By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
An alleged land fraud victim yesterday said he would never again seek to acquire Bahamian real estate because the process was “too murky”.
John Brier, who has initiated legal action on behalf of himself and others to recover thousands of dollars purportedly invested in Long Island real estate, called on the Bahamas to follow other countries in moving to a system of registered land.
He also hit out at the Bahamian authorities for failing to take action against the perpetrators of real estate schemes such as the one that has impacted himself and other foreign buyers.
Mr Brier, together with fellow American, Eugene Gridnev, and Irish citizens Mark Murphy and Phila Keane, is alleging that they never received valid title deeds to the properties they allegedly bought.
And, given that the Ministry of Works had provided no subdivision approval, the quartet are claiming that the sales to them are illegal and invalid under the Planning and Subdivisions Act (see other article on Page 1B).
“I would never buy there again or attempt to buy there again because it’s just too murky and people get scammed,” Mr Brier told Tribune Business of the Bahamian real estate market. “When you start seeing people have been scammed out of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s not a good thing.”
He urged the Bahamas to switch to a system of registered land, comparing this nation unfavourably with the Central American country of Panama, where he has also bought and owned property.
“All real estate transactions should go through a clearing house where it is verified, through a central database, that you are buying in a legitimately approved subdivision,” Mr Brier said.
“There has to be some level of trust going forward for real estate buyers in the Bahamas that they are not going to be duped or defrauded.
“Panama has a central registry that is computerised, and where every piece of property is registered with a special identity number.”
This, Mr Brier said, gave all parties in real estate transactions “a level of security”, because even non-attorneys were able to check the status of the subject properties, and see whether there were any attached liens or other impediments to a deal.
In the Bahamas, many observers view the system as a ‘lawyer’s dream’, given that the system is far from user-friendly. Attorneys have to review title chains going back 30 years to determine whether a purchaser has ‘good title’, and even then it can be challenged by stronger competing claims.
Documents are often missing, or not lodged with the Registry of Records, and reform efforts appear to have stalled.
A three-pronged legislative package to create a Land Registry - the Land Adjudication Bill, the Registered Land Bill and the Law of Property Bill - were developed under the former Ingraham administration, but were sent back to the Law Reform Committee and other government agencies for further review, and never heard from since.
Moving to a proper Land Registry - and registration system - would remove the need for attorneys to conduct expensive, time consuming title searches that were sometimes prone to error.
Creating a Bahamas Land Registry, which is what the Registered Land Bill seeks to do, would move the Bahamian real estate and conveyancing market away from one based on “first to record” the title deeds.
It would contain all information relating to a specific parcel of land in one database, including its location, dimensions, ownership interests and all encumbrances, such as mortgages and other liens/charges.
This, in turn, would boost efficiency and reduce issues associated with title problems, giving commercial and residential real estate buyers greater certainty.
“It’s so murky in the Bahamas, and even when you think you’re doing the right thing and using caution, using a US attorney as escrow agent to verify you’re doing it right, you’re not,” Mr Brier told Tribune Business.
He alleged that the title company and attorney who rendered opinions that his Long Island purchase was ‘clean’ were also connected to the vendors, and effectively acting for ‘both sides’ in the deal.
Suggesting that the Bahamian system helped to create “a toxic mix”, Mr Brier told Tribune Business: “It would be good if the Government took some steps to shut this down, and initiated a land process that forces everyone to play by the same rules.
“For the Bahamas, the Government should act responsibly and make sure people are protected from fraud, and that this is shut down.
“I talked to the Attorney General’s Office, spoke to them on the phone. I talked to the Royal Bahamas Police Force, who told me to file a criminal complaint. We did all that, and nothing came of it from the Bahamas’ side,” he added.
“I don’t know how the Bahamas doesn’t come out and do something about Billy Davis and this foolishness. You start adding this up, and it’s in the millions of dollars. He’s a convicted felon, come’s there and nothing’s done about it.”
Mr Davis and his Long Island Investments vehicle, which sold Mr Brier and his fellow buyers their property, have vehemently denied there was any fraud involved, instead accusing their accusers of ‘blackmail’ and ‘extortion’ (see article on Page 1B).
Mr Brier, though, contrasted the Bahamas’ response to that of the US, where he said the likes of the Real Estate and Bar Associations would instantly become involved in addressing a complaint such as this.