GOP consultant helped rig HOA elections in plot


As a leading conservative Republican consultant, Steve Wark was among the more respected in Nevada politics over the past 25 years.

But his admitted role in a sweeping scheme to defraud Las Vegas Valley homeowners associations has exposed a darker side to his skills as a grass-roots political operative.

Wark, according to federal court documents unsealed this week, was paid by a former construction company owner to pull off classic, dirty campaign tactics to help rig homeowners association elections with board members who would steer lucrative construction defect work the businessman's way.

The charging documents, which detail prosecutors' case against Wark, said he served as a "campaign consultant" helping to get "straw purchasers" elected to homeowners association boards around town.

To ensure that the straw buyers would win, the documents alleged, Wark and his co-conspirators "employed deceitful tactics."

Phony telephone surveys were used to gather information about homeowners' voting intentions, private investigators were hired to dig up dirt on legitimate candidates running for the boards, and forged ballots were submitted in the elections, the documents alleged.

Wark, 54, also was a straw buyer, purchasing a condominium at the Vistana development in southwest Las Vegas with money from his co-conspirators so that he could get elected to the homeowners association.

On Tuesday, the former Nevada Republican Party chairman pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiring to commit mail and wire fraud.

He is cooperating with Justice Department prosecutors from Washington, D.C., against some of the higher-level players in the scheme, which has embroiled nearly a dozen homeowners associations.

Wark's guilty plea was the first of about two dozen targets in the investigation taking government deals over the next six weeks calling for them to cooperate in the case.

The charging documents filed against Wark alleged that the co-conspirators in the homeowners association scheme went to elaborate steps to rig the board elections.

They prepared forged ballots listing out-of-town homeowners and either delivered or mailed the ballots to California, the documents said. Then, the ballots were mailed back to Las Vegas from various California locations to make it appear as though they were coming from homeowners outside Nevada.

Several times, the co-conspirators tried to create the appearance that the elections were legitimate by hiring "independent" attorneys to oversee the elections, the documents said.

The homeowners were led to believe that these "special election masters" would collect and secure the ballots and supervise the balloting to make sure no tampering occurred.

In reality, the lawyers were paid to rig the elections, the charging documents said.

They allowed the co-conspirators to open the ballots and count them so that the co-conspirators would know how many fake ballots were needed to sway the vote toward their preferred candidates.

Wark, who is free on his own recognizance, has declined to comment on the criminal case against him.

Wark has worked in political organizations large and small going back decades, including the gubernatorial campaign of Kenny Guinn in 1998 and the presidential campaign of social conservative Pat Robertson in 1988.

The construction company and its owner alleged to have paid Wark were not identified in the federal documents.

Court papers filed in a District Court lawsuit described a close relationship between Wark and Leon Benzer, the owner of Silver Lining Construction. They were partners in a revoked company incorporated in January 2005 called Allied Environmental Solutions.

Silver Lining's offices were among those searched in a September 2008 FBI raid across the valley in the homeowners investigation.

Benzer's attorney in the federal case, Dan Albregts, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

In the District Court lawsuit, lawyers for Vistana alleged that Benzer and his company had systematically placed employees, friends and close associates on the Vistana board to "obtain construction work from the association through misconduct and fraud."

Wark and other board members, including former Las Vegas police officer Morris Mattingly, failed to disclose their ties to Benzer and Silver Lining when the Vistana board voted to award contracts to the company, the lawyers wrote.

By 2004, the lawyers argued, Silver Lining Construction had "effectively controlled" the Vistana board.

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-8135.

 

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