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Land Scheme Spurs Calls for Probe, Reform

TIMES STAFF WRITER

State and local leaders called Saturday for reform and an investigation of government agencies that took more than a decade to stop a 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 a probe of watchdog agencies and said the county should try to recover cash for the victims of the scheme.

Molina will ask the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to explore suing the developer.

Responding to disclosures in The Times, Molina cited local agencies such as the district attorney’s office and the county Department of Regional Planning, saying they apparently failed to take prompt action to stop sales by the developer’s three companies.

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After years of investigation, Redman was charged last month with seven felonies involving the sale of undeveloped Antelope Valley land to unsophisticated blue-collar Latino families from throughout Southern California. Redman has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer says his problems result from bad legal advice in the 1980s.

Reached at his Wilshire Boulevard high-rise apartment Saturday, Redman responded to The Times’ series with a simple “No comment” before hanging up the telephone.

In the meantime, Redman buyers have been left with questionable titles 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.”

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Among other official reactions to The Times’ 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 of monitoring Redman. Katz said local hearings could be held to explore how to close legal loopholes that allow such sales and examine ways to get 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 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.

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Antonovich said he will offer a motion to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday 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, county counselor and investigators from the county Building and Safety, and Consumer Affairs departments.

* Bishop Gerald R. Barnes of the Roman Catholic diocese of San Bernardino called 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,” he said.

Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Armando X. Ochoa in the past has made visits to Redman customers living in north Los Angeles County to see living conditions firsthand.

* Two Latino legal groups pledged the formation of a panel of attorneys to offer free legal advice to about 1,500 customers who bought property from the developer through unrecorded land sales contracts. As the result of a civil lawsuit filed against Redman in 1994, a court-appointed receiver has been 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.

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* New laws may be needed requiring full public disclosure of land sales contracts, 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 him. “A law such as this would have prohibited the Redman sales,” said department regional manager Randolph Brendia. “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 said a statewide task force is the only way to coordinate government response to land sales 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.

* Los Angeles County prosecutors said additional charges against the developer are being investigated. Kern County prosecutors said they also plan to look into a new company recently launched by Redman that continues selling High Desert land in the Antelope Valley.

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“It concerns us,” said Assistant Dist. Atty. C.M. Starr II, “because there are similarities in the new marketing technique, and the land being sold is so similar [that] 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.

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 as maids and janitors--lost their life savings, authorities said.


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