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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

Fisher said he and Quinn lost $2 million each in the Terra Ceia deal, and the IRS had tax liens against Fisher for $1 million. Their primary investor, an eccentric Florida businessman named Franklin R. Schachter who made his fortune in a deal with junk-bond king Michael Milken, lost $4 million.

Praise for Fisher

Schachter says he doesn't hold any grudges.

"I see the money I lost in Terra Ceia coming back to me in spades," says Schachter, who adds that he is investing in other Fisher projects, including the Ritz-Carlton in Baltimore. "Mr. Fisher is an amazingly creative man. There is no one I would rather be in business with today than Neil Fisher. He looks out for his investors."

The Terra Ceia loss didn't cramp Fisher's style. He drove a Rolls-Royce and lived with Quinn in a $292,000 gulf-front penthouse outside Sarasota. Basil Petricca, the condo's owner, says they signed a contract to buy the condo but never paid. His lawsuit to compel payment was dismissed.

"Those guys were too smart for me," says the 69-year-old Petricca, now living in Massachusetts. "They're good. They didn't pay me a nickel, and they lived in that condo for a year. I had a good lawyer, but I could never get them to budge."

Fisher dismisses the complaint as unfounded and emphasizes that it went nowhere.

In Maryland, Fisher and Quinn were proposing another grand project. "The Riviera," as they called it, would be a new city along 1.7 miles of the Potomac River in Charles County. Their partner in the deal was James Burch, a developer from Virginia whose past distinctions included owning a Washington go-go bar and running unsuccessfully for U.S. president in 1980.

"I didn't think I was actually going to win," says Burch, now a Free Catholic priest who sells marriage services on the Internet. "It was an effort to get the ideas in front of people."

Burch, badly in debt, needed money, and Fisher gave him a lifeline and a new house. He also sent Burch on a mission to West Africa to discuss a $600 million real estate deal with the king of Morocco that never got off the ground.

Fisher and Burch were also working on two other Maryland projects: a Charles County high-rise called Shipwatch, and a lavish waterfront project named Port America, billed by Burch as the Inner Harbor of Prince George's County. Neither was built, and Burch was successfully sued for $1.5 million in a fraud case involving Port America.

Fraud judgment

Riviera, though, was moving fast.

"WHAT A PLAN!!!!!" a brochure said. "Riviera will be the 21st-century home to more than 15,000 residents, providing more than 30,000 full-time jobs, while offering a unique riverfront resort and shopping environment."

Fisher and Burch never followed through. Instead, they sold the property for $17.5 million in a deal they were accused of keeping secret. When other Riviera investors learned of the sale and demanded their share of the profits, Fisher rebuffed them, investors said. At a lunch with investor Richard Bliss, a Washington lawyer, Fisher refused to budge.

"Sue me," Bliss recalls Fisher as saying, "I like to be sued."

So Bliss and other investors did. "The object of this scheme was simply to abandon development of the project for a quick, no-risk, multimillion dollar profit," the lawsuit alleged. The ensuing legal fight, delayed repeatedly by Fisher and his lawyers, lasted six years.

In 1995, a jury saw it the way the investors did. Fisher and Quinn were found personally liable for fraud and were ordered to pay $1.28 million. Fisher filed for personal bankruptcy a few months later.

To this day, Fisher refuses to pay the judgment. He says he has no assets, earns no paychecks and is careful not to turn a profit.

"That judgment will remain uncollected until I die," says Fisher, who dismisses the jury verdict as unfair and lists the Riviera sale on his resume. "They can string me up, but I'm not going to make any money that I'm going to let them get their hands on."

But none of his financial and legal problems, he says, should preclude him from working on multimillion-dollar properties. Even as a Manhattan law firm -- hired by defrauded Riviera investors -- tries to collect the fraud judgment, Fisher has entered into an array of deals.

In the past two years, his name has cropped up in connection with a botched hotel sale in Orlando, Fla., and two Miami hotel projects overseen by a convicted felon who once had ties to organized crime.

And now, with his past in pursuit, Neil Fisher has arrived in Baltimore.

Tomorrow: Neil Fisher's recent past, from bankruptcy to Baltimore, and how he found his way into the good graces of one of the world's most prestigious hotel chains, the Ritz-Carlton.

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