By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Homeowners at the controversy-plagued Oceania Heights project yesterday said they were “outraged and stunned” after the Bahamas Bar Association’s Disciplinary Tribunal effectively let one of the key players off with a “slap on the wrist”.
Christopher and Jane Bain told Tribune Business they were “depressed” after learning the Tribunal elected to suspend attorney Anthony Thompson for six months, and require him to pay the Bar $750 in costs, over claims he failed to use their monies to pay Stamp Duty as required.
This was despite Tribune Business previously obtaining, and publishing, a letter from Mr Thompson, one of Oceania Heights’ two principals, in which he admits to using $400,000 in funds received from clients - intended to pay Stamp Duty due on sales at the Exuma-based development - to pay the project’s expenses.
“We are outraged by this,” Mr Bain told Tribune Business. “Outraged and depressed. We are stunned by this.
“He gets a slap on the wrist. We are stunned, and wonder what kind of message this sends to foreign investors. He gets a slap on the wrist.
“We were led to believe, and encouraged, to go down this path by the Bahamas Bar Association and seek justice through this channel. We’re bewildered. What kind of justice is this?”
Mr Bain indicated that the couple had ultimately been able to recover the Stamp Duty payment sent to Mr Thompson, but this had done them little good.
He pointed out that they were still among ‘the losers’ in the Oceania Heights debacle, as they effectively own no real estate. This was because the lot they were sold by Mr Thompson and his then-partner, Canadian citizen Howard Obront, was ‘double sold’ - meaning another purchaser had already bought it.
Tribune Business understands that the Bar’s Disciplinary Tribunal also said the Bains would have to initiate a Supreme Court action if they wanted further redress against Mr Thompson.
It is understood that the Bains’ attorney in the Bar hearing, Carol Misiewicz, is trying to arrange a meeting with Deputy Prime Philip Davis over their case. Mr Davis has played the leading government role in attempting to mediate a solution to the Oceania Heights dispute.
A March 22, 2011, letter from Andrew Wells of Graham, Thompson & Co, acting on behalf of the Bar’s Ethics Committee, shows that apart from the Stamp Duty, the Bains had also complained that Mr Thompson failed to divulge that he was also a principal of Oceania Heights when representing them in the purchase.
Mr Thompson was thus representing both sides in the transaction, and Mr Wells said this would only have been acceptable had he disclosed his alleged ‘conflict of interest’ in advance.
Mr Wells also confirmed that the Bar’s Ethics Committee had found Mr Thompson “breached his duties to the [Bains] in failing to apply the funds to the purpose for which they had been entrusted to him, and in failing to get the deeds stamped in June 2005.
“Since the payment of Stamp Duty is a pre-requisite to recording, the implication is that the deeds were also not recorded. This would constitute a further breach of his duties to the [Bains], since it put their interests at risk.
“The failure to pay the Stamp Duty has also resulted in the [Bains] being liable to pay a greater amount of Stamp Duty than that which they would otherwise have had to pay. It also means that additional Stamp Duty is payable by the vendor, but may not be forthcoming.”
The Bar’s Disciplinary Tribunal verdict comes after Tribune Business revealed correspondence that strongly suggests some $400,000 sent to Mr Thompson by Oceania Heights homeowners, to pay the Stamp Duty due to the Public Treasury on their real estate transactions, was instead used to “pay for work done for Oceania”.
In a revealing May 3, 2013, letter to Mr Obront’s Bahamian attorney, Michael Scott, Mr Thompson conceded that a key complaint from several homeowners - that they had paid him money to cover Stamp Duties, which were never passed to the Government - was accurate.
“Part of the conflict relates to the matter of certain sums paid to my firm, which were not applied to the payment of Stamp Duties but were used to pay for work done for Oceania which, at December 2012, was some $400,000,” Mr Thompson wrote.
He added that $385,000 was due to his firm for conveyances it had issued to Oceania Heights investors, but who had never paid their fees.
“The bottom line is that the firm is owed over $800,000, and would like at least $300,000 of this to be paid promptly,” Mr Thompson said.
A November 5, 2013, e-mail sent to Mr Thompson and others by Canadian attorney Stephen Hart, who is Mr Obront’s brother-in-law, proceeded to blame Mr Thompson for the project becoming mired in controversy amid numerous homeowner complaints.
“It was your failure to pass the [title] deeds [to the homeowners] in the first place which is at the source and root of the whole Oceania debacle,” Mr Hart blasted.
“This was done by you despite my repeated requests and warnings from me to you to pass the deeds.”
The main complaints of Oceania Heights homeowners are that they have been unable to obtain title/conveyancing documents to the properties they have bought; there are questions whether more than $880,000 in Stamp Tax they paid has been passed on to the Treasury; Mr Thompson failed to disclose he was also a beneficial owner of Oceania Heights when acting for the buyers in their purchases; the same lots have been sold to different buyers; and the hotel and other promised amenities have not been constructed.
Messrs Thompson and Obront have consistently, and vehemently, denied all the allegations against them.