After so much time, vitriol and expense, it would be nice to think there’s a lesson concealed somewhere in the rubble of the civil fraud case that pitted a relentless widow against the son of a governor.
Donna Ruthe spent nearly a decade accusing former Aspen Financial Services owner Jeffrey Guinn of defrauding her late husband Charles Ruthe and others of millions of dollars in what her formidable attorney Dennis Prince described as an enormous Ponzi scheme. Guinn’s fortunes rose with the Southern Nevada building boom and crashed in the Great Recession. The eldest son of Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn eventually filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation. Ruthe spent more than $3.5 million to fund her legal battle and eventually forced Guinn to defend himself in a 14-day trial in 2016 before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Gary Spraker.
In a meticulous 115-page decision entered March 31, Spraker found that Guinn had not, as alleged, engaged in a “systematic pattern of fraud.” In other words, no Ponzi scheme. The judge did, however, determine that Guinn had “fraudulently concealed information” from the plaintiffs on four of the 26 contested loans in question before the court. Among his failures to disclose were instances in which he played the role of loan broker and borrower, which is nice work if you can get it.
For that the judge awarded the plaintiffs $800,000 with the possibility of further recovery of court costs, but gave both parties something with which to salve their wounds.
“Plaintiffs reaped the rewards of these investments for a number of years, but problems emerged when real property values plummeted,” he wrote. “Guinn is not blameless here. However, the court finds that there was no overarching fraud.”
I’m not sure it’s anything he’d want printed on a T-shirt, but “no overarching fraud” must sound like a victory to Guinn after limping away from one of the larger financial collapses in recent Nevada history. The judge also noted that none of the 105 successful loans the Ruthes enjoyed in the good years were in question by the court.
Which leads us back to that teachable moment. I’m not sure if I can find one, but I’m naïve enough to try.
Back at the dawn of the new century when Las Vegas was recession proof, investors hungry for high returns paraded through the doors of local hard-money brokers, who advertised 11-percent interest rates and more for those willing to put up cash to fund construction loans in rip-roaring Southern Nevada. At Aspen, Guinn enjoyed the great advantage of being the son of a popular governor.
I long ago lost count of how many times an Aspen investor expressed to me the supreme confidence in the security of their money because it was in the hands of the governor’s son. Those people stopped talking like that around 2007. These days, they don’t return my calls.
Like many successful first- and second-trust deed lenders in a boomtown, Aspen packaged loans worth millions at break-neck speed, reaping a percentage of every deal. Some deals were done before the disclosure statements were signed, as required by state law, but no one seemed too worried in the champagne days.
“First, Guinn ran Aspen loosely,” Spraker wrote in a moment of priceless understatement. “He relied on appreciating land values to justify Aspen’s hard money loans to local contractors. This worked until 2007, when real property stopped appreciating, and instead depreciated precipitously. By this time, the regular stream of payments Plaintiffs had received from their prior Aspen loans desensitized them to the considerable risk involved in financing hard money loans.”
Desensitized? After collecting several years of 11-percent interest, some investors were practically besotted by all that easy money.
Aspen’s troubling facts aside, the history of the hard-money brokering business is riddled with scandal. The pattern is predictable: Big promises, big interest, big profits, big surprise at the end. The only thing that isn’t big is the scrutiny of the Nevada Mortgage Lending Division, the understaffed rubber stamp that managed to suspend Guinn’s license after he declared bankruptcy in 2013. Talk about a rocking horse cavalry.
Then again, in fairness, what lowly state government functionary would want to go after the son of a governor?
The Ruthes weren’t just well-heeled investors, they were consummate insiders, friends of Governor Kenny, supporters, pals. Then they took a beating like almost everyone else in the game.
That’s the problem with lawsuits that last a decade. At their heart, they’re not about business. They’re personal.
And there’s the other side. It’s easy to write off the misfortunes of the wealthy to arrogance, greed and their own tough luck — we should all have such money troubles, right? — but there’s something about Ruthe’s relentless pursuit that transcended dollars and cents. Her husband, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease and died before the case went to trial, made her promise to press on to the bitter end. She did that and received as many lumps to her reputation as she dished out.
It’s also true that many of Aspen’s jilted investors weren’t wealthy. They lacked the resources to fund a protracted litigation. They watched the case from ringside as it ground its way through the justice system and into bankruptcy court, which by design favors the debtor.
In an interview after the decision was made public, Ruthe said she’d heard from many Aspen investors thanking her for staying the course. Although relieved to end the legal ordeal, her resolve remained stony.
“I am telling you in my heart and soul I can go to sleep at night knowing I did the right thing,” she said. “... If you’re asking me whether I’d do it again knowing what I know now, yes, I would do it. Absolutely. He had a shield around him that the everyday person didn’t have. There was an extreme abuse of power going on. I regret nothing.”
Pausing, she added, “I regret my husband wasn’t here to see it.”
Noting that the judge had found a determination of fraudulent concealment using a high standard of evidence, Prince predicted his client would hound Guinn for every dollar owed: “This isn’t over for him.”
“We take a lot of pride in the outcome of this case,” Prince added. “It was a good win. … There’s accountability. We didn’t get the full accounting money-wise, but we got accountability for fraudulent behavior.”
Will it change the industry? Prince doesn’t think so. There are plenty of laws on the books. With marginal scrutiny, and most sanctions coming far after the fact, it’s business as usual in the Nevada hard-money brokering business.
Don’t believe me?
Neither charged with nor convicted of a crime, Guinn has survived his own ordeal and returned to business, too, as the chief executive officer of Battle Born Capital.
Guinn declined comment, but his biography on his company website gives his perspective on his Aspen experience:
Jeff Guinn, CEO, is a long-time Nevadan with deep family and business roots in the state he proudly calls home. Guinn is one of the true innovators and entrepreneurs of the hard money lending industry in Nevada, having grown his previous firm, Aspen Financial, to one of the largest hard money lending companies in the state. However size is nothing without quality: Aspen also received the highest marks awarded by the Nevada Mortgage Lending Division for the fourteen years of its operation. From that legacy and with the important lessons of the Great Recession, Jeff has sought to build Battle Born Capital into the highest quality and most trustworthy hard money lender in Nevada.
We began by wondering whether there was a lesson to be learned from the vicious clash between Ruthe and Guinn.
And now you have your answer.
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith