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Las Vegas real estate scam goes bust

A twisted tale of how homeowners were bilked by those they least suspected: their neighbors.
Image: Welcome to Las Vegas sign
As Las Vegas’s housing supply exploded, so did competition among lawyers and contractors to represent new homeowner associations in construction-defect lawsuits. It was in this environment that a shadowy outfit cooked up a brazen scheme.Brian Jones
/ Source: Business Week

Before the market crashed and home prices tumbled, before federal investigators showed up and hauled away the community records, before her property managers pled guilty for conspiring to rig neighborhood elections, and before her real estate lawyer allegedly tried to commit suicide by overdosing on drugs and setting fire to her home, Wanda Murray thought that buying a condominium in Las Vegas was a pretty good idea.

At first glance, Murray doesn’t look much like the type of person who would arrive in Las Vegas only to get tangled up in and eventually help unravel a complex criminal conspiracy. At 65, she stares out at the world through thick glasses. She is legally blind. Her eyes never quite seem to focus on any one thing. On a recent Friday morning, she sits at her dining room table wearing a zip-up leopard-print sweatshirt and recounts how she helped to foil a group of lawyers and contractors running amok in Sin City. “They didn’t think there would be four old ladies who wouldn’t put up with their stuff,” says Murray. “They really pissed me off.”

Before moving to Las Vegas, Murray and her husband ran a children’s dance studio in the suburbs of Minneapolis. Every so often, they would travel to Las Vegas on vacation. They loved the warm, dry weather. A poolside condo, far away from the Minnesota winters and a short drive from the Bellagio fountains, seemed like the perfect place to retire.

In 2002 they bought a two-bedroom condo for $105,250 in a new gated community, the Vistana, on the southwest outskirts of the city. The development’s architecture consisted of vaguely Spanish-style stuccoed buildings with ruddy tiled roofs. All told, there were 732 units in the subdivision, hundreds of imported palm trees, three swimming pools and one cloudless Nevada sky.

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Condominium complexes such as the Vistana were springing up across the city. Fueled by low interest rates and feverish demand, there were 32,964 closings on new condominiums and apartment conversions in Las Vegas from 2002 to 2007, according to Restrepo Consulting Group. At the same time, the building boom was creating a growing market for the contractors who fixed the construction problems, such as leaky roofs or faulty electrical outlets, that emerged at the hastily built developments.

Lawyers keep busy
In Las Vegas these large-scale repair jobs often involved lawsuits. There was a handful of lawyers in town who specialized in such suits, which pitted the collective owners of a gated community — in the form of nonprofit neighborhood corporations known as homeowner associations — against their developers.

As Las Vegas’s housing supply exploded, so did the competition among lawyers and contractors to represent new homeowner associations in so-called construction-defect lawsuits. It was in this environment, according to plea agreements recently unsealed in an ongoing FBI investigation, that a shadowy outfit cooked up a brazen scheme.

When a new development was nearing completion, the group would buy a couple of units in the community and then transfer partial ownership of the condos to individuals secretly on its payroll, according to court documents. While pretending to be residents of the communities, these “straw buyers” would run for leadership positions on boards of the new homeowner associations. By paying off community managers, hiring private investigators to find dirt on legitimate candidates and rigging elections, the documents allege, the straw buyers were able to infiltrate boards at several new developments in Las Vegas from 2003 to 2008. Once in control of the boards, the straw buyers would then use their governing positions to steer millions of dollars in construction and legal fees back to their co-conspirators. Targets included the Chateau Nouveau, Chateau Versailles, Park Avenue, Palmilla Townhomes, Jasmine, Pebble Creek, Mission Ridge, Mission Pointe, Horizons at Seven Hills, Sunset Cliffs and the Vistana.

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An FBI spokesperson says that for the time being the agency is not commenting on the case. But already the investigation has provided a window into yet another layer of corruption that took place amid the national housing boom and its subsequent hangover — a period that saw a surge in real estate malfeasance of every imaginable variety, including false loan applications, predatory lending schemes, illegal property flipping, equity skimming and “air loans” (loans for property that doesn’t exist). According to FBI data, the number of suspicious activity reports related to real estate fraud filed by financial institutions jumped to 67,190 in 2009 from 6,936 in 2003.

