Probe, Reform Urged in Desert Land Sales
State and local leaders called Saturday for reform and an investigation of government agencies that took more than a decade to stop an alleged land sales scheme targeting thousands of low-income Latinos.
Expressing outrage over developer Marshall Redman’s high desert land sales, Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina called for an investigation of watchdog agencies and said the county should to try to recover cash for the victims of the alleged fraud.
Molina will ask the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to explore suing the developer.
Responding to disclosures in The Times, Molina cited such local agencies as the district attorney’s office and the county’s Department of Regional Planning that, she said, apparently failed to take prompt action to stop sales by the developer’s three companies.
Following years of investigation, Redman was charged last month with seven felonies for the sale of undeveloped Antelope Valley land to blue-collar Latino families from throughout Southern California. The developer has pleaded not guilty and his lawyer says his problems result from bad legal advice in the 1980s.
In the meantime, Redman buyers have been left with questionable title to land and broken promises about suburban amenities, prosecutors say. And up to 250 who moved to plots 100 miles north of Los Angeles live in Third World conditions without utilities, authorities say.
“I’m just crushed by how the county allowed this man to take advantage of these Latinos,” Molina said. “If we were as inept as we seem to be, the county certainly has a real duty to these families. We have to do our part on making good on this unbelievable amount of fraud.”
Among other official reactions to the two-day series, which ended Saturday:
* Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) called for an investigation into state and local agencies that were charged with the responsibility to monitor Redman. He said local hearings could even be held to explore how to close legal loopholes that allow such sales and examine ways to get the government, in particular the state Department of Real Estate, to fulfill its watchdog role.
“We want answers,” he said. “We want to know why weren’t our agencies on top of this. Who dropped the ball? And why?”
* Supervisor Mike Antonovich on Saturday criticized the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, questioning whether it should have been the lead agency in investigating the Redman sales, rather than the city attorney’s office.
Antonovich said he will offer a motion Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors to establish a local task force to “provide an early warning system to reveal these types of fraud.” The task force would be composed of the state Department of Real Estate, the district attorney’s office, the county counsel, and investigators from the county building and safety and consumer affairs departments.
* Bishop Gerald R. Barnes of the Diocese of San Bernardino called Saturday for a community response to assist Redman customers, and said he would ask Catholic Charities to investigate how it could help. “The suffering that this alleged scam has caused is a wake-up call for the church to make a greater effort to advise and help protect the poor--particularly those who do not understand English--from the outreaches of greed and illicit business practices.”
Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Armando X. Ochoa in the past has made visits to Redman customers living in north Los Angeles County.
* Two Latino legal groups pledged formation of a panel of attorneys to offer free legal advice to about 1,500 customers who bought land from the developer through unrecorded land sale contracts. As the result of a civil lawsuit filed against Redman in 1994, a court-appointed receiver was named to untangle land titles and recoup money paid by Redman buyers. But as part of the subsequent court settlement, customers must pay for their own legal advice.
* New laws may be needed requiring full public disclosure of land sales contracts, such as those used by Redman, according to a top official of the state Department of Real Estate. The agency revoked Redman’s license to sell real estate in 1973, but the action failed to stop the developer. “A law such as this would have prohibited the Redman sales,” DRE regional manager Randolph Brendia said. “I’m just not sure we have the manpower to police such a law. But we’ll look into it.”
* A local criminal justice professor says a statewide task force is the only way to effectively galvanize diverse agencies to coordinate government response to alleged land sale schemes that cross local jurisdictional boundaries.
“This way the crook doesn’t have opportunity to move from jurisdiction to jurisdiction,” said Laurie Levenson, associate dean of Loyola Law School and a former federal prosecutor.
* Los Angeles County prosecutors said additional charges against the developer are being investigated. Kern County prosecutors said Saturday they also plan to look into a new company recently launched by Redman that continues selling high desert land in the Antelope Valley.
“It concerns us,” Assistant Dist. Atty. C.M. “Bud” Starr II said, “because there are similarities in the new marketing technique, and the land being sold is so similar, we need to look at it closely.”
