4 defendants in Las Vegas HOA case strike deals to plead guilty

Four defendants charged with Leon Benzer, the alleged mastermind of the scheme to take over Las Vegas-area homeowners associations, have struck deals to plead guilty next week in federal court.

Ricky Anderson, Maria Limon, and brothers Jose Luis Alvarez and Rudolfo Alvarez-Rodriguez were among 11 people, including Benzer, indicted by a federal grand jury last year in the Justice Department’s final push to charge conspirators in the massive fraud scheme.

Their deals follow a February plea agreement by co-defendant Barry Levinson, 47, a suspended attorney facing disbarment.

The agreements leave Benzer, 47, a former construction company boss, and five co-defendants left to stand trial Oct. 6 on conspiracy and fraud charges in the high-profile HOA case.

On Monday, lawyers for five of the six remaining defendants signed an unusual stipulation with prosecutors agreeing to view new evidence prosecutors want to turn over to the defense under a protective order keeping the evidence secret.

Lawyers can use the evidence in preparing the defense of their clients, but it is apparently so sensitive that prosecutors don’t want it to become public knowledge.

A general protective order limiting what can be made public, signed by U.S. Magistrate Judge George Foley, Jr., already is in place in the case.

One defense lawyer, Chris Rasmussen, refused to sign the new stipulation.

“I’ve never seen a protective order like this,” said Rasmussen, who represents Benzer’s half-sister Edith Gillespie. “I don’t feel comfortable signing it. I just think it puts too much on us to protect these secrets.”

Rasmussen said he had no idea what information prosecutors feel they have to provide under seal.

Lawyers for the four defendants planning to plead guilty do not have to deal with the proposed protective order.

All four defendants were accused in the indictment last year of being straw buyers in the HOA takeover scheme, which occurred between 2003 and 2009.

Anderson, 50, who was imprisoned on a statutory rape conviction in Texas at the time of the indictment, was alleged to be an “enforcer” for Benzer. His claims of being a ranking kung fu grandmaster led the FBI to code-name the sweeping investigation, “Operation Grandmaster.”

U.S. District Judge James Mahan is to accept Anderson’s guilty plea on May 23, according to the electronic court docket. The other three defendants are to enter guilty pleas before Mahan a day earlier.

Levinson, who is now cooperating with federal prosecutors, pleaded guilty in February to felony charges of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud and attempting to evade taxes.

According to his agreement with prosecutors, Levinson admitted that even though he represented one of the scheme’s HOA victims, Park Avenue, he treated Benzer as his client and used bribery to uphold a rigged board election.

The HOA investigation, overseen by the Justice Department’s Fraud Section in Washington, is thought to be the largest public corruption case federal authorities have brought in Southern Nevada.

The Justice Department once investigated allegations of leaks to defendants from inside the U.S. attorney’s office, but dropped the investigation without filing charges in August 2011, when the first defendant pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate in the case. Judges were originally targeted in the HOA investigation and there was talk that politicians and mob figures also were involved in the scheme, but none of those players were ever charged.

A total of 31 defendants, including a political strategist, lawyers and former police officers, have publicly pleaded guilty in the multimillion-dollar takeover scheme. An additional defendant is thought to have pleaded guilty during a rare sealed proceeding before Mahan earlier this year.

Many of the defendants have been waiting for two years to be sentenced because of clauses in their agreements that earn them lighter sentences after they testify for the government at Benzer’s trial.

According to the new proposed protective order, the lawyers can’t disclose the super-secret information prosecutors are obligated to turn over to anyone who isn’t part of the defense team. That includes a rare reference to the “news media.”

The agreement, which must be approved by Foley, requires the defense lawyers to inspect the documents at the U.S. attorney’s office. The lawyers can take notes but are not allowed to make copies of the documents unless given permission under seal by the magistrate judge.

If the lawyers want to disclose any of the information in court filings, they have to do it under seal. The lawyers can review their notes or any documents they obtained by court order with their clients, but they can’t leave copies with the clients.

The stipulation also instructs the lawyers to keep a log of every defense team member who views the top-secret evidence and at the close of the criminal case either return notes or copies of documents to prosecutors or destroy the documents.

Benzer and the five other remaining defendants are accused of being part of a scheme to pack HOA boards to gain legal and construction defect contracts. Straw buyers were recruited to purchase condominiums at developments and then get elected to the HOA boards through bribery and rigged elections.

The long-running investigation became public in September 2008, when FBI agents and Las Vegas police conducted raids across the valley. The Internal Revenue Service also participated. Prosecutors have since turned over a mountain of evidence, including more than 3.4 million pages of documents, to defense lawyers.

Benzer, the late construction defect lawyer Nancy Quon and others funneled $8 million through secret bank accounts to fund the scheme to land contracts worth millions of dollars more from the homeowners associations, prosecutors have alleged.

Quon committed suicide March 20, 2012, and was not charged in the case. Another attorney, David Amesbury, who had pleaded guilty, killed himself five days later. A former police officer targeted in the investigation committed suicide in 2008, and a former HOA board member tied to the investigation died of a mysterious drug overdose in 2010.

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-8135. Find him on Twitter @JGermanRJ.