed ballot boxes to get HOA board members elected to help them swindle the unsuspecting associations out of millions of dollars.

Rasmussen filed court papers this week seeking to force the government to turn over more evidence about the Starfire investigation, as he fights conspiracy and fraud charges against his client, Edith Gillespie, in Operation GrandMaster.

Gillespie was indicted with Benzer — her half-brother — and nine others in the federal investigation in January.
The FBI documents did not name the California law firm or the other targets of the attorney general’s Starfire investigation.

The conspirators, according to the documents, filed a $6 million lawsuit based on fraudulent construction defect claims against builders of the Starfire complex and their insurance company.

But the documents quoted Stasba as saying the insurance company “killed” any chance of moving forward with the criminal investigation into the scheme when it agreed to a “six figure settlement.” The company decided it was cheaper to settle than to continue fighting, Stasba indicated.

In his court papers, Rasmussen said he was skeptical of the government’s claim that it has no more documents on the Starfire investigation, and he wants a federal judge to order the government to provide him more information.

Rasmussen said he hopes to shed more light on the attorney general’s decision not to prosecute a fraud case similar to Operation GrandMaster.

He also contends unnecessary delays created by the government in the long-running federal investigation harmed his client’s ability to defend herself.

As part of his push for additional government documents, Rasmussen said he wants to know more about a secret Justice Department investigation into possible leaks to Quon from the Nevada U.S. attorney’s office. 

The Justice Department’s Fraud Section in Washington took over the investigation amid the leak allegations, which did not result in any charges being filed. The transition delayed the HOA investigation.

Justice Department prosecutors are refusing to turn over documents in the leak investigation, Rasmussen said.