Woman is fifth to plead guilty in federal HOA probe

Article Courtesy of The Las Vegas Review-Journal

By Jeff German

Published October 17, 2011  

The sweeping federal investigation into fraud and corruption at Las Vegas Valley homeowners associations moved forward Tuesday with a fifth guilty plea.

Angela Esparza, 24, a property management company employee who admitted in federal court that she helped rig homeowners association elections, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud.

Esparza, who is free on her own recognizance, told U.S. District Judge Philip Pro that some of her ballot tampering took place at the office of an attorney. She did not identify the attorney.

After accepting her plea, Pro set a Jan. 23 sentencing date.

In a 14-page plea agreement, Esparza said she played a role in the massive scheme to stack homeowners association boards with members who then pushed for construction defect lawsuits against builders. A dozen homeowners associations have been dragged into the investigation.

Esparza admitted that her participation began in August 2003, when she was only 16 years old, and ended in February 2009.

She worked for two property management companies, including Platinum Community Services, which managed homeowners associations involved in the long-running investigation. The offices of Platinum Community Services, which is now operating under a different name, were searched in an FBI-Las Vegas police raid across the valley in September 2008.

Esparza was paid to help fix elections at Park Avenue, Vistana, Chateau Nouveau and other condominium complexes, according to federal court documents unsealed Tuesday.

The co-conspirators hired attorneys as "special election masters" to oversee the election rigging, the documents allege.

As part of her role in the rigging, Esparza admitted in her plea agreement that she removed ballots homeowners had sent to a special election master's office so that the ballots would not be counted.

She also admitted creating fake ballots and campaign flyers for candidates backed by her co-conspirators.

Her plea is the latest in what is expected to be a long line of deals in the far-reaching case.

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. Four trial attorneys, led by Deputy Chief Charles La Bella, are prosecuting the case. The Nevada U.S. attorney's office removed itself to avoid a potential conflict.

Esparza and the other defendants who have pleaded guilty have agreements to testify in a push by prosecutors to indict higher-level players, who include lawyers, judges and former police officers.

Four other plea deals have been made public since Aug. 30.

On Sept. 23, Deborah Genato, 41, who also worked for Platinum Community Services, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.

Marcella Triana, 35, who once had a personal relationship with former construction company owner Leon Benzer, a key target of the investigation, pleaded guilty on Sept. 13 to one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.

Two others, longtime Republican strategist Steve Wark, 54, and another Las Vegan, Darryl Scott Nichols, 47, also each pleaded guilty to the same charge, which can draw up to 30 years in prison.

All five defendants, however, aren't likely to get anywhere near that stiff a sentence because of their cooperation with prosecutors.

With the help of friendly homeowners association board members, lucrative legal work and 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, court documents have alleged.

The board members were "straw purchasers" in the condominium complexes 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 have alleged.

Esparza admitted in court Tuesday that she became a straw buyer of a condominium at Terrasini in North Las Vegas in October 2006. She later ran for a seat on the association's board, but ended up losing.

As part of her plea agreement, Esparza will have to pay up to $240,000 in restitution to the mortgage company that financed the sale of the condominium.

Her court-appointed lawyer, Jonathan Powell, declined comment.

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