To this history, Las Vegas has managed to add another florid chapter. So far, prosecutors have reached plea agreements with 10 co-conspirators. Many more are expected to appear in front of judges in the coming months. Says Murray: “We’re all going to be sitting in the front row, watching.”

Seeking a lawsuit
Not long after moving into the Vistana in 2002, Murray got a letter in the mail from Nancy Quon, a partner at the local law firm Quon Bruce Christensen. Parts of the development hadn’t even been painted yet, and already Quon was soliciting homeowners for a possible construction defect suit.

Among her drab fellow attorneys, clerks and paralegals, Quon stood out. She had long dark hair, hazel eyes, and pale skin. She drove a red Lexus convertible. During her 10-year marriage to an insurance attorney, she had two daughters and worked as a legal secretary. After a divorce in 1988 she went back to school and earned a law degree. One of her best friends was a Las Vegas judge. At night they did Pilates together.

For years, Quon co-hosted a TV show on Channel 2, "Homeowner Talk," in which she gave viewers advice about the city’s razzle-dazzle real estate market. A wine connoisseur, Quon sometimes gave bottles she had collected to charity.

After moving into the Vistana, Murray volunteered to fill a temporary vacancy on the community’s fledgling homeowner association board. The five-member board would be responsible for governing the day-to-day operations of the development. At the time, she says, there wasn’t much competition over the unpaid positions, which were low on perks and high on potential hassles.

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In those early days, according to three longtime residents, construction problems at the Vistana were numerous but relatively minor. Some of the units had leaky roofs and windows. There were civil engineering issues involving the sidewalks. The internal fire and security systems didn’t work. Insulation, soundproofing, and plumbing needed fixing in some units.

In July 2003 the board members voted to retain the law firm Angius & Terry — rather than Nancy Quon’s firm — to represent them in a construction defect suit against their developer, Rhodes Homes. According to Murray, Quon told the Vistana residents, “I’ll be back.” Through her public-relations representative, Quon declined an interview request.

Hopes for a settlement
In the summer of 2004, Angius & Terry initiated the suit against Rhodes Homes. At the time, says Murray, the potential for a speedy settlement seemed promising. Rhodes Homes has since declared bankruptcy, and a representative for developer James Rhodes declined an interview request.

Murray first sensed trouble the following October, when the Vistana held its annual board election. The results were surprising. Two newcomers, an ex-cop and a union foreman, won spots on the board. It was odd, if only because nobody recalled seeing much of either man around the neighborhood. Shortly after, the two appointed another stranger to a vacant position.

In Nevada, state law requires that to serve on a homeowner association board, an individual must own property in the development. On a hunch, Murray and a group of her neighbors pulled some property records. As it turned out, the newest appointee had recently purchased a mere 0.5 percent of a single condo at the Vistana. Digging around a little bit, the Vistana residents claim they found records that the new board members were employees of Silver Lining Construction.

Murray wasn’t sure why somebody who didn’t actually live in a condo community would want to serve on its unpaid board. It seemed suspicious. In the weeks to come, Murray, along with three other like-minded ladies at the Vistana, formed a kind of amateur detective agency. They searched state property records. They dug deep into Google search results. They even did the occasional stakeout. The more they investigated, the more arrows they found pointing to Silver Lining Construction.

The change at the Vistana came fast that winter. In January 2005 the three new board members on the five-person board canceled a mediation session with Rhodes Homes, fired their attorneys from Angius & Terry, and replaced them with a firm called Spilotro & Kulla. John Spilotro was well known in Vegas not only because of his success as a criminal lawyer but also because of his famous uncle, Anthony “The Ant” Spilotro. During the ’70s, Anthony Spilotro moved from Chicago to Vegas allegedly to help run various mob-related businesses, including the Stardust Resort & Casino. In the years to come he ran roughshod over the city, forming a notorious burglary outfit called The Hole in the Wall Gang and touching off a spasm of street violence that drew national attention, and ultimately, a federal crackdown on organized crime in Vegas.

