By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Investors in the controversy-torn Oceania Heights development yesterday expressed “outrage” after this newspaper found that the attorney responsible for their land title woes has launched a business offering solutions to the exact same problems.
Chris Fleming and other property owners at the Exuma-based project told Tribune Business it was “unbelievable” that Nassau-based Anthony Thompson was now promoting his ability to cure the same title defects he inflicted upon them.
Mr Thompson’s new venture, and the manner of its promotion, has once again raised the temperature surrounding Oceania Heights’ continued travails, and drawn further attention to the damage the situation has done to this nation’s reputation among international investors.
Mr Fleming reiterated that it showed “the rule of law does not exist in the Bahamas”, and said of Mr Thompson’s latest business: “You can’t make this up. Only in the Bahamas.”
Tribune Business can reveal that Mr Thompson has created Commercial Services Group, and its subsidiary Land Database, and claims to be able to obtain title deeds “at less cost, less red tape, less time”.
An advertisement, sent out via e-mail blast, is headlined: ‘Stop letting land title issues get you down’ - an especially galling and provocative phrase for Oceania Heights investors.
For this newspaper has repeatedly revealed over the past four years how Mr Thompson left most Oceania Heights investors without good title to their properties, either failing to complete or pass on their conveyancing documents. And, at least twice, he sold the same lot to two different buyers.
And this newspaper also revealed how Mr Thompson admitted, in his own writing, to receiving just over $400,000 in Stamp Duty monies from around 10 clients but failing to pass this on to the Treasury - again creating title problems for purchasers.
Seemingly ignoring past deeds, Mr Thompson’s e-mail advert then asked prospective clients: “Have you been occupying vacant land for many years without title deeds?
“Have you been left to take care of property but the owner never returned?
“Have you lost unrecorded title deeds?
“Have you gotten your share of the family property?
“Do you have other land title issues?”
The ad then helpfully states: “Our experts are well trained to help you get title deeds to the land at less cost, less red tape, less time.
“Your title deed can be registered, and you can pass the land on to your children. However, your claim to ownership of the land must be solid as a rock.
“Put together all relevant papers and other information and come see us at Marron House, Virginia Street.”
The advert says clients will be charged a $250 ‘application service fee’ before, bizarrely, using a title document from the east African nation of Kenya to prove Mr Thompson’s ‘land title curing’ bona fides and ability.
Mr Thompson did not return several Tribune Business messages seeking comment, but checks by this newspaper showed that the phone numbers for Commercial Services Group/Land Database are the same as those for his law firm, Anthony Thompson & Co.
The Marron House, Virginia Street address given for the new business venture is also the same as the law firm’s.
When Tribune Business contacted one of the numbers listed for Commercial Services Group, the lady who answered confirmed this newspaper had called Anthony Thompson & Co’s offices.
After being informed that Mr Thompson was out, Tribune Business asked about Commercial Services Group and Land Database, and was told: “He [Mr Thompson] deals with that.”
The attorney thus appears to have ‘hit the ground running’, following the end to his six-month suspension from practice, after the Bahamas Bar Association’s disciplinary tribunal earlier this year found him guilty of “gross misconduct” in relation to his representation of Oceania Heights purchasers.
After being informed of Mr Thompson’s advert and new business venture, Mr Fleming told Tribune Business: “It’s just unbelievable. I am at a loss for words. I will send it to the Deputy Prime Minister [Philip Davis] and ask once again: Why is this man walking the street?
“I’m outraged by it. It’s unbelievable. You can’t make it up. Only in the Bahamas.”
Mr Fleming said he was under the impression that Mr Thompson had been barred from practicing law for life, although the Bar only gave him a six-month suspension.
Arguing that the Bar Association “should be ashamed of themselves” for effectively giving Mr Thompson a ‘slap on the wrist’, Mr Fleming told Tribune Business: “The real underlying theme for foreign investors is that the rule of law does not exist in the Bahamas.
“It’s clear. It’s clear from their actions.”
The Oceania Heights situation will also likely receive further international attention at the highest levels, as Mr Fleming said he and other homeowners were due to discuss the matter with Robert Ready, Canada’s High Commissioner to the Bahamas, during a conference call today.
Mr Fleming added of Mr Thompson’s advert: “I was stunned. It’s further thrown acid on us after a really poor situation. You can’t make this up.
“If you’re an attorney in the Bahamas, who receives cash to pay Stamp Duty, it seems it’s OK to keep that money.
“But if you’re one of the beautiful, wonderful people in the Bahamas, depending on the Government to provide a better life for you, you are out of luck.”
Mr Fleming’s fellow homeowner, Chris Bain, who was the client on the other side of the Bar’s ruling against Mr Thompson, said he was still waiting to receive good title to his property some nine years after paying the attorney to do the conveyancing work.
“This is a guy who charged me $8,600 to perform the conveyance for my property, but never did,” Mr Bain told Tribune Business. “We paid him in 2005, and now nine years later we don’t have title to our property.”
Mr Bain added that Mr Thompson was now seeking to be a “provider of solutions to problems he has caused; he is now saviour and villain.
“I don’t know how’s allowed to get away with this, He just seems to be insulated from the laws of the Bahamas.”
Suggesting that the Bahamas was more concerned with protecting Mr Thompson than ensuring justice was served, Mr Bain added: “Not only have they circled the waggons, he’s continuing to operate from behind the waggons.
“This is a shameful legacy that has damaged Exuma and the Bahamas, and for whatever reason he’s continuing to operate with immunity.”
And, to add insult to injury, Mr Bain said the Government has to-date refused to refund the $37,000 in real property tax he paid on his property even though he does not legally own it.
He added that Mr Thompson “operates in a country with a government that charged me $37,000 of property tax for land I do not own, and which refuses to refund that money”.
While many Oceania Heights owners now have finally obtained title deeds to their property, their woes - and those of the development - are far from over.
While Messrs Bain and Fleming praised Deputy Prime Minister Philip Davis for successfully getting Mr Thompson to hand over ownership/control of the project to a homeowners association, both said the Government needed to go further and complete the resolution process.
They reiterated that Exuma realtors were directing potential buyers away from Oceania Heights for fear that Mr Thompson’s former partner, Canadian citizen Howard Obront, would return bringing lawsuits.
“The problem we face is that because the Obronts are still at large in the Bahamas, the other realtors won’t even attempt to sell the property for fear they will re-emerge, and there will be all sorts of lawsuits,” Mr Bain told Tribune Business.
“We got all the properties appraised, vastly below what we paid for them. The Government thinks it has done good work, and it has, but it has not completed it, and doesn’t do anything for us and resolve the problems.
“We’ve got everything except a clear road to getting out of this mess. In the absence of this final step, we can’t go forward..... We’re in just as much of a bind today as we were when we first started fighting this in 2009. We still have to get the final yard. We have four flat tyres.”
The Bar’s disciplinary tribunal found that Mr Thompson’s service to the Bains fell “far below acceptable standard” after he failed to inform them he was representing both parties to the deal.
Mr Thompson, the Tribunal’s ruling found, neglected to tell the Bains he was both president, and beneficial owner, of Oceania Heights, the vendor that was selling lot 65 at the development to them.
The ruling, which was obtained by Tribune Business, also found Mr Thompson committed “gross neglect” by failing to pay the necessary Stamp Duty generated by the transaction to the Public Treasury, thus jeopardising the Bains’ ownership of their $400,000 property.
And it also confirmed that Lot 65 had been ‘double sold’ to another buyer, with both they and the Bains receiving real property tax bills for the same land.