Three defendants charged along with Leon Benzer, the alleged mastermind of a scheme to take over Las Vegas-area homeowners associations, pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday in the high-profile case.
Maria Limon and brothers Jose Luis Alvarez and Rudolfo Alvarez-Rodriguez, all 46, 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.
The three defendants each pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud. They all agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors and pay restitution. Alvarez owes $184,200, Alvarez-Rodriguez $119,585 and Limon $24,000.
In return for their guilty pleas, prosecutors will recommend a lighter sentence for the defendants and the other charges against them will be dropped.
U.S. District Judge James Mahan set a Jan. 21 sentencing date for all three defendants, who are free on their own recognizance.
The HOA investigation, overseen by the Justice Department’s Fraud Section in Washington, D.C., is thought to be the largest public corruption case federal authorities have brought in Southern Nevada. A total of 35 defendants now have pleaded guilty in the takeover scheme.
Another defendant, Ricky Anderson, is to plead guilty Friday.
Anderson, 50, 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.”
All four defendants were accused of being straw buyers in the HOA takeover scheme, which ocurred between 2003 and 2009. A total of 11 HOAs are alleged to have been defrauded of millions of dollars.
The four deals this week follow a February plea agreement by co-defendant Barry Levinson, 47, a suspended attorney facing disbarment.
Benzer, 47, a former construction company boss, and five co-defendants are now left to stand trial in October on conspiracy and fraud charges.
In court Thursday, the lead Justice Department prosecutor, Deputy Chief Charles La Bella, told Mahan the government is preparing for the trial and will not accept plea deals with the remaining defendants unless they enter guilty pleas to all of the charges against them in the January 2013 indictment.
“We’re ready for trial,” La Bella said.
The remaining defendants are accused of conspiring 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.
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.
In his plea agreement, Alvarez admitted that he furthered the takeover scheme by becoming a straw buyer of a condominium at Horizons at Seven Hills. He also got elected to the HOA board at Vistana, where between 2005 and 2007 he voted to award repair work to Benzer’s company, Silver Lining Construction, and settle a construction defect lawsuit Quon handled for $19 million.
Alvarez-Rodriguez admitted in his agreement he acquired hidden ownership at Vistana and Horizons at Seven Hills between 2004 and 2007. He twice served on the Vistana board and intended to get a seat on the Horizons board.
While on the Vistana board, Alvarez-Rodriguez voted in 2005 to award Quon’s firm the construction defect litigation contract, according to his plea deal.
A couple of months after the 2008 federal raid in the HOA investigation, Alvarez-Rodriguez also admitted that he withdrew $450,000 from the HOA’s construction defect settlement account “for the sole purpose of enriching the co-conspirators at the expense of the bona fide homeowners.” The FBI has since recovered about $350,000 of that money.
Limon admitted in her plea agreement that she worked for a property management company, Crystal Management, that was controlled by Benzer to further the takeover scheme.
She also admitted lying to the FBI about the hidden owners of the company, which had been hired by the Chateau Nouveau homeowners association.
Contact Jeff German at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-8135. Find him on Twitter @JGermanRJ.