A mob connection
In 1986 police found Anthony Spilotro’s body several feet under an Indiana cornfield. They suspected he’d been buried alive. In the 1995 Martin Scorsese-directed movie "Casino," Joe Pesci plays a character based on Spilotro. A quarter-century later, the surname Spilotro still gives some people in Vegas the heebie-jeebies. “When I heard that name,” recalls Murray, “I went, ‘Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.’ ” (Spilotro did not respond to a request for comment. He has not been accused of any wrongdoing.)

That January the new members of the Vistana board hired a property management group, Platinum Community Services, run by Lisa Kim. Her husband, Vistana residents would later discover, was Ben Kim, a member of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Dept.’s fraud unit. On the side, Ben Kim owned and operated the Courthouse Cafe, a cafeteria inside the city’s regional justice center. He had two partners in the business, lawyer David Amesbury and Leon Benzer, head of Silver Lining Construction.

Murray and her posse of neighborhood sleuths had seen enough. They went to the Las Vegas police, who referred them to the Nevada Real Estate Division, a governmental agency charged, in part, with investigating real estate fraud. The Vistana residents filed a formal complaint and in February 2005, hoping to reclaim control of their board, conducted a recall election. When the votes were counted, their efforts had failed. Suspecting the ballots had been tampered with, Murray organized a second recall election in which the votes were tallied at the neighborhood pool rather than at the association office. This time all the board members connected to Silver Lining Construction lost. Afterward, however, they refused to step down.

In response, the original members of the Vistana board helped to file a civil suit aimed at removing the suspected interlopers. According to Murray, when they showed up in court for the first hearing, they were shocked to see a robust team of eight or so lawyers to defend the “straw buyers.” She couldn’t believe so many billable hours were being racked up to protect a handful of unpaid volunteer positions.

In the end, the jumbo team of lawyers triumphed, the homeowners lost the suit, and the Silver Lining-connected board members carried on.

In the meantime, Spilotro & Kulla hired Nancy Quon, the convertible-driving TV lawyer, to restart the Vistana’s construction defect suit.

In March 2005, on the advice of Quon, the Vistana homeowner association took out a $1 million loan to pay for some emergency repairs while they waited for the lawsuit to move forward. The board hired Benzer of Silver Lining Construction to make the repairs.

It's whom you know
All across Nevada, people knew that if you needed to win a tricky election you might want to call a political operative named Steven Wark. In 1988 as a state campaign manager, Wark helped Pat Robertson win Nevada’s Republican Presidential caucus. In 2004, according to his interviews with several news organizations at the time, Wark raised money to help get Ralph Nader on the ballot in Nevada as a way to siphon off votes from Democratic hopeful John Kerry; George W. Bush went on to narrowly win the state. Over the years, Wark had also served as chairman of the Nevada Republican Party, hosted a fundraising event for Rudolph Giuliani, and managed several successful campaigns for Mike Montandon, the former mayor of North Las Vegas.

In spring 2005, having proven his value in Presidential and mayoral campaigns, Wark focused on a smaller political battleground. He joined the homeowner association board at the Vistana. Like the members of the board who appointed Wark to the vacant position, he did not live in the community but had recently purchased a 1 percent share of one Vistana condo.

It didn’t take long to discover that Wark, too, had a connection to Benzer. According to records from the Nevada Secretary of State, Wark and Benzer co-owned a business called Allied Environmental Solutions. Through his lawyer, Wark declined to comment.

By the time Wark arrived on the scene in 2005, the community meetings were growing increasingly heated. As a result, Wark and his four fellow allies on the board began arriving at meetings inside the cabana near the front gates of the Vistana, which everybody called the clubhouse, accompanied by entourages of burly men.

According to Murray, residents who asked the board too many pointed questions risked getting hit with fines on trumped-up charges of violating association rules. Residents recall that when confronted with the intimidation tactics, Wark would habitually drop the names of his powerful allies in Nevada politics. “They acted like they were bulletproof,” says Vistana resident Bruce Wallace.

