By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A bitter $1m legal battle has erupted between the developer of a controversial Harbour Island marina and its former project manager who has a history of convictions and run-ins with law enforcement.
Bernard Ross, previously described as the “local representative” for the multi-million dollar Briland Residences & Marina project, is alleging that Michael Wiener and his company, 4M Harbour Island Ltd, reneged on making a $500,000 payment that was agreed as part of a deal that would see him exit all involvement with the development.
In a lawsuit filed with the central California federal court on Friday, Mr Ross is alleging that he has “suffered at least $1m in damages” on the basis that Mr Wiener is unlikely to make the next $500,000 installment payment that is due on January 17, 2019.
The document, which has been obtained by Tribune Business, claims that Mr Ross - who was convicted of heroin possession in the US in 1976, serving a prison sentence - was contractually due a share of the Harbour Island development’s profits under a 2017 deal struck with Mr Wiener.
“On June 1, 2017, plaintiffs and defendant 4M and Mr Wiener] entered into a contract regarding the development of real property then known as Harbour Island Marina, The Bahamas,” Mr Ross alleged.
“Under this agreement, plaintiffs worked under the direction of defendant regarding the planning, financing and development for the project. In exchange, defendant would pay plaintiff a substantial monthly payment plus a percentage share of the project’s net profits with the plaintiff.”
The lawsuit, which names Mr Ross’s wife, Holly, and two Delaware companies they seemingly control as co-plaintiffs, then claimed: “In May 2019, defendant sought to terminate the development contract and the parties disagreed about whether defendant properly terminated the development agreement, and about the amount of compensation defendant owed to plaintiffs.
The two sides reached “a settlement agreement and release” on June 10, 2019, with Mr Ross alleging: “To avoid litigation and obtain immediate payment, plaintiffs agreed to settle the matter at a substantial discount from what defendant owed them under the development agreement.”
The deal purportedly involved Mr Wiener making a series of payments to Mr Ross and his wife in return for them “vacating certain property in The Bahamas”. While the first payment on June 17, 2019, was made, the second $500,000 installment - due on October 17 - was not forthcoming despite Mr Ross’s attorneys writing to Mr Wiener on