Third person pleads guilty in HOA fraud probe

Article Courtesy of The Las Vegas Review-Journal

By Jeff German

Published September 15, 2011 

A third defendant pleaded guilty Tuesday in the sweeping federal investigation into fraud and corruption at Las Vegas Valley homeowners associations.

Marcella Triana, 35, who once had a personal relationship with former construction company owner Leon Benzer, a key target of the investigation, entered a guilty plea to one count of mail and wire fraud.

U.S. District Judge Kent Dawson set a Dec. 14 sentencing.

The charge carries a maximum 30-year prison term, but Triana is cooperating with federal prosecutors and isn't likely to get anywhere near that stiff a sentence. She will, however, have to pay up to $199,000 in restitution under the terms of her plea agreement.

Triana, who served on the homeowners association board at Chateau Versailles, admitted to playing a role in a massive scheme between 2005 and 2009 to stack homeowners association boards with members who then pushed for construction defect lawsuits against builders.

Triana acknowledged accepting money from her co-conspirators to become a "straw purchaser" of a condominium at Chateau Versailles so that she could get elected to the board and further the financial interests of her co-conspirators there, according to the 12-page plea agreement.

When Dawson asked her in court how she pleaded to the felony charge, Triana replied, "Guilty, sir."

Afterward, Triana, who is free on her own recognizance, declined comment. But her lawyer, Todd Leventhal, said she made the right choice in

Marcella Triana, right, holds her son's arm as she walks out of federal court in Las Vegas after pleading guilty to one count of mail and wire fraud Tuesday.

striking a plea deal with prosecutors who are in the process of filing a barrage of criminal cases in the far-reaching investigation.

"This boat is filled with rats," Leventhal said. "The best way to save my client was to do what we did today. She was looking at 30 years, even though her role in this was at best minimal. This was not her only option, but at this point her best. She is relieved to put this behind her."

Lawyers from the Justice Department's Fraud Section in Washington, D.C., are looking to file as many as two-dozen criminal cases over the next several weeks. The defendants in the cases have agreements to testify in a push by prosecutors to indict higher-level players who include lawyers, judges and former police officers.

Two other plea deals have been made public in the past two weeks.

Longtime Republican strategist Steve Wark, 54, and Las Vegan Darryl Scott Nichols, 47, both pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud in the scheme.

Nearly a dozen homeowners associations have been dragged into the high-profile investigation, which has been running for more than three years.

Unsealed federal court documents alleged that legal work and multimillion-dollar repair contracts were funneled to lawyers and companies associated with the scheme at the expense of the homeowners, who were deprived of honest voting on their boards.

The board members friendly to the co-conspirators were "straw purchasers" in the developments and elected by the co-conspirators through classic dirty campaigning that included conducting phony polling, hiring private investigators to dig up dirt on candidates and rigging the balloting, the documents alleged.

"This process created the appearance of legitimacy, since bona fide homeowners believed the elected board members ... were, as fiduciaries, acting in their best interest rather than to advance the financial interests of the co-conspirators," the documents alleged.

In her plea agreement, Triana admitted that she knew her co-conspirators were creating "fake" ballots in the election process.

She also admitted that she helped "manipulate" elections at the Park Avenue condominium complex and other homeowners association communities to ensure that additional straw buyers and co-conspirators could win seats on the boards.

And she acknowledged abusing her authority as a Chateau Versailles board member following a September 2008 FBI and Las Vegas police raid across the valley in the investigation. She admitted signing $70,000 in homeowners association checks to a co-conspirator "for the sole purpose of enriching the co-conspirator at the expense of the bona fide homeowners."

The criminal complaint against Triana identified her two chief co-conspirators only as the owner of a construction company that specialized in defect repairs and an attorney who ran a law firm that handled construction defect cases.

Triana was described in the complaint as an employee of the construction company who "maintained a close personal relationship" with the owner.

Benzer, once a high-powered partner in a well-known cafe at the Regional Justice Center, is the former owner of Silver Lining Construction, a company that did construction defect work for homeowners associations. Silver Lining's offices were among those searched in the FBI-police raid.

In a District Court lawsuit, lawyers for one of the homeowners associations, Vistana, alleged that Benzer and his company had systematically placed employees, friends and close associates on the condominium development's board to "obtain construction work from the association through misconduct and fraud."

Benzer has not been charged in the federal criminal case. His court-appointed attorney, Dan Albregts, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

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