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Ritz developer: Grandiose plans rarely realized

History: Neil Fisher proposes building an Inner Harbor luxury hotel. But critics say his grand ideas elsewhere left more lawsuits than buildings.

November 21, 1999|By Michael James and Joe Mathews | Michael James and Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Within a year, the FBI was investigating Universal Mortgage Advisors. Luna, whom Fisher later described as "the best scam artist in the country," was convicted in an intricate scheme in which he made fraudulent loan applications during a failed renovation of Manhattan's Gotham Hotel.

Fisher was not charged and says he cooperated fully with investigators. "Once [Luna] stop-ped paying me, I became disillusioned and I went to the FBI," Fisher says. "I delivered records to the FBI, and then I left."

Just before he left in the summer of 1986, he got a phone call. It was Quinn. He was in a lot of trouble and he needed Fisher's help.

Fisher didn't hesitate. He headed straight for Long Island, where Quinn was waiting in handcuffs after being indicted with Maryland's worst financial charlatan.

Quinn had been working for the previous two years on the biggest real-estate deal of his life -- Gatsby's Landing. It was to be a sprawling waterfront extravaganza in Glen Cove, a rebuilding of what he called Long Island's "Gold Coast."

With 328 luxury condominiums, a golf course and a marina proposed on the land where author F. Scott Fitzgerald and friends romped during the Roaring '20s, Gatsby's was intended for the Long Island rich. Instead, it turned out to be one of the biggest real-estate debacles in New York state history. Among its problems was that the land had been classified as a toxic waste dump.

Quinn's partner and financier on the project was Jeffrey Levitt. At the time Quinn met him, Levitt was in his heyday as the garishly wealthy head of Maryland-based Old Court Savings and Loan.

"Quinn came to me at the time because he was broke and in hock up to his eyeballs," recalls Levitt, now a Florida cigar salesman. "I remember him as being shrewd and well-connected up there. How do you think we got the zoning? It wasn't because I was a nice guy from Baltimore."

It wasn't long before everything came crashing down.

Levitt had been embezzling millions from Old Court depositors, and it touched off an uproar in Maryland. Tens of thousands of depositors staged a run on the banks, and regulators froze more than $9 billion in savings and loan assets throughout the state in a desperate attempt to calm the crisis.

Authorities began paying close attention to Levitt's lavish spending -- including the money he sunk into Quinn's project. Levitt and Quinn were charged in June 1986 with multiple counts of real-estate fraud for filing misleading financial documents in the Gatsby's deal.

Quinn says it all took him by surprise.

"One day I put on the news and saw Jeffrey Levitt and a run on the bank in Maryland," Quinn says. "Then I remembered Neil."

Fisher moved into Quinn's house. "Let's straighten out your life," Quinn recalls Fisher saying.

Levitt convicted

By that time, Levitt had been convicted in Maryland of embezzling $14.7 million from Old Court and was serving a 30-year Maryland prison sentence. He pleaded guilty in the Glen Cove debacle and received a concurrent one- to three-year term.

Quinn pleaded guilty to real-estate securities fraud and to making a false financial statement -- both misdemeanors -- in order to "put the whole thing behind him," says Fisher, who recommended that Quinn take the plea.

Fisher also wrangled Quinn out of his financial troubles -- at the expense of Maryland depositors. Because Quinn had a legally binding partnership with Levitt, he had clout in hanging on to the Gatsby's properties.

Maryland officials, wanting to get their hands on the land so it could be sold and the profits returned to Old Court depositors, were forced to give Quinn a $2.3 million settlement. Fisher negotiated the deal.

"Quinn lucked out by meeting Jeffrey Levitt," says Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, who for more than a decade has overseen efforts by financial sleuths to recoup hundreds of millions that Old Court cost Maryland. "We couldn't get them out of the land without paying the settlement. They made money on it, there's no question about it."

Kaplan says Glen Cove represents one of the two biggest losses Marylanders took in the Old Court era. Of $60 million Levitt sunk in the Glen Cove projects, only about $20 million was recovered.

Fisher vehemently denies he and Quinn profited from Old Court's travails, saying that the settlement only paid Quinn back for a portion of his losses. But in a 1990 legal deposition, he spoke of the settlement being a big financial boost that helped him and Quinn start a company.

"We had done remarkably well," Fisher said, adding that he, Quinn and another partner decided to form a real-estate business "and keep things going because we were doing so well."

The Fisher-Quinn partnership still exists. But in a 1990 legal deposition, he spoke of the settlement being a big financial boost that helped him and Quinn start a company.

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