Ex-media chiefs admit to buying NY, CA real estate with stolen millions from lenders

A former Newsweek Media co-owner and an ex-CEO of Christian Media both pleaded guilty

Feb.February 14, 2020 03:50 PM
From left: Will Anderson and Etienne Uzac with California and New York skylines (Credit: LinkedIn)
From left: Will Anderson and Etienne Uzac with California and New York skylines (Credit: LinkedIn)

Two former news media top executives pleaded guilty to a scheme in which they fraudulently secured $35 million in loans then used the money to buy land in New York and California.

Etienne Uzac, who was co-owner of Newsweek Media Group and IBT Media; and William Anderson, the former CEO of Christian Media Corporation, admitted to money laundering and fraud charges, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. announced on Friday.

Authorities said the two men took out loans to buy pricey computer equipment, then through a web of corporate bank accounts — and with the help of their companies that were also charged — used most of the funds to buy up land.

The district attorney’s office declined to comment on the real estate involved in the case.

Uzac and Anderson were not immediately available for comment. They will be sentenced on April 20.

The three companies that were named along with the men: IBT Media, Christian Media Corp. and independent equipment vendor Oikos Networks, pleaded guilty this week to their parts in the scheme.

The DA’s investigation into the scheme became public in January 2018 when officials obtained a warrant to seize 18 servers from Newsweek Media Group’s New York City offices.

That October, Uzac tweeted a statement denying the allegations, claiming equipment lenders were repaid and accusing Vance of retribution for an article IBT published about the prosecutor’s handling of sexual assault allegations against disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein is now standing trial in Manhattan, on charges brought by Vance’s office.

Attorney Marc Agnifilo is representing Uzac and in a statement provided to Newsweek, he said while his client “exhibited poor judgment in how he secured certain loans, today’s disposition appropriately reflects that these loans were repaid. Mr. Uzac, who has never been in any legal trouble, looks forward to moving past this difficult chapter.”

Agnifilo did not respond to requests for comment.

Write to Erin Hudson at [email protected]

