With the help of informants wearing a wire, an undercover sting by federal agents and Las Vegas police foiled a 2008 plot to rig a homeowners association election, according to an FBI affidavit that surfaced in court documents late last week.
The scheme was part of a massive operation to unlawfully take over nearly a dozen HOA boards across the valley by former construction company boss Leon Benzer, the affidavit states.
The Sept. 25, 2008, election at Mission Pointe, a condominium development in southeast Las Vegas, was canceled after agents raided Benzer’s organization a day earlier.
The redacted FBI affidavit also revealed that the investigation was sparked by prominent construction defect lawyer Scott Canepa, who supplied agents with information about Benzer’s operation. FBI agent Mike Elliott submitted the affidavit to obtain permission to conduct the 2008 searches.
Benzer, 46, and 10 other defendants were indicted in January on conspiracy and fraud charges in the scheme to swindle the homeowners associations out of millions of dollars in construction defect contracts.
The complicated plot, which occurred between 2003 and 2009, relied on getting straw buyers elected to the HOA boards through ballot-stuffing to help Benzer and the late construction defect lawyer Nancy Quon obtain the lucrative contracts, prosecutors have alleged.
The Mission Pointe takeover plan was hatched in April 2008 after Sami Robert Hindiyeh recruited an HOA insider who, unknown to Hindiyeh, served as an undercover witness for investigators, according to the FBI affidavit.
In a secretly recorded conversation, Hindiyeh, a Benzer middle man, and the informant discussed bribing the community manager at Mission Pointe as the first step toward rigging the board election.
Eventually, the affidavit states, the informant clandestinely recorded a series of conversations and meetings over the next several months with Benzer’s right hand man and bag man, Ralph Priola, Hindiyeh and even Benzer. The meetings mostly took place at bars, restaurants and casino coffee shops. Both Hindiyeh and Priola wound up pleading guilty in the scheme.
By June 2008, the informant was introduced to Priola, who pushed to set up a meeting with the community manager to pay her bribes, according to the affidavit. The manager earlier had refused to take money from the Benzer operatives and decided to assist investigators in the undercover sting,
On June 27, 2008, the informant and Hindiyeh met with the community manager at the Roadrunner saloon at West Flamingo Road and the Beltway as Hindiyeh tried to get her to help fix the upcoming board election, the affidavit alleges. Priola waited at a restaurant across the street in case the manager agreed to accept money that day.
The woman told Hindiyeh she would think about participating in the scheme, and Hindiyeh ended the conversation by saying, “Nobody would know.”
Two days later, a second cooperating witness was brought in to meet with the original informant and Priola at the coffee shop at the Palms. The second informant told Priola that the community manager now “was on board.”
The next day, the affidavit alleges, the original informant told Priola that the community manager wanted $15,000, and Priola agreed to give her $10,000 up front and $5,000 after the election.
On July 9, 2008, Priola met with the original informant in the parking lot of a Starbucks near Flamingo Road and Jones Boulevard to hand over the initial bribe money and pay the informant.
Priola gave the informant a container of baby wipes and, with a wink, said, “I appreciate you wanting to come aboard and work as a consultant. Like I said, as long as we keep everything on the up and up, that’s the way our company operates. I appreciate it.”
Inside the container was a white envelope stuffed with $20,000 in $100 bills.
From there, according to the affidavit, Priola made plans to forge ballots and put together phony resumes for Benzer’s two candidates in the Mission Pointe election, Paul Citelli and Michael Moore. Citelli, who the FBI alleges is known to have ties to the Buffalo mob, later pleaded guilty in the scheme. Moore was not charged.
On Aug. 26, 2008, Benzer walked in on a recorded meeting between Priola and the informant at a local bar on Tenaya Way and wanted to know how the election rigging was going, the affidavit alleges. When the informant asked Benzer if he wanted two seats on the board, “Benzer stated he wants all the seats.”
Then, on Sept. 3, the informant returned to the Tenaya Way bar to deliver 249 phony ballots to Priola.
A week later, Priola gave the informant another $1,000 in cash during a meeting at a Marie Callender’s restaurant at Flamingo Road and Decatur Boulevard. Priola told the informant he planned to mail in two to three forged ballots a day to avoid attracting attention.
In a Sept. 16, 2008, recorded telephone conversation with the informant, Priola inquired about the possibility of stealing 15-20 legitimate ballots that had been received by the HOA so the votes could be changed to Benzer’s candidates.
Days later, however, Benzer’s operation was raided, abruptly ending plans to rig the election.
Contact Jeff German at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-8135. Follow @JGermanRJ on Twitter.