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Defense in HOA scheme trial missed its mark

Give credit where it’s due. Leon Benzer’s capable attorneys made a game effort.

But despite recent attempts to have the federal criminal charges against him disrupted, Benzer remains in the cross hairs of the FBI and Department of Justice. That’s no surprise.

Nor is it startling that counterpunches by the defense — allegations of government misconduct and the claim that pretrial press coverage has prevented a fair jury trial in Southern Nevada — missed their mark. They were at best legal long shots. Those shots were fired, I suspect, in part because when the pretrial smoke clears Benzer and his co-defendants figure to be buried under a mountain of damaging facts and the testimony of dozens of credible witnesses — including some former co-conspirators.

Attempting to change the venue of the trial because of adverse publicity was an academic exercise. As any rookie attorney knows, arguments for a change of venue are almost never granted. And lots of investigations and criminal cases have attracted much more pretrial publicity than the HOA scandal.

The defense became particularly prickly over the publication of an Oct. 30 article in the Review-Journal by veteran court reporter Jeff German. Drawing from a court document that was briefly in the public domain, the story revealed a failed attempt by prosecutors and Benzer to cut a deal.

The problem with the defense’s claim of outrageous government action was simple for anyone who has been following the case. With so many defendants charged and so many attorneys appointed to represent them, negotiations were flying like an episode of “Let’s Make a Deal.” Benzer negotiations weren’t much of a secret around the local defense bar, which buzzes like a small-town barber shop during big cases.

More intriguing, at least in my opinion, is the fact the document noted the relationship between Benzer and Joe Bravo, a convicted drug trafficker with a history of mob associations. Bravo’s nephew, friends and associates have already admitted guilt in the HOA case or have been linked to it. To date, 36 people have pleaded guilty. Bravo has not been charged.

Given Bravo’s proximity to Benzer, I certainly can’t blame defense attorneys if they were trying to keep the names out of the newspaper.

When I reported in 2012 Bravo’s close business and personal relationships with local attorneys in a controversial Mexican real estate deal, and noted the felon’s numerous links to the HOA case, I received what can politely be called heated admonishments from longtime members of the defense bar.

They were extremely sensitive about Bravo. You would almost think they were trying to protect him.

With the curtain closing on the pretrial drama, that leaves Benzer, his former attorney Keith Gregory and four other defendants with a February court date and a fraud and corruption trial estimated to last more than a month.

Benzer has often been described as a central figure in the investigation. The former construction company owner’s connections to HOA boards and construction defect lawyers and a slew of crooked cops are undeniable. Unless something else breaks, Benzer will be known as the last man standing.

But if he’s really the creative force behind this complex criminal caper, I’m the king of Burundi.

According to the government’s theory, Benzer stands at the center of a multilevel conspiracy that stretched from condominium complexes, through his Silver Lining Construction office and into the local court system. HOAs were rigged, management companies corrupted, lawsuits larded, and lawyers’ wallets fattened with score after score. Millions were made.

Much of the trouble began after condominium homeowners began complaining of the obvious political fixing going on inside their own HOA boards as far back as 2003. Elements of the conspiracy continued until 2009, according to court documents and defendant admissions.

That leaves Leon Benzer in a deep hole with only so many ways to dig himself out.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

 

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