Heaton adds star attorney to defense team
A federal judge in West Palm Beach last Wednesday agreed to give Vero Beach Hotel and Spa developer George Heaton’s attorneys more time to analyze evidence and prepare a defense to nine felony counts of defrauding and conspiring to defraud four banks – charges carrying 30-year prison sentences and millions in fines, if Heaton and his two co-defendants are convicted.
Also last week, Heaton added a third criminal defense attorney to his team. Top-rated criminal attorney Bruce Zimet of Fort Lauderdale joins two West Palm Beach-based attorneys, Jack Goldberger of Atterbury Goldberger & Weiss, P.A. and David Roth of Roth & Duncan, P.A. on Heaton’s legal team.
Zimet made national headlines in 2012 defending a Jacksonville woman who used Florida’s stand your ground law as a defense for shooting her husband, but more pertinent to the Heaton case, Zimet defended three people in the Daytona area who were eventually convicted in a very complex $10 million mortgage-fraud scheme involving “straw buyers,” no-money-down closings, falsified loan documents and flipping properties.
Goldberger’s cases often cause him to appear on local television news, as he’s one of the go-to lawyers that South Florida billionaires like convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein call when they get into hot water. Among Roth’s many high-profile cases is one that Vero readers might remember, involving two priests (one convicted and the other pled guilty) charged in 2006 with misappropriating $8.7 million in cash from donations to St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church in Delray Beach. Roth also represented and served as media spokesman for former Congressman Mark Foley amid his 2006 sex scandal.
Heaton, his former bookkeeper and the closing agent he used on suspect condominium deals at the Ocean Drive resort are accused of falsifying closing documents and engaging in a scheme whereby Heaton paid buyers back hundreds of thousands of dollars after closings took place, thereby leading banks to believe that down payments and other funds came from buyers when they did not.
Court documents say the nine transactions in question involved the sale of 11 condo-hotel units between 2006 and 2009, as Heaton pre-sold many of the 113 condo units at the hotel during the massive remodel and expansion of the old Doubletree resort into the Vero Beach Hotel. Heaton’s new hotel opened in 2008.
As owner of the hotel and the original owner of most of the units, Heaton – along with his co-defendants – is accused of profiting from these transactions to the tune of more than $11 million, which federal prosecutors want paid back should they succeed in producing a guilty verdict on all counts. Heaton has entered a plea of not guilty on all counts and asked for a jury trial.
Many of the charges center on a transaction for four units – 206, 314, 407 and 414 – sold to a single buyer, Vero Strategic Investments LLC, in February 2009. The total reported sale price for the four units was, according to county property records, $3,735,000. All four of those units were taken back by Iberia (Orion) bank in May 2010 as part of a “certificate for title” arrangement, in lieu of foreclosure, according to property records.
All of the units have since been resold after the bank held onto them for two to six years as the real estate market recovered. The LLC traces back to the home address of Heaton’s Live Oak Title closing agent, Eric Granitur, on Greytwig Road in Central Beach, but the principal name listed with the State of Florida on the inactive Vero Strategic Investments LLC is another man’s name, referred to in court paperwork as “S.M.”
Court papers describe the convoluted transactions, saying Heaton and coconspirators concealed incentives from Orion Bank to obtain a 30-year, $2.8 million loan for a buyer, and also took money out of the loan proceeds.
The other charges involve the sale of multiple units from Heaton to his longtime bookkeeper, Deborah Dentry Baggett, who now lives in Tennessee. Baggett purchased several units via at least three different Limited Liability Corporations, and sold some of them, but still owns several of the units under various LLC company names with her mailing address in Greenville.
Prosecutors also allege that Baggett entered at least two clients’ personal and financial information, and “purported signatures” on loan applications and other documents, without their knowledge.
Heaton Companies boasts a huge portfolio of projects all over the United States, from hotels and restaurants to housing communities. His Florida ventures run the length of the state, from Tallahassee to Sanibel Island to Islamorada in the Florida Keys, along with the Old Oak Lane development in Vero’s Central Beach on the site of the former St. Edwards Lower School.
With Heaton’s extensive interests in other real estate ventures involving buyers, sources close to the case say investigators are now looking at the way real estate transactions were handled at Heaton’s current and recent development projects, to see if he or his network of associates borrowed from the pattern of buyer incentives alleged on the Vero condo-hotel sales.