LAS VEGAS -- A four-year investigation by federal agents and Las Vegas police detectives into a massive political corruption scandal is coming to a head. The probe, first reported by the I-Team, is focused on the fraudulent takeover of local homeowner associations, a scheme that netted the suspects tens of millions of dollars.
A handful of suspects have already pled guilty, and now it appears the complicated case is ready to kick into high gear.
The scheme began as far back as 2003, and the investigation started in 2007. Victims say they are frustrated by the slow pace, but it is a complex scheme, and lawmen say every time they lift up a rock, 10 more bugs scurry out.
So far, 10 people have entered guilty pleas and have promised to testify against the big fish. In the near future, perhaps a matter of a few days, a dozen or more additional indictments and plea agreements involving mid-level targets are likely to surface. Once they are in place, the focus will shift to the top suspects who raked in millions of dollars.
When federal agents and metro detectives raided a nondescript building near the Palms Hotel in September of 2008, they put an end to the high-flying business empire of millionaire Leon Benzer, who partied with celebrities, had his own brand of tequila, and ran a nightclub. The building has been shuttered ever since, his Silver Lining Construction company is all but defunct, and Benzer is reportedly driving a taxi, awaiting an indictment.
In 2008, the law office of Nancy Quon boasted of having won more than $100 million worth of settlements in construction defect lawsuits against local builders. The law firm was dissolved, the office is now home to something called Billionaire Mafia, and Quon is bracing for expected federal charges.
"Fight for the underdog -- that's what I do. So all of this is the sensationalism that comes along with it, I take it in stride," said Quon in an interview in November of 2010.
The sign for Platinum Services, which managed scores of homeowner associations, is still on the wall, but the company is done in Nevada, though some principals set up shop in Florida.
The Courthouse Cafe, once owned by three targets of the HOA probe, is now a sandwich shop owned by a chain.
Much has changed since lawmen served search warrants at locations all over the valley, seeking evidence about a political corruption plot to seize control of homeowner boards, largely by rigging elections. But one thing has not happened, not yet anyway.
"There is no punishment," said Dennis Noto, a homeowner at Park Avenue Condos.
Residents of Park Avenue are frustrated with the lack of prosecutions so far. Not one of the dozens of suspects have been punished for helping to siphon millions of dollars out of HOA's. Lawmen believe Park Avenue's HOA was hijacked in a blatant ballot stuffing operation. The new board, made up mostly of persons working with Benzer, hired him to do repair work and Quon to file suit against the developer.
Three people who helped to corrupt the Park Avenue board have agreed to plead guilty and cooperate. One of them, Deborah Genato, is still licensed by the state.
"She's licensed -- licensed by the Nevada Real Estate Division. Why does this lady still have an active license?" said Park Avenue HOA President Barbara Noto.
Residents of the 730-unit Vistana Condo Complex say they understand that an investigation like this one takes time. Their HOA was also taken over by Benzer employees, led by seasoned GOP political operative Steve Wark, who now admits he was being paid for helping to rig elections.
The new pro-Benzer board paid more than $8 million to Benzer's company for much-needed repairs, but the work actually done was worth only $400,000. Among those brought in by Wark as consultants were former North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon and Allen Baxter, an ex-lawyer who was paid to oversee the repair work.
Residents say Benzer relied on muscle men to intimidate homeowners during board meetings, and some even flashed guns. Among Benzer's posse was a kung-fu grandmaster named Ricky Anderson, who has reportedly agreed to help the investigation.
Based on numerous interviews and an analysis of records seized by the FBI, it appears that Anderson and Baxter are targets of the ongoing investigation.
Others who might be offered a plea deal are former high-ranking Metro officers Frank Sutton and Moe Mattingly. Both served on HOA boards. Former Metro Lt. Ben Kim is regarded as one of the top-tier targets, along with Benzer and Quon.
Victims say they are worried about the proposed plea deals in which those who agree to pay restitution are being directed to pay back banks, and not people.
"I think before these people are adjudicated, priority one should be the real victims and the people who can't afford to really absorb these losses. The banks can afford to absorb those losses," said Tony Kniep with Vistana's HOA.
"It's 732 individual families -- disabled people, old people, retirees who have lost the money -- not the banks," said Lynn Williams.
Someone else being scrutinized is former Deputy District Attorney Victoria Villegas, who was questioned by the FBI about her estranged husband, Attorney David Amesbury, a partner of Benzer's who has already pled guilty.
The Vistana homeowners are urging other HOA's to write to the federal court and ask that anyone sentenced should pay restitution to the homeowners instead of to banks.
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