In the fall of 2007 the Vistana board announced it had reached a $19.1 million settlement with Rhodes Homes. Of that — according to a recent accounting by current Vistana board members — about $11 million in legal fees and reimbursement expenses went to two firms: Spilotro & Kulla and Quon Bruce Christensen. That left $8.1 million for repairs.

No competition
One night that September, Amesbury, a lawyer for Silver Lining Construction, stood up at a meeting in the clubhouse. Amesbury, who owned a small firm in Las Vegas, specialized in criminal law. He was also a co-owner, along with Benzer and Kim, of the Courthouse Cafe. That night, Amesbury told the Vistana residents that in 2005 the board had signed a “right-of-first-refusal” contract with Silver Lining Construction. The contract essentially guaranteed Benzer’s company 100 percent of the construction remediation money from the settlement. Moving forward, he said, there would be no competitive bids with other contractors. Amesbury did not respond to a request for an interview sent to his attorney.

Over a roughly six-month period, from the fall of 2007 through the spring of 2008, various teams of subcontractors working for Silver Lining Construction came and went from the Vistana — painting buildings, replacing windows and patching roofs. By May 2008, all but $450,000 of the $8.1 million was gone.

Shortly after, as the money ran out, the board members connected to Silver Lining Construction stopped showing up at meetings. “They just disappeared,” says current board member Wallace.

On Sept. 24, 2008, the day Murray had been anticipating finally arrived. That morning, and in the days that followed, agents from the FBI served search warrants and confiscated records at several businesses, including the offices of Silver Lining Construction, Platinum Community Services, and Quon Bruce Christensen.

Murray learned about the raids from a report on TV by Channel 8 investigative reporter George Knapp. “It blew me away,” she says. “I was so relieved that it was finally happening.”

While the FBI didn’t go into much detail about the investigation, it was clear from media reports that the scope extended far beyond the Vistana. “We had no idea how far-reaching it was,” says Murray. There were more surprises ahead.

An early morning phone call
On the morning of Oct. 28, 2010, Daniel Webb, a corrections officer with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Dept., was awakened before dawn by a phone call. It was his younger brother, William Ronald Webb (who goes by “Ron”), calling from San Diego. He wanted to know if Daniel could get up, drive across the city, and check in on Ron’s girlfriend, a well-to-do attorney named Nancy Quon. Ron was worried something had happened to her. She hadn’t been answering her phone all night.

Webb later testified to a grand jury that at first he was reluctant to indulge his brother, who sounded drunk. There was a history of mental illness in their family, and Ron had been acting paranoid recently, particularly about the FBI’s investigation into his girlfriend’s law firm.

Eventually, Webb gave in and drove over to Quon’s two-story house in a tony gated community on the west side of town. He retrieved the spare key from under a rock and let himself into the house. Among other amenities it had a wine cellar, a fire pit, a swimming pool and a Jacuzzi. As soon as he stepped inside, he saw smoke. The house was on fire. He ran outside and called 911.

With an ambulance on the way, Webb rushed back into the house to look for Quon. A few minutes later, in the TV room off the kitchen, he reached into a pile of blankets heaped on a puffy couch and felt a leg. It was Quon. Her eyes were open, and her face was gray. He picked her up, carried her out to the front yard, and began CPR. On the second cycle, she started to cough.

The paramedics arrived shortly. They checked Quon and found she was breathing shallowly, had pinpoint-size pupils, a strong pulse and was unresponsive. All were signs, one paramedic would later testify, of a narcotic overdose. They treated her with a “narcotic antagonist” drug called Narcan.

A few hours later, Daniel Webb went to the intensive care unit where Quon was being treated. He later testified that Quon was thankful and tried to explain to him what had happened. She allegedly told him that she took some sleeping pills, climbed in the Jacuzzi and drank a can of Four Loko — a highly caffeinated, fruity malt beverage typically more popular with rebellious teenagers than wine connoisseurs such as Quon.

Explaining a fire
Afterward, she told Webb, she felt dizzy. She went upstairs, lit some candles and drew a bath. It was all hazy, but at some point she must have gone downstairs to lie down in the TV room, she allegedly told Webb. Perhaps her bathrobe had accidentally knocked over a candle.

