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FBI agents, backed up by Metro Detectives, served search warrants all over the valley looking for evidence of political corruption. The I-Team has learned the investigation is focused on alleged corruption among local homeowner associations and contractors.
Homeowner associations are political bodies, so that's why the FBI is calling this a political corruption investigation. The association boards are elected positions, whose activities are prescribed by law.
A task force of FBI Agents and Metro Detectives believes a web of contractors, lawyers, management companies and others have siphoned away millions of dollars from homeowners and developers.
Businessman Leon Benzer has a lot going for him. Since 1992 he's owned Silver Lining Construction, which specializes in remediation work and claims involvement in 300 local building projects.
Benzer has been billed as a visionary and philanthropist who started his own line of tequila, Benzilla, and operates Benzer's nightclub near the Palms. But the crowd that came knocking Wednesday morning wasn't customers. They were FBI Agents and Metro Detectives.
They used an explosive device to blow open an iron gate then went in to serve the first of many search warrants. Additional warrants were served all over town at private homes and businesses.
The FBI will only confirm that this is a political corruption investigation, but the I-Team has learned a lot more.
The law enforcement task force that served the search warrants suspects huge sums of money have been squeezed out of homeowner associations through illegal relationships.
Example, the Vistana Condo development -- 720 units built by Rhodes Homes. Owners initiated a massive construction defect lawsuit. They paid more than a million dollars to Benzers company to fix some of the defects.
Public records show that Benzer's manager Mark Kulla is also the attorney who set up Benzer's many businesses, and became the attorney of record for the Vistana homeowners. Kulla reportedly earned more than $2 million in fees for his work on the lawsuit against Rhodes.
What has not been made public are the other relationships involved. The president of the Vistana homeowners is Steve Wark, a well known Republican political strategist and frequent TV talk show guest.
According to state documents, Wark has been a business partner with Leon Benzer. The vice president of the Vistana association is reportedly a full time employee of Benzer's.
Homeowners alleged in the past that the board purposely steered their lawsuit to Kulla and the remediation work to Benzer, both of whom made a bundle.
The FBI wants to know if the Vistana set up was mirrored in other homeowner associations and resulted in large lawsuit settlements. Said one source, the lawsuit against Rhodes drove up the cost of every house in Rhodes Ranch, but most of the settlement money went to people other than the homeowners.
Homeowners at Vistana took a massive pile of information to the State Real Estate Division back in 2005, but nothing ever came of it. The state won't say if it launched an investigation.
Among the complaints made back then was that elections of the board members at Vistana were rigged and that intimidation was used by security guards hired by management.
Leon Benzer did not return calls for comment. Steve Wark says he disclosed his friendship with Benzer before he was elected to the board and that Benzer and Kulla already were in place before he arrived.