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Lawyers in HOA scheme request trial be moved from Las Vegas

Lawyers for defendants charged in the scheme to take over Las Vegas-area homeowners associations want the high-profile Feb. 23 trial moved out of Las Vegas.

In federal court papers filed late Thursday, lawyers for Las Vegas attorney Keith Gregory said he can’t get a fair trial because of the mass of ongoing “prejudicial” media coverage of the case, primarily from the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“The decibel level and tenor of the pretrial publicity which has surrounded this case has been vivid, unforgettable and blatantly prejudicial to the point that it is for all intents and purposes impossible for defendant Keith Gregory and the other defendants to obtain a fair trial in Clark County, Nevada,” wrote Salt Lake City lawyer Rodney Snow.

“Newspaper articles and media pieces have made an unrelenting point of condemning and preordaining a conviction. This is an extreme case which, through a battery of repetition and recrimination, the public has become poisoned against the defendants’ Sixth Amendment rights.”

The move for a change of venue comes as the lawyer for Leon Benzer, the former construction company boss accused of masterminding the HOA takeover scheme, filed court papers late Thursday to stop the Review-Journal from publishing a story on secret talks Benzer held with prosecutors in 2011 to strike a plea deal in the long-running federal investigation.

The newspaper obtained secret FBI and Las Vegas police reports that detailed Benzer’s admitted involvement in the scheme, which occurred between 2003 and 2009. The newspaper planned to publish the story on Sunday, but moved up publication to Thursday night after attorney Daniel Albregts filed his court papers.

In the documents, which have been sealed and stricken from the federal court record since the Review-Journal obtained them in September, Benzer details how he corrupted HOA boards through bribery and election rigging to obtain millions of dollars in construction defect contracts.

Benzer’s plea negotiations fell through and Justice Department lawyers agreed prior to the talks not to use Benzer’s statements against him at trial.

Snow argued in his court papers that media coverage of the case has likely “brainwashed” the prospective jury pool into setting aside the Sixth Amendment rights of the defendants.

“The Las Vegas Valley residents — the vast majority of the prospective jury pool — are not only members of HOAs, they have been hearing about how HOAs are victims to predatory schemes,” Snow wrote.

“And the reporting of the rumors surrounding the investigation undertaken in this case — suspicious suicides, alleged cover-ups and prosecutorial misconduct, alleged judicial tampering, election rigging, hints of ties to organized crime — have served to whip the public into a frenzy with the media playing their part in feeding the beast.”

On Friday, attorney Chris Rasmussen who represents Benzer’s sister Edith Gillespie filed a motion seeking to join Snow’s effort to move the trial out of Las Vegas.

Rasmussen cited an online comment in Thursday’s Review-Journal story from a reader who said, “I say execute the judge and all attorneys associated with this delay tactic.”

According to Rasmussen, “This type of implied threat is disturbing and is indicative of the mood in the community which has been frothed up by media reports.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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

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