In August 2011, 10 months after the fire, a Clark County grand jury indicted Quon on multiple felony charges, including first-degree arson and insurance fraud.

According to prosecutors, Quon, 51, had taken some sleeping pills, drank a Four Loko and set her house on fire in an attempt to kill herself. She wanted to take her life, they argued, to avoid the embarrassment of being arrested in the FBI investigation. They further argued that she was trying to do so in a way that would pay out a hefty insurance policy to her two adult daughters, whom she supported financially.

The prosecutor’s case included extensive testimony from Robert Justice, a 45-year-old mechanic and occasional drinking buddy of Quon’s boyfriend, Ron Webb. Justice told the grand jury that weeks before the fire, Webb had tried to hire him to buy the couple a lethal amount of the so-called date-rape drug GHB. According to Justice, Webb wanted the GHB because he thought it wouldn’t turn up in an autopsy. Justice told Webb there were better ways to kill yourself without arousing suspicion. He suggested eating some sleeping pills and then downing a couple cans of Four Loko. Ron Webb is currently in jail, facing multiple charges including conspiracy to commit murder. He has pled not guilty to all charges.

The police arrested Quon in Henderson, Nev., on the afternoon of Aug. 17. At the time of her arrest, she was carrying her passport and $7,000 in cash.

In subsequent court filings, her lawyers have denied that Quon set the fire and have rejected the prosecutor’s assertion that she wanted to kill herself for insurance money and to escape arrest. Her attorney, Thomas Pitaro, has told reporters the prosecutor’s case is based on an “Alice in Wonderland” theory.

Quon is free on $50,000 bail.

Happy days
These days, life is much quieter at the Vistana clubhouse. Amid the seasonal decorations, there are signs the residents are happily moving on from their ordeal, even as they savor the prospect of watching their former attorneys, property managers, and board members shuffle off to jail.

On one side of the clubhouse, a poster marked “Before and After” leans against the wall. The “before” section features photos of the Vistana during the years when the straw buyers were managing the community. The images show untrimmed palm trees, broken barbecue grills, cracked pool decks, patches of dead grass, dented carports and a busted front gate. The “after” photos show the gradual, physical recovery of the Vistana in the time since homeowners who actually live in the community regained control of the board.

On bulletin boards a few feet away, dozens of newspaper clippings from the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Review-Journal chronicle the expanding number of individuals who have pled guilty in the FBI investigation. The display is labeled “Wall of Shame.”

The condominium schadenfreude hit a new high on Aug. 30 when Wark, the former chairman of the Nevada Republican Party, appeared before a federal judge and pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. The maximum sentence is 30 years in prison. He is awaiting sentencing.

In court documents filed as part of the plea agreement, Wark admits to helping rig elections at the Vistana. Like most condominium complexes built in Las Vegas during the boom, the Vistana had a high percentage of owners who were investors living out of state. According to the court documents, Wark and his crew won the elections, in part, by targeting out-of-state owners unlikely to participate in board elections. They would fill out a ballot on the owner’s behalf without the individual’s knowledge, transport the documents to the owner’s home state, then mail the ballot back to Nevada. The ballots would arrive bearing the correct postmarks, lending the votes credibility.

The fake absentee ballots were used to tilt the campaigns in favor of the straw buyers. When homeowners became suspicious, the court documents reveal, the conspirators would bring in supposedly independent “special election masters” to preside over the vote counting. According to several plea agreements, the election overseers were paid off, too.

Guilty pleas
Over the past three months, nine more guilty pleas have followed. So far, the ranks of the admitted conspirators have included Deborah Genato of Platinum Community Services, which worked as property manager for the Vistana; Daniel Solomon, a straw purchaser who served on the Vistana board; and Amesbury, Kim and Benzer’s former partner in the Courthouse Cafe. Neither Ben nor Lisa Kim have been charged with a crime.

