Builder In Legal Limbo After 8 Months Of Fraud Investigation

April 14, 1991|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff writer

On Aug. 8, 1989, deputies from the Sheriff's Department swept through the Bel Air office of Adams Homes Inc., seizing computer equipment,business files and company letters.

The items were seized as evidence in an investigation by the department into alleged fraud by LisaSchwartz, general manager of the Bel Air-based modular home builder,a copy of the department's search and seizure warrant shows.

The investigation was prompted by the complaints of several AdamsHomes customers and contractors, who told police they'd been ripped off by the company.

Eight months have passed since the deputies carted off the items from the Adams Homes' office in the Campus Hills Shopping Center. But in that time neither Schwartz nor anyone in her company has been charged with a crime.

The county State's Attorney's Office says the case is still under investigation and that such investigations can take a long time.

But Schwartz said she never hasbeen questioned formally by investigators, and the county State's Attorney's Office has refused to talk to her lawyer about the case.

Schwartz said neither she nor her lawyer has been able to get copies of records the deputies seized. These records, she contends, would prove her innocence. The records are in the hands of the county State'sAttorney and the Sheriff's Department.

She said she waits each day to see whether she is going to be charged and if she can get the records returned to put her business back on its feet.

Meanwhile, Schwartz' business, which she said netted about $40,000 in profits in 1989, has collapsed. She believes her reputation in the county's development community has been ruined, and other personal problems have mounted -- she is separating from her husband and bordering on poverty.

"I don't understand it," Schwartz said. "They can just take your papers indefinitely? They don't want to take the opportunity to listen to the truth?"

"I want to face this," the 29-year-old mother of two girls said. "I want to straighten this out."

Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said it appears that Schwartz' constitutional right to due process may have been violated.

"Clearly, something is wrong. . . . It shouldn't be happening," Comstock-Gay said. "This woman is presumed innocent, yet she is suffering."

The ACLU is not involved with Schwartz' case.

Assistant State's Attorney Diana Brooks, who is handling the case, said it is not unusual for an investigation to take months before charges are filed, particularly in white-collar crime caseswhen large amounts of documents must

be reviewed.

"(This case)is not at a standstill," Brooks said. "It's still in the investigative stage."

The police seizure warrant for Adams Homes is four pages long. It lists letters, bank and bookkeeping records, customers' files and computer disks taken from Adams Homes. As an example of the work hours involved in the investigation, Brooks noted that all of thecomputer disks have to be stored into a computer, printed and then reviewed.

The Schwartz case highlights Harford State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly's call over the last several years for county money to hire a special prosecutor to handle white-collar crime cases. Thoserequests have been turned down.

The special prosecutor is needed because the white-collar cases are time-consuming, and investigators from his office and police departments are often pulled away to handle other cases, Cassilly has said.

Rules for seizing and returning evidence vary across Maryland, said Betty Stemley, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General's Office. She added that there are few guidelines, apart from statutes of limitation, that require action by investigators and prosecutors.

According to the Annotated Code of Maryland, there is a three-year statute of limitation period for theft and fraud cases -- crimes for which Schwartz is under investigation.

Schwartz said her troubles began in 1988, when she began ordering modular homes from Contempri Homes, a firm in Pennsylvania.

Adams Homes was formed by Schwartz' father, Charles Adams, in 1986. Her father has been in the contracting business since the early 1960s.

Schwartz joined Adams Homes in 1987 after leaving Ryland Homes, where she sold modular homes. She became general manager at Adams Homes, handling most of the company's daily operations.

In 1989, Adams Homesbuilt 16 houses, grossed about $960,000 in sales and increased its number of employees to 12, Schwartz said.

She said she began buyinghouses from Contempri Homes, of Scranton, in 1988 to fulfill a contract with the developers of Maxa Woods, a 93-lot subdivision in Aberdeen.

But Schwartz said she found that the quality of the houses by Contempri Homes was poor. She said some houses were damaged during shipping, and key components, including ceilings, were sometimes missing on delivery.

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