|I-Team: New Details Emerge in Homeowners Association Probe|
|Article Courtesy of Las Vegas News
Published September 26, 20068
By George Knapp
Mountains of financial and legal documents seized by a law enforcement task force are being scrutinized. FBI Agents and Metro Detectives worked into the night, serving search warrants at nine locations to find evidence of what they believe is political corruption involving local homeowner associations.
The FBI and Metro are still not talking, nor do we expect them to say anything. The investigation is just getting started and it's now obvious it stretches in many directions.
Investigators already see a pattern, whereby the same law firms file construction defect lawsuits, the same contractors are hired to do the work, the same management company oversees the whole thing, and the homeowner boards are subjected to something like a political coup.
The elections, homeowners say, are rigged.
The locks were changed Thursday afternoon at the office of the Park Avenue Homeowner Association. In the upscale condo development near the south Strip, owners are worried that their home investments are in grave danger and they're taking steps to retake control.
Like dozens of other HOA communities in the valley, Park Avenue was essentially hijacked by outsiders, residents say. Outsiders who don't even live in Park Avenue were elected to the board this summer. The new board changed everything.
At the very first meeting, the new board pushed to bring in contractor Leon Benzer to fix construction defects.
"This is nothing new. It's spread across the valley. It's corruption, definitely," said former Board President Lee Lahargoue.
FBI Agents and Metro Detectives raided Benzers office and home on Wednesday, looking for evidence of financial relationships with friends who served on other homeowner boards around the valley.
Lawmen believe Benzer and other persons conspired to take over the boards, hire Benzer to do repair work and funnel lucrative lawsuit cases to certain law firms.
Many of the same players popped up at Park Avenue, where former board members say they were voted out in a rigged election.
"They had an election and the election was fixed. Elections in the past maybe got 115 total votes. This past one there were over 300 and many were duplicate votes," said Tom Seablom.
So how was it done? For one thing, at Park Avenue, more than half the owners live elsewhere. The condos are investments, so they take little interest in board meetings.
The most recent election had twice as many ballots cast as ever before, and most were mailed from one place.
"Funny part is, in California, all the different cities, they were all mailed form Long Beach at the same time on the same date," said Dennis Noto.
"They looked like real ballots that came in. Someone duplicated ballots, duplicated envelopes and then mailed them en masse. Even in Las Vegas, they were mailed all the same day from the same place," said Lahargoue.
Elections are supposed to be overseen by the homeowner's management company, Platinum Communities, which at one point managed around 100 associations. Platinum is suspected of having a relationship with Benzer and with the same law firms that have been involved in construction lawsuits.
Platinum's office was searched by the task force Wednesday afternoon and documents were seized.
How did Platinum handle the Park Avenue election? "Platinum is collaborating with what is going on. Ballots came back in. They supplied the envelopes. Who did that?" said Barbara Noto.
The Park Avenue homeowners are thrilled the FBI and Metro are taking an interest. They say they've been ignored so far, so they are taking small steps on their own, such as changing the locks on the offices they were barred from by Platinum.
Also, while the I-Team was there, they fired the manager installed by Platinum and they are hoping the FBI gets around to talking with them soon.