Nevada – Witness describes payoffs, rigging elections in HOA fraud trial

Las Vegas Review-Journal: Witness describes payoffs, rigging elections in HOA fraud trial
March 2, 2015
By Jeff German

Ralph Priola was a busy man during the height of the massive scheme to take over and defraud Las Vegas-area homeowners associations between 2006 and 2008.

The onetime casino executive and right-hand man of the scheme’s mastermind, former construction company boss Leon Benzer, testified Monday how he paid off lawyers and HOA board members and spearheaded election rigging at more than a half-dozen HOAs targeted in the multimillion-dollar scheme.

Priola, who has pleaded guilty in the scheme with Benzer and 35 other conspirators, testified that dozens of straw buyers and board members were on Benzer’s payroll at the time.

Federal prosecutors showed a jury ledgers kept by Priola that revealed he was paying thousands of dollars a month to the recruited straw buyers and HOA board members, mostly in cash, on Benzer’s behalf to keep the scheme alive.

His efforts, he repeated over and over again on the witness stand, were aimed at packing HOA boards to get Benzer lucrative construction defect contracts. The scheme paid off in a big way at the Vistana HOA, which awarded Benzer’s Silver Lining Construction Company more than $8 million in repair work.

Priola testified that he ended his employment with Benzer after the FBI and Las Vegas police raided Benzer’s operation a various sites across the valley in September 2008.

His testimony came in the second week of the trial of four remaining defendants in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge James Mahan

Among those facing conspiracy and fraud charges are former Benzer lawyer Keith Gregory, who prosecutors say doubled as general counsel for two victim HOAs, Vistana and Sunset Cliffs.

The other defendants are Benzer’s half-sister Edith Gillespie, a ballet teacher who prosecutors say was a straw buyer recruiter in the scheme; Salvatore Ruvolo, who is accused of being a straw buyer and controlled HOA board member at Park Avenue and Chateau Nouveau; and David Ball, a real estate agent Benzer is alleged to have gotten elected to the Chateau Nouveau board.

Defense lawyers contend the four defendants were not part of the scheme and consider themselves victims of Benzer.

When lead Justice Department prosecutor Charles LaBella asked Priola on Monday whether he engaged in election rigging, he responded, “Yes I was, absolutely.” Later, he added, “I manipulated all of them.”

On Friday, Priola’s niece Angela Esparza testified that she helped stuff ballots at HOA elections at Vistana, Park Avenue, Chateau Nouveau and Chateau Versailles in 2007 and 2008.

Priola testified Monday about several other efforts to rig elections, including two failed efforts at Jasmine in 2006 and Mission Pointe in 2008.

The Jasmine takeover attempt was foiled after one of the conspirators, Maria Limon, “outed” the ballot stuffing scheme at an HOA meeting, Priola said. Limon, who had a falling out with Benzer at the time, told the audience one of the people running for a seat on the Jasmine board, the late Arnold Myers, was a paid Benzer plant.

Priola said he later took Myers to Gregory’s office in the hopes of filing a lawsuit against the Jasmine board to get the election back on track.

An attempt to rig an HOA election at Mission Pointe in 2008 was foiled by an undercover FBI sting, Priola testified.

As it turned out, Priola said, he unknowingly paid an undercover FBI informant $20,000 in cash to help him fix the Mission Pointe election. The election was canceled after the 2008 FBI raids.

Priola said at least three lawyers — David Amesbury, Brian Jones and Barry Levinson — were helpful in the election rigging process. He recalled Amesbury and Jones were paid to serve as special election masters and secretly give him access to the ballots.

Amesbury pleaded guilty in the scheme in October 2011, admitting he participated in election rigging at Chateau Nouveau and Pebble Creek. He later committed suicide. Jones in his 2012 guilty plea agreement admitted to helping fix elections at Chateau Nouveau and Vistana.

Earlier Monday, Benzer’s former girlfriend and employee, Marcella Triana, testified that she helped stuff ballots at Park Avenue. She recalled how she was among a “bunch of people” who dropped off fake ballots at Platinum Community Services, the HOA’s community management firm, which was in cahoots with Benzer.

Triana said she also recalled seeing a regular parade of Benzer-controlled HOA board members, known as “politicians” to the conspirators, picking up envelopes of cash at Silver Lining Construction.

She said Benzer and Priola often met with the corrupt HOA members at the company’s office before board meetings to give them instructions on how to vote on matters that affected Benzer.

Under cross-examination from defense lawyer Chris Rasmussen, Triana acknowledged that she told the FBI Benzer bragged to her that he had “special relationships and benefits” with local judges.

Rasmussen did not press her for names, and no judges were charged in the long-running HOA investigation.

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