The grass is a little long at the Brandywine Crossing One Condominiums in Southeast Washington. The outside lighting could use some improving and the common areas would be benefit from having the paint touched up.
Those are all things the HOA would love to do, says president Erica Thomas, but it can't because there's no money.
Thomas and the HOA blame their former property manager Esquire Federal City Management (which also does business as Esquire, LLC and Private Properties) for allegedly emptying their accounts even after the association had stopped doing business with Esquire.
"I have receipts where they were taking money out of the account," says Thomas, who along with other residents provided 7 On Your Side with a copy of their 2010 complaint to the DC Real Estate Commission.
When asked how much they're out, Thomas responded, "more than $145,000 dollars" and as for where the money might be, "we have no idea, we've been trying to find it since we split ways with them. It's not in our bank account."
Brandywine Crossing is not alone. 7 On Your Side obtained a stack of complaints filed with the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) against the company, with homeowners seeking tens of thousands of dollars in damages.
Many of those complaints are from people who own a residence in DC but were working overseas. They hired Esquire - in many cases, according to complaints, doing business as Private Properties - to manage their residences while those homes were rented out during their absences.
For example, a 2010 complaint filed with DC Superior Court alleges "condominium fees had been paid late over fourteen months" causing late fees, "property taxes for 2008 and the first half of 2009 had not been paid," "tenant's checking account had been debited twice; first in May and then in July." The complaint adds, "the tenant's inquiry to Bank of America showed that [Private Properties] had reprinted the check, tampered with it and then tried to cash it." This complaint further claims, "statements incorrectly showed that [the homeowner] was receiving disbursements, when none of that money ended up in her account." This resident claims $47,159.53 in damages.
"When they're done with you, they're done and they are going to empty your bank account," says Jamilah Fagbene, who owns a condo in Brandywine Crossing. She's also a blogger who wrote about her building's dealings with Esquire/Private Properties. She says the owner responded by sending threatening emails, which she's since posted online
"They told me they had general counsel and they were going to come after me, and the association members if I didn't remove the post immediately," says Fagbene.
One email dated March 13, 2010, purportedly from Esquire/Private Properties' President/owner, Bryan Talbott, says, "we are in the process of filing a restraining order" and "you are already in trouble. Put one thing else on your blog and you will find out how much trouble you are in already scared or not."
Tough talk from a business with an F rating with the Better Business Bureau and that was given a Cease and Desist order by DCRA more than two years ago, on April 14, 2009. The order says, "you are operating a property management business in violation of District of Columbia law. Accordingly, you are hereby ORDERED to cease and desist your operation."
But when our 7 On Your Side crew visited the Esquire/Private Properties office on K Street in Northwest Washington it appeared to be business as usual, an employee there refused to answer questions about their business, referring us to the owners Bryan Talbott and Chester Ransom.
Reporter Kris Van Cleave caught up with Talbott outside a home in upper Northwest Washington. When asked about the claims being made against him he said, "Sir, I'm not answering any questionsyou can speak with our lawyer."
We called the lawyer he identified, Tony Miles, a federal public defender, and he refused to say if he was representing Talbott.
DCRA officials tell ABC7 News a dozen complaint cases involving the business were forwarded to U.S. Postal Inspectors. On May 2 agents with the U.S Postal Inspection Service, FBI and IRS served search warrants at Talbott's residence and his K Street office. An employee present when the warrant was served at the office said, "I was just asked questions about what I do here."
Investigators won't say if the complaints prompted the search or what they were looking for. Postal Inspection Service spokeswoman Lori McCallister adds the agency cannot comment on an "ongoing investigation" and deferred to the DC U.S. Attorney's Office.
USAO Spokesman Bill Miller provided a statement to 7 On Your Side saying, "
"The U.S. Attorney's Office typically does not confirm the existence of investigations or discuss matters beyond what is publicly filed in court. As a result, the U.S. Attorney's Office has no comment at this time."
At this point no charges have been filed. 7 On Your Side made multiple attempts to contact Talbott and Ransom. In an email Ransom wrote, "I am not familiar with any past customers with this concern."
Talbott called Van Cleave last week and strongly disputed the claims against him and his business. Our interview offer is still open anytime they'd like to speak to us.
Meantime, the Brandywine Crossing One HOA president says they're struggling to scrape by. "We came to this area with the hope of home ownership, first time home buyers, and this is what happens, your money gets stolen."