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By blabbing first, Wark cuts best deal for himself

Disgraced political wheeler-dealer Steve Wark proved the benefits of being first to turn on co-conspirators in one of Las Vegas’ biggest fraud cases involving local homeowners associations.

Wark caught a break Monday from Senior U.S. District Judge Lloyd George, who sentenced him to one year and one day in prison. That way Wark can receive good time credits and reduce his sentence by 47 days. A one-year sentence must be served in full.

The probation officer had recommended a 21-month prison sentence, higher than the eight- to 14-month term recommended by federal prosecutors.

Wark demonstrated that being the first to blab pays off when it’s time for sentencing. Some 38 people have pleaded guilty in the scam to defraud 11 HOAs in the Las Vegas Valley. The scam involved construction defect cases being filed and the repair contracts being diverted to contractor Leon Benzer. To make sure he won the contract, Benzer packed HOA boards with straw buyers willing to do his bidding. He took the money but didn’t do the work, prosecutors said.

Wark became one of Benzer’s straw buyers and corrupt board members. Benzer bought Wark a condominium in Vistana, and his other three puppets on the board, elected with Wark’s help, arranged for Wark to be appointed to the board. Wark never lived in, rented, or paid any utilities or costs on the home. His job had been to help three of Benzer’s supporters get elected to the board and then to follow Benzer’s orders, including hiring and firing property managers.

Benzer pleaded guilty but hasn’t been sentenced yet.

With Wark’s help, prosecutors said, Benzer cheated Vistana homeowners out of $7 million by not doing the work called for in the construction defect case.

Since he was arrested in September 2008 during a massive roundup, Wark’s life has become a whirlpool of misery that dragged him down from top political consultant to political pariah. Once an adviser to the late Gov. Kenny Guinn and former North Las Vegas Mayor Michael Montandon, his days in the political world are finished. Pleading guilty to a felony of conspiring to commit wire and mail fraud is a career-killer in politics.

Wark, 58, today works for Salt Lake City businessman and longtime friend Charles Warren, who said in his letter of support Wark sometimes mows lawns to get money to pay the $4,000 a month he must pay his former wife and 3-year-old son.

Wark made a peculiar statement to the judge, a statement he later told me was ironic. “I deserve the justice, I don’t deserve mercy.”

Actually, he got mercy. The prosecution lavishly praised his help in investigating and prosecuting co-conspirators.

Two other straw buyers sentenced Monday received tougher sentences. George sentenced Benzer’s cousin Edward Lugo to 21 months and Daniel Solomon to 15 months.

I first met Wark when he was at boxing matches helping to film (yes, film) matches and I was running film (yes, film) for The Associated Press in the 1970s.

He became active in Republican politics but from the beginning was controversial. First he was the executive director of the Clark County Republican Party, hired in February 1986 and fired six months later for being too divisive. By that time he was already helping elect Republicans to the Legislature.

By 1988, he was elected chairman of the state GOP and managed to pack the central committee with supporters of evangelist Pat Robertson for president. Robertson won the Nevada presidential primary caucus, to the fury of more traditional Republicans. Ultimately, Vice President George H.W. Bush won the Republican nomination and was elected president.

Wark survived one attempt to oust him as state chairman, was later stripped of his voting rights and eventually was ousted in 1989. At that time, the controversy over Wark was described by then-Attorney General Brian McKay as having had a chilling effect on Republican candidates. “If your own party wants to behave like second-graders, why get involved?” McKay asked.

Detractors said he was damaging GOP chances in legislative races, didn’t raise enough money and engaged in sleazy campaign practices, such as mailers to discourage Democrats from voting.

His supporters praised him as an outstanding organizer for grass-roots get-out-the vote efforts.

In 1990, Wark was 33 and decided to run for an open seat in Assembly District 9. He lost then and again in 1992 despite having the face of a cherub. “Accountability is the premium that is missing in Nevada politics,” he wrote on one questionnaire.

After those losses to Democrat Chris Giunchigliani, he returned to his advertising and film business and to political consulting for Republicans, openly favoring pro-life, anti-abortion Christian candidates like himself.

One friend, Keith Burlingame, noted they both worked on developing an orphanage and foster program in Romania. When Wark regains his right to travel, they hope to do mission work in Cambodia, Burlingame wrote.

His attorney claimed there was “no identifiable victim.”

The residents of Vistana would find that laughable. They were conned and cheated when repairs were not done to their homes, so they are victims.

Steve Wark knows that. He knows what he did and why he did it. And perhaps some day he will share why.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Thursdays. Email her at jmorrison@reviewjournal.com or leave a message at 702-383-0275. Find her on Twitter: @janeannmorrison

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