Lawsuit Claims $80 Million Stolen in 1031 Exchange Scheme

More 1031 exchange accommodators are in very hot water.

And millions of dollars that people thought were going to be used for 1031 exchanges are missing.

Last week, Edward Okun and others were indicted in a 1031 exchange intermediary scheme that is alleged to have defauded clients of approximately $132 million.

A class action lawsuit has been filed in the California Superior Court of Santa Barbara County alleging that 130 people from 12 states lost over $80 million that they had placed with Southwest Exchange, Inc. (SWX) and several other 1031 exchange accommodators or qualified intermediaries (QIs).

The QIs are alleged to have been taken over by Donald Kay McGhan and other individuals with the purpose of stealing the money that had been entrusted to them to facilitate tax deferred 1031 exchanges.

The lawsuit claims that a “group of thieves discovered that these Exchange Accommodators were unregulated businesses holding large sums of cash that needed ready access to only a small percentage of the money to operate as going concerns. Pursuant to a conspiracy, these thieves purchased several Exchange Accommodators, gained access to their funds held in trust with the assistance of certain brokerage houses, stole the majority of those funds for personal gain, and caused over $80,000,000 in damages which was exposed when the real estate market finally cooled.”

According to the lawsuit, money held in trust by SWX was funneled to shell companies that Santa Barbara businessman Donald Kay McGhan set up to launder the funds, which were then withdrawn for his and his accomplices’ benefit.

The plaintiffs claim that the exchange accomodators were operated as a ponzi scheme by Donald Kay McGhan and his alleged accomplices.

Because the real estate market was hot in 2004 and 2005, money coming in for new 1031 exchanges could be used to cover funds deposited for previous exchanges that McGhan and his cohorts had already raided.

When the real estate market suddenly cooled at the end of 2005, the number of 1031 transactions declined and not enough money was coming in to cover the embezzled funds, according to the suit.

By April 2006, the scheme began to unravel as SWX faced liquidity problems, the lawsuit states, and by October 2006, approximately $80 million was missing from the trust funds.

The QI defendants in the lawsuit include Southwest Exchange, Inc. (SWX), doing business as Southwest Exchange Corporation and Southwest 1031 Exchange, and Qualified Exchange Services, Inc. (QES).

Individual defendants include Donald Kay McGhan, Jim J. McGhan, Dean A. Koch, Nikki M. Pomeroy, Albert Conton, Peter John Demarigny, Kyleen M. Dawson, and Megan L. Amsler.

Donald Kay McGhan, 73, was the founder, chairman, and president of the McGhan Medical Corporation, maker of silicone breast implants and for many years one of the Santa Barbara’s top employers. McGhan left the company, now called Inamed Aesthetics, in 1998, and the company later settled a fraud suit filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission alleging that McGhan had filed false financial statements that misled investors.  McGhan himself paid a $50,000 fine to the SEC.

Additional corporate defendants include Capital Reef Management Corp., Cennedig LLC, Medicor LTD, International Integrated Industries LLC, Ventana Coast LLC, and Sirius Capital LLC.

The plaintiffs also claim that major financial firms Citigroup, Salomon Smith Barney, and UBS Financial Services participated in the scheme.

There is also an ongoing criminal investigation.

You can see the complaint here.

Our advice:

If you’re planning to do a 1031 exchange, make sure that you perform due diligence in your choice of a QI or exchange accomodator, make sure that the QI is bonded, and make sure that you work with an experienced tax advisor and attorney who can help you navigate the 1031 exchange process. 

And, as we’ve said before, it is imperative that the Federation of Exchange Accomodators (FEA) work more closely with state and federal authorities to establish regulations for QIs that will restore and maintain public confidence.

UPDATE:

A $23 million settlement has been reached with UBS Financial Services, one of the defendants in the plaintiffs’ class action lawsuit.  You can read our post about the settlement here.

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