Between 1978 and 1994, authorities allege, Redman sold raw desert land in Los Angeles, Kern and San Bernardino counties for prices ranging from $29,900 to $49,000. The estimated $20-million sales program allowed Redman a fast-lane lifestyle that included a home in Beverly Hills and a Paris condominium.
Prosecutors say some of the land sold was zoned exclusively for commercial use. Other customers were sold illegally subdivided plots or land the developer did not own. Many Redman buyers--employed in such jobs as maids and janitors--lost their life savings, authorities said.
Reached by phone Saturday at his Wilshire Boulevard high-rise apartment, Redman’s response to the series by The Times was simply “no comment.”
Southern California decision-makers Saturday were outraged.
“I was appalled how this happened, at how inept we’ve been as government watchdogs,” Molina said. “These victims were people who worked so hard to buy these parcels and they are owed a tremendous amount from us as a county.”
Molina said she would also ask the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to investigate how numerous Redman customers in north Los Angeles County have been denied water services because they cannot prove ownership of their land.
In the meantime, Molina has already contacted officials from the county Department of Regional Planning about their ineffective efforts to oversee the developer.
“I’ve talked to them and so far their answers have not been very good,” she said of planning officials. “There seems to have been a lot of buck-passing. Answers like, ‘We only did this and this is our area of control.’ Honestly, they weren’t demonstrating profiles in courage or very much leadership.”
Assemblyman Katz says he will start looking for answers from every agency that ever tracked Redman.
“Were these people overlooked because they were poor and didn’t speak English well? Is that why nobody took complaints seriously? I want to know. Because I find it outrageous that this guy was allowed to rip these people off for so long and no one treated it seriously.
“If this had been West L.A., people would have been screaming bloody murder.”
Katz says he will begin with the state Department of Real Estate.
“We want to find out whether this was a failure of people or a failure of the system,” he said. “If it was people, then why weren’t they doing their job? If it was the system, we want to close the loopholes. Beginning with the DRE.”
Michael Carroll, head of the Major Fraud Unit of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, appealed to Redman buyers to come forward and said further charges against the developer would be investigated.
“When there is this kind of exposure of a white-collar criminal, with a newspaper series of this depth, we get a lot of phone calls and that leads to more inquiries,” he said. “We will look at any information that comes our way and seek restitution for people who we find were victimized.”
Meanwhile, officials from both the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and the Mexican American Bar Assn. of Los Angeles County said they would form a panel of lawyers with real estate expertise to assist Redman buyers free of charge.
Antonia Hernandez, president and general counsel for MALDEF, said she will also call for hearings on the government’s “inept reaction” to the Redman sales and is considering filing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the developer’s customers.
“We want to meet with the heads of these agencies and the political entities that fund them,” she said. “There are a lot of ways that one can keep the issue in the public eye. We need to publicize how this guy is continuing to do business and hold these agencies to do their jobs. We’ll do whatever it takes to get a response.”
She said a class-action suit would send a message to Redman and the government.
“I really think this fellow needs to be sued, to be dealt with in the only way he understands--and that’s monetary damages.”
On Friday, real estate experts expressed doubt over the DRE proposal to require public filing of land sale contracts.
“It would just be junk in space,” said Marvin Starr, a nationally known lawyer specializing in real estate law who in court documents called the Redman case the worst real estate scam he has seen in 30 years.
“It wouldn’t do anything to stop people like Marshall Redman,” Starr said in an interview. “If you don’t do it, what’s the penalty? You’d just have a bunch of law-abiding people recording contracts. But the ones they want to monitor, what would they care? They’d just ignore that law like they do all the others.”
After revoking Redman’s real estate license in 1973, DRE officials this week said they were surprised to learn that Redman was again selling Antelope Valley land again under a new company, Bella Vista Land Co.
“I would be amazed if he doesn’t [continue] this kind of thing until he goes to jail,” DRE official Brendia said. “This is just too lucrative a scam. Would you stop? The only thing that’s going to stop Marshall Redman is to put him in a cell somewhere.”