On the morning of Nov. 16, a few weeks after reaching a plea agreement with prosecutors, Amesbury was found on the streets of a Las Vegas suburb severely beaten with multiple injuries, including two broken kneecaps. According to a story by Jeff German in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, police have so far found no evidence linking the beating to the FBI investigation.

On a recent Thursday evening at the clubhouse, the Vistana board members met with their lawyer, Richard Haskin, to discuss the community’s civil suit alleging that the straw buyers, in cahoots with Benzer, vastly overpaid for Silver Lining’s services. Haskin is working on an amended civil RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) complaint that will add Quon as a defendant and seek upwards of $8 million in damages. “I was privy to the repairs,” says Vistana resident Tony Kneip, himself a retired general contractor. “They were outrageously high.”

Lawyers for Silver Lining Construction continue to allege the homeowner association owes Benzer’s company $750,000. “It’s a classic breach-of-contract, failure-to-pay case,” says Benzer’s attorney, Sigal Chattah.

Whether the Vistana can retrieve any money remains to be seen. The criminal fire investigation revealed that although her law firm has shut down, Quon still possesses significant assets. (No one else at Quon Bruce Christensen has been indicted.) During a court hearing in August, prosecutors told the judge that in 2009, Quon made transfers of $2.7 million and $2.9 million into an offshore bank account. Last year she bought her daughter an apartment in New York City, paying $750,000 in cash.

“The bottom line for the homeowners is we’d like to see a lot of pain and suffering on their end,” says board member Larry Fitch.

Post-boom woes
In the meantime, thousands of people who bought condos during the boom are still coping with their own financial hardship. Two-bedroom, two-bath condos at the Vistana were going for $200,000 in 2007. In November a 929-square-foot two-bedroom, two-bath unit sold for $59,000.

Murray and her husband moved out of the Vistana in 2008 and now live in a nearby development. “I couldn’t take the pressure anymore,” says Murray. “Everything we did, they came after us. I’d had enough.”

Eventually, she and her husband let their dream home slip into foreclosure. “The reputation was out there, and nobody wanted to live there,” says Murray. “So we let it go. … I took a big hit.”

These days, Murray stays as far away from homeowner associations as possible. She is, however, looking forward to seeing where the FBI’s investigation ultimately leads. Many mysteries remain.

To this day, Murray has never laid eyes on Leon Benzer. No matter how many times they typed his name into Google or drew up elaborate maps linking him to members of their homeowner association, the residents of Vistana never seemed to get a glance of Benzer in person. He always kept his distance. (Through his lawyer, Benzer declined an interview request.)

Benzer’s primary business, Silver Lining Construction, has likewise kept a low profile. In 1998 a rare article about the company in the Review-Journal reported that Silver Lining Construction had been hired to renovate the Pioneer Club, a historic building in downtown Las Vegas that had served as everything from a restaurant to a casino to a brothel. Benzer’s job was to turn the space into a gift shop. “A lot of contractors are afraid of this kind of work because of the hidden nightmares you can run into,” he told the paper. “We like the challenges. We spent six months in preplanning, and our philosophy has always been Murphy’s Law — anything that possibly could go wrong will.”

Over the years a lot seemed to go right for Benzer. He formed a charity called the Benzer Autism Foundation; a music production company,; an investment group, Silver Lining Investment; and a boutique liquor brand, Benzila Tequila, that was reportedly made from agave plants that grew on Benzer’s ranch in Mexico.

Although he has not been charged with any crime, Benzer’s businesses are now all shuttered. “Basically, between the economy and the federal investigation, there’s not much left,” says Chattah, his attorney.

Benzer, who is in his mid-40s, continues to live in Las Vegas, she says, and has a source of income. When asked about the rumor that Benzer now works as a local cab driver, Chattah responds, “He might be.”

In 2008, before the FBI raided his offices, Benzer created a channel on YouTube where he posted clips of celebrities giving red carpet shout-outs to Benzila Tequila and his foundation. You can still watch the likes of Tom Jones, Anthony Michael Hall and Patrick Swayze tossing out paeans of support for Benzer and his charity work. “It’s God’s plan,” says ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith in one video. “If you want to make it to heaven one day, this is a good way to start.”