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Jury: Real estate execs Bales, Spencer not guilty of fraud

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SOUTH BEND — John M. Bales lifted his crossed hands to his face and began to cry Thursday evening as a federal judge read the same jury verdict on each of 13 fraud counts against the real estate broker and his partner: Not guilty.

Sighs of relief turned to sobs among family and friends of Bales and William E. Spencer as U.S. District Judge Robert L. Miller Jr. read the jury's verdict, reached after eight hours of deliberation ended about 5:30 p.m.

As the jurors filed out, a tearful Spencer looked toward the group and mouthed, "Thank you."

Bales also thanked the jury of seven men and five women in a statement sent via his attorneys.

"Few things have brought more pride than the small part I played in helping the children in need," Bales wrote, referring to his role in finding office space for Indiana's Department of Child Services. "I won't let this legal ambush change that. I did not deserve this nightmare and pray that no other citizen suffers what I experienced."

Spencer's attorney, Bernard Pylitt, said in a statement that the evidence was clear Spencer violated no laws.

"It has been a difficult few years for the entire Spencer family," Pylitt wrote. "Shame on the federal government for the harm that this indictment and trial caused."

The jury's verdict followed an eight-day trial in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana that included testimony from several Indianpolis power brokers and repeated references to a federal investigation that targets former Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi.

Bales and Spencer, both 45 and principals in Venture Real Estate Services, were facing 13 felony counts, including wire, mail and bank fraud. Indianapolis attorney Paul J. Page, who was also charged, agreed in January to plead guilty to one count of wire fraud in exchange for cooperating with federal prosecutors.

The prosecutor on the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jesse M. Barrett, declined to comment after the judge read the ruling Thursday.

The government said Bales and Spencer provided a down payment so Page could buy a building in Elkhart to lease to the state's Department of Child Services, without disclosing Venture's involvement to the state. The government said the deal violated an agreement between Venture and the state that barred the company from direct or indirect ownership of properties where state agencies leased space. But the defense argued the arrangement amounted to a loan.

The defense argued there were no victims in the Elkhart deal, no loss and no intent to defraud: The state wound up leasing the building it wanted, and the bank loan on the property is current and paid. The defense attorneys argued the arrangement was Venture's way of helping the state close a difficult lease deal and help DCS escape a crime-plagued former office.

"This is no scheme to defraud the state of Indiana," defense attorney Larry A. Mackey argued in his opening statement Jan. 28. "This was a scheme, frankly, to help."

The government disagreed: "Bales and Spencer decided to make extra money on a state deal, even though they're not allowed to, and then they hid it," Barrett said in his own opening statement.

The government argued that a fraud scheme led by Bales began to unravel in July 2009 when Page withdrew about $50,000 from a bank account that collected rent payments from a state-leased office building in Elkhart.

On paper, that wasn’t a problem, since Page controlled the company, L&BAB LLC, which owned the building. Page had taken out a loan from Huntington Bank to buy the property in 2008, and the Department of Child Services moved in shortly thereafter.

But the bank withdrawal was an urgent concern for Bales and his partners at Venture Real Estate Services. The broker believed the move violated an unrecorded mortgage agreement: A Bales-controlled company called BAB Equity LLC had secretly given Page his $362,000 down payment in exchange for 25 percent of any profits. The bank was told Page would be the 100-percent owner.

The principals at Venture felt that to protect their investment they had no choice but to reveal the partnership with a state landlord, so the company hurriedly placed a back-dated mortgage on the property.

“We are about to be outed like it or not,” Bales deputy Greg Rankin wrote in an e-mail federal prosecutors had hoped to introduce as evidence in their case.

Judge Miller ultimately ruled that Rankin emails and others from fellow Venture principal Wendy Michael could not be admitted since the government had not met its burden in showing that Rankin and Michael were co-conspirators with Bales and Spencer.

The ruling was a big victory for the defense, but it didn't stop the government from introducing more than a dozen other documents it claimed demonstrated a cover-up.

Barrett wrapped his closing arguments Wednesday by showing the jury poster-size versions of financial statements from Bales and Spencer. The men had submitted the statements to another bank as they considered whether to buy the Elkhart building outright from Page in the summer of 2009.

The transaction, which never materialized, would have been an unequivocal violation of Venture's agreement with the state.

But Barrett told the jury they should focus on the way Bales and Spencer categorized their interest in BAB Equity: Both put it under categories that included other real estate assets. Bales pegged the value of his stake at $290,000, and Spencer said his was worth $51,350.

Witnesses for the government included former Indiana Department of Administration commissioners Carrie Henderson and Mark Everson, state leasing director Steve Harless and former Indianapolis deputy mayor Michael Huber.

Matthew Dyer, Venture's former controller, said he disagreed with Bales and Spencer that the company's involvement in the Elkhart deal amounted to a loan.

"Equity means ownership," Dyer testified. "If it was truly a loan, I would have called it BAB Loan or BAB Mortgage."

The prosecution ended its case with a full day of testimony from FBI Special Agent Brian Percival that included several references to Brizzi, though the parties carefully avoided any reference to his position as a public servant in front of the jury.

The defense led off its case with testimony from former Department of Child Services Director James W. Payne, a long-time juvenile judge in Marion County.

Payne told the jury that Venture did a good job for DCS, delivering on a promise to find office space in Elkhart better suited for the agency's staff and children they serve.

To catch up on all of IBJ's coverage on the Bales trial and Elkhart deal, click here.

The IBJ is a sister publication of Indiana Lawyer.
 

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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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