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Former property manager pleads guilty in HOA investigation

Former construction company boss Leon Benzer was identified in federal court Friday for the first time as one of the main players behind the conspiracy to take control of homeowners associations around the valley.

Mary Ann Watts, 64, a former condominium property manager, named Benzer while pleading guilty in the high-profile federal investigation into fraud and corruption at the associations.

Watts, 64, who managed Vistana in southwest Las Vegas, entered a guilty plea to one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.

She is the seventh defendant to plead guilty in the far-reaching probe, which has targeted lawyers, judges and former police officers.

U.S. District Judge James Mahan set a Jan. 20 sentencing.

Watts admitted in court to playing a role in the massive scheme to stack homeowners association boards with members who pushed for construction defect lawsuits against builders. A dozen homeowners associations have been dragged into the investigation.

Watts told Mahan that Benzer and one of her fellow defendants, former Vistana board member Edward Lugo, gave her “seed money” to start her own property management company to further the takeover conspiracy.

Lugo pleaded guilty on Thursday, but Benzer has not been charged.

Benzer, once a high-powered partner in the Courthouse Cafe at the Regional Justice Center, is the former owner of Silver Lining Construction, a company that did construction defect work for homeowners associations. Silver Lining’s offices were among those searched in a September 2008 FBI-Las Vegas police raid.

Vistana lawyers alleged in civil litigation in 2008 that Benzer and his company had systematically placed employees, friends and close associates on the condominium development’s board to “obtain construction work from the association through misconduct and fraud.”

In her 14-page plea agreement, Watts did not name Benzer, but she admitted that she agreed in August 2006 to form a property management company, which would be controlled by her co-conspirators. The goal was to manage the Vistana homeowners association and others and steer business to the co-conspirators.

Prosecutors have chosen not to identify Benzer in court documents filed in the investigation. The documents, however, allege that a construction company owner who specializes in construction defect work was a key co-conspirator.

Benzer’s defense lawyer, Dan Albregts, declined comment after Watts’ plea on Friday. So did Watts and her attorney Michael Kimbrell.

Watts admitted in her plea agreement that she also helped rig a homeowners association election at Vistana in November 2006 “by ceding her role as community manager and providing the election ballots to a co-conspirator attorney acting as a special election master,” the agreement said. The attorney was not identified.

Watts acknowledged that she concealed her relationship with her co-conspirators from homeowners and helped her co-conspirators manipulate association agendas and votes.

Her plea is the latest in a long line of deals expected in the case. Lawyers from the Justice Department’s fraud section in Washington, D.C., plan to file as many as two dozen plea deals. Watts and the other defendants who have pleaded guilty have agreed to testify for prosecutors in their push to indict the higher-level players.

With the help of friendly homeowners association board members, legal work and repair contracts were funneled to lawyers and companies associated with the scheme at the expense of the homeowners, who were deprived of honest voting on their boards, court documents have alleged.

The board members were straw purchasers elected by the co-conspirators through dirty campaigning that included conducting phony polling, hiring private investigators to dig up dirt on candidates and rigging the balloting, the documents alleged.

On Thursday, Lugo pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.

Lugo, 47, who lives in the Los Angeles area, admitted in his plea agreement that he became a “straw purchaser” to get elected to the Park Avenue homeowners association board.

He admitted helping rig association elections and managing a “bill pay program” for his co-conspirators that funded other straw buyers around the Las Vegas Valley.

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