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Fraudulent transfers. Breach of promissory note. Fraud and concealment. Those are just some of the charges against real estate mogul, Bel Air Church deacon and several-times-convicted felon C. Frederick Wehba, who sold his Beverly Hills mansion last month as part of a settlement with one of the creditors he allegedly tried to dodge. And if yet another creditor has its way, that won’t be the only property the Wehba family is forced to sell. Wehba founded the Los Angeles-based commercial real estate firm BentleyForbes, which made risky bets during the years leading up to the downturn, putting up less than $50 million between 2005 and 2007 to acquire its largest properties, which had a combined price tag of $1.64 billion. Wehba, a prominent Republican donor who has hosted fundraising parties for the likes of Rick Santorum at his lavish homes, had to sell many of those commercial properties at a loss. Reckless borrowing practices seem to have followed him throughout his career, but only recently have the consequences caught up with Wehba. He sold his estate at 1700 Green Acres Drive for almost $12 million in early February and while it looked like a typical deal on the surface, sources familiar with the matter told The Real Deal that he hardly sold it willingly. The sale was pursuant to a settlement with Torrance-based Mitsuwa Corporation, which sold two of its shopping centers in Costa Mesa and Torrance to BentleyForbes. In a 2011 complaint filed in California Superior Court, Los Angeles District and obtained by The Real Deal, Mitsuwa said BentleyForbes sold the retail properties out from underneath them after paying only part of the original purchase price. BentleyForbes, which Wehba co-founded with his son C. Frederick Wehba II, was supposed to pay the rest of the purchase price after closing, but failed to do so, according to Mitsuwa. Instead, Mitsuwa claimed, the Wehbas transferred ownership of the centers to a maze of LLCs, using them as “alter ego” entities to pay out a handful of members of the Wehba family while the debtor on each promissory note defaulted. Because the entities had no assets, Mitsuwa was unable to collect the amounts it was owed, and the Wehbas were able to both profit from the shopping centers and, ultimately, from selling them, according to the complaint. In the April 2015 decision obtained by The Real Deal, Judge William MacLaughlin ruled that the Wehbas, BentleyForbes and the maze of entities under which they conducted business were one and the same, writing that the tangled web allowed “the Wehbas to pay themselves millions of dollars.” The decision meant Mitsuwa could seize the Wehbas’ other assets for repayment. On November 2, 2015, Fred Wehba Sr. signed a second deed of trust — California’s version of a mortgage — on his mansion at 1700 Green Acres Drive. That document said he was obligated to pay Mitsuwa all proceeds of the sale. Days later, a notice obtained by The Real Deal was filed in Superior Court announcing the settlement of the entire case. Now, in a complaint filed in January, another creditor, Key Bank, is citing the decision in the Mitsuwa case to try to put a lien on other properties owned personally by the Wehbas. Key had loaned BentleyForbes a significant amount of money for the lease of a corporate jet. Key alleges breach of contract, among other things, because the Wehbas stopped making their lease payments. The jet was ultimately seized, but not before BentleyForbes wracked up more than $10 million in debt to Key, according to the California complaint. The longtime residence of Fred Wehba Jr., a mansion at 1021 Chevy Chase Drive now owned by a trust associated with his wife Natalia Wehba, might be the next up for sale if Key successfully puts a lien on it, said a source familiar with the matter. Key’s complaint alleges that the Wehbas tried to prevent their property from being used to pay creditors by transferring it out of Fred Wehba Jr.’s name and into a trust that had his wife as sole trustee at a time when BentleyForbes owed Key almost $500,000. The complaint also claims that the Wehba family aided and abetted each other in a conspiracy to cash money out of the sale of their most flamboyant property without paying their creditors. They allegedly funneled money into building a 36,000-square-foot mansion with gold-plated doorknobs, dramatic marble columns and 13 bathrooms at 9577 Sunset Boulevard, where Fred Wehba Sr., known for wearing tailored suits even during casual moments, held weekly bible study classes. After selling it for $34.5 million (about half the asking price) and paying off their mortgage, they “secreted” $10.2 million from the sale, the complaint alleges, and pocketed it without paying off their lenders, including Key. In addition to Fred Wehba Sr., Fred Wehba Jr. and Natalia, family members Cyle Wehba, Chad Wehba, Christian Wehba and Susan Wehba were also named in Key’s suit. Key Bank and Mitsuwa could not be reached for comment. Sources close to the matter say Key will probably succeed in forcing a sale of the Chevy Chase mansion. Those sources also note that Fred Wehba Sr. and Fred Wehba Jr. don’t exactly have a clean track record on financial issues. Fred Sr. was convicted in Oklahoma in 1978 of fraud and in 1997 in Texas for false claims and statements. And in 1994, Fred Jr. admitted to forging the names of his business associates in a sworn declaration as part of a civil complaint in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois. Fred Wehba Sr.’s Texas conviction came into the light in 2007 when he was both donating to and holding fundraising events for Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Fred Wehba Sr. was convicted in 1997 of “fraudulently concealing his interest in his Beverly Hills home.” At the time, he owed money to a failed Texas financial institution, Vernon Savings & Loan. “My feeling is that everybody is not only entitled to make mistakes, but to move past them. And obviously he has, and I commend him for that,” Huckabee said to the Times. It’s unclear if the Wehbas are indeed moving past their mistakes. BentleyForbes has shuttered, but sources said it might be in name only — the company seems to have found new life as another entity. The firm’s managing director Gustavo Boros left to form the multifamily investment firm Metropolitan Equities earlier this year. Boros told The Real Deal in an email that several former executives with BentleyForbes made the transition to Metropolitan. In fact, Boros’ LinkedIn page states his place of employment as “Metropolitan Equities (formerly BentleyForbes).” But Boros said that the former BentleyForbes executives are not principals. As for Fred Wehba Sr., Boros said he has retired from active business life to focus on the work of his personal foundation. However, when The Real Deal called the phone number for BentleyForbes office, a receptionist answered, “Metropolitan Equities,” and took multiple messages for Fred Wehba Sr. He did not, however, return the calls. The Wehba Foundation, which is not listed with the IRS as a charitable organization and which Boros said is private, “exists as an instrument for God’s Earthly works,” according to its website. That apparently includes real estate. “[Assisting] non-profit, church and private organizations in development of real estate strategies for their operations,” is one of its missions.

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