Votes bring owners to tears

As Barbara Soto watched her fellow homeowners tear open ballots at the Park Avenue condominiums Wednesday morning, tears welled up in her eyes and her lip quivered.

She and other homeowners believed the occasion marked the first honest election at the complex in at least a year, and the counting of the ballots signified an end to months of battling to take control of their board.

“I am so happy to see this happening today,” said Soto, the board’s president. “It’s the second time I’ve almost cried today.”

This past week marked a step toward normalcy for Soto and homeowners at two other condominium complexes in the valley at the heart of a federal corruption investigation.

“It was like a big relief. Our day in court. Justice,” said Linda Carter, a homeowner at Pebble Creek Village, where an election Wednesday night officially ended the battle to remove three people from its board.

The relief of the residents came a month after law enforcement agencies raided the offices of a property management firm, an attorney and a construction company associated with homeowners associations.

Their pleas to law enforcement and the Nevada Real Estate Board’s ombudsman’s office, unheard for months and even years, were finally being answered.

Pebble Creek Village, Park Avenue, Sunset Cliffs and Chateau Versailles are among seven condominium complexes at the heart of an investigation into possible collusion among homeowners boards, construction defect attorneys and construction companies.

The FBI, with the assistance of Las Vegas police, is conducting what a law enforcement source has described as an investigation into whether individuals on homeowners association boards illegally directed business stemming from construction defect lawsuits to select companies.

Construction defect litigation has been big business in the Las Vegas Valley, with attorneys and construction companies taking a huge slice of multimillion-dollar settlements with builders.

But some homeowners have been left bemoaning shoddy or nonexistent repairs.

“Everyone’s making money,” said state Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, a real estate developer and a leader on homeowners association issues in the Legislature.

“Property managers are getting kickbacks. Even if you have a legitimate HOA attorney in there, he’s getting kickbacks. The CD (construction defect) attorneys, defense attorneys, insurance companies … they don’t want this to go away.”

BOARD MEMBERS OUSTED

All of those recalled last week were named in a federal search warrant requesting documentation, correspondence and notes as part of an investigation.

Owners at Park Avenue, on the far south end of Las Vegas Boulevard, successfully recalled Ed Lugo, who worked as a property manager for the Chateau Versailles condominiums, and former Las Vegas police Capt. Frank Sutton. An election will be held early next month to select their replacements.

Sunset Cliffs owners chose to replace Darryl Scott Nichols, who also serves on the board at Chateau Versailles, records show.

And at the Pebble Creek Village condominiums in the southeast valley, a Wednesday night election officially ended a battle with Sutton, former Las Vegas police Lt. Chris Van Cleef and Ralph Priola, who is linked through property records to a current Chateau Versailles board member.

The three had refused to step down from the board of Pebble Creek Village after being recalled in July. Earlier this month, they dropped a lawsuit alleging the recall election was unfair.

Lugo did not return calls seeking comment.

Nichols and Priola declined to comment.

Sutton could not be reached for comment.

Van Cleef shot and killed himself Sept. 30 near his Henderson home.

Being named in the warrant does not mean that individuals are under investigation or involved in wrongdoing.

Authorities raided nine sites in the valley in September, including the headquarters of Silver Lining Construction, owned by Leon Benzer. His company has done work on several of the condominium complexes named in the warrant.

Last week, an FBI special agent and a Metropolitan Police Department official were present at the Park Avenue and Sunset Cliffs elections and took the ballots after the results of the elections were announced.

At Pebble Creek Village, the Wednesday night election felt more like a reunion than a homeowners association meeting, said Carter, who was elected president to a temporary board that will serve until full elections can be held in March.

“One person baked all these cookies and somebody brought soda pop,” she said. “Another guy brought fruit trays and vegetable trays. It was a good feeling.”

Homeowners might be regaining control of their boards because of the focus on the people at the center of the investigation, Schneider said.

“There’s heat on them now,” Schneider said. “And I think the people aren’t getting bullied by board members, managers and attorneys like they were.”

ELECTION ERROR

Last week’s elections weren’t without problems.

Attorney Ben Childs oversaw the election at Sunset Cliffs, in which “four or five” or “six or seven” mailed-in ballots accidentally were opened by his secretary before the meeting where the ballots would be counted.

Childs is running for a District Court 6 judgeship.

“That shouldn’t be,” Schneider said about the error. “If those envelopes were opened, they should have been held to the end. They’re tampered ballots.”

Childs, who had never handled a homeowners association election before, was asked by Platinum Community Management to oversee the election.

Platinum’s office was among those raided by authorities last month. The husband of Lisa Kim, the company’s owner, owns a cafe at the Regional Justice Center with Benzer.

Homeowners expressed concerns about how the ballots were handled.

Richard Noel showed e-mails from out-of-state owners claiming they never received ballots.

Others were confused by ballots that originally had left out one of the candidates.

Some communities are just beginning the recall process.

At Chateau Versailles, homeowner Nick Parino said he wants to start a recall election to remove the three members on his association’s board.

One of the board members appears to have a personal relationship with Benzer, while another is linked through property records to Priola.

The third board member, Nichols, shares a property at Chateau Versailles with a man who used to work for Benzer.

Although Parino said he didn’t know of any wrongdoing that had occurred, the board members’ associations, and the fact that Platinum manages the association, raises suspicions.

“I refer to it as questionable coincidences about these relationships,” Parino said. “But why should we as homeowners deal with them and the management company that has a cloud over them?”

Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at lmower@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0440.

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