RIVERVIEW, Fla. - In 2008, with the financial crisis killing Tampa Bay real estate deals, a local broker found Riverview businessman Wayne Farmer.
Farmer was a rare client for the time: An investor willing to pump money into an uncertain residential property market.
But the relationship has since soured for all concerned, with legal questions lingering to this day about how much blame a business owner should shoulder when a subordinate goes astray.
Farmer bought four brand-new townhouses in Riverview at prices ranging from $179,900 to $196,900 in March 2008. As an inducement to make the purchases, Farmer said real estate agents with GN Enterprises LLC, which does business as Keller Williams Tampa Properties, promised to find "traveling nurses" to occupy the units for rents that would be double his mortgage payments.
"It didn't take much calculation to realize that that was some very good cash flow," Farmer told the ABC Action News I-Team. "It seemed very safe. It seemed like a very good investment to me."
Better still, Keller Williams agent Renee D. Manning told Farmer and other investors in what she called her "Cash Flow Club" that a performance bond would guarantee their rental income.
What could go wrong?
"Within about the first 30-45 days, the rent check didn't appear," said Farmer. "I finally got -- after about 60 days -- I got my first rent check."
Same thing with the second check. "Another month went by, another 45 days, and the rents were late again," Farmer said. "That was my first really introduction to who Renee Manning was."
Recalling the spiel about long-term leases with "traveling nurses" needing housing while filling in on local hospital shifts, Farmer said he took a drive over to his townhouses at the Villages of Bloomingdale. "They were empty," he said. "All four were empty."
Farmer then remembered Manning's assurances of a performance bond that would guarantee the rent payments. After more cajoling, Farmer received a copy of a document that looked more like a mutual fund statement than a surety pledge. "You could tell it just didn't look quite right," he said. "I had a very sinking feeling that I got caught up in, y'know, fraud."
A year later, Manning persuaded another group of investors to sink money into a different real estate project. She provided a document suggesting she had a "performance bond" with a "fair market value" of almost $2.8 million. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement later subpoenaed her financial accounts, which had been closed with final balances of just a few thousand dollars each.
Manning, 41, of Odessa, was arrested and charged with organized fraud in 2012. She pleaded no contest and was sentenced to five years in state prison. Manning didn't respond to an I-Team request to be interviewed behind bars.
As part of her sentence, Manning was ordered to repay $700,000 to four of her investors, none of whom was Farmer. Instead, Farmer said he had to sell the townhouses at a loss of almost $500,000, which he is trying to recoup from Manning's boss in court.
Nicola S. Ubaldini, co-owner of GN Enterprises with her husband Gary, has testified that she fired Manning in 2009. Ubaldini stated that Manning, a team leader with Keller Williams Tampa Properties, was caught altering a check.
"Did Renee conduct Cash Flow Club meetings at Keller Williams Tampa Properties offices?" Ubaldini was asked during a 2010 deposition.
"So I'm told," replied Ubaldini, denying she was present for the meetings.
Farmer said he was surprised by the claims of ignorance from Ubaldini, who goes by the first name of Nikki.
"For Nikki not to know that her managing agent was running investment clubs in her offices and to not know what was going on?" Farmer said. "If my employee wants to pursue something, then I'm going to find out the facts, especially if they're using my office."
Closing documents for Farmer's townhouse purchases show GN Enterprises received $17,706 in real estate commissions.
Internal correspondence unearthed during litigation shows Ubaldini was worried about Manning's activities.
"I want all Cash Flow Deals STOPPED!!!!" Ubaldini wrote in a Feb. 4, 2008, email sent to Manning and others. That same day, she added about the lease payment guarantees: "...with regards to the rentals I am very nervous about this. This could put us under!"
Nevertheless, five weeks later, Farmer's townhouse purchases went through.
Along with the nearly half-million-dollar bath he took on the deals, Farmer estimates his legal bills are approaching $100,000. After the I-Team contacted Ubaldini for an interview, which she declined, one of her attorneys offered to settle with Farmer for $80,000.
Another of her attorneys, George A. Vaka of Tampa, told the I-Team that Ubaldini cannot give media
interviews because of the terms of an insurance policy funding her legal defense against Farmer's suit. But Vaka added that Ubaldini is as frustrated as Farmer that the litigation hasn't been settled and suggested her insurer is the stumbling block.
In fact, Vaka disclosed that his client has filed two complaints with state regulators against her own professional liability insurer.
"We will continue our efforts to do all we can reasonably do to assist investors in achieving a meaningful resolution of this situation as expeditiously as is possible," Vaka wrote in a letter to the I-Team.
For Farmer, a resolution cannot come soon enough. "I consider myself a fairly good businessman and to be caught up in something like that," he said. "It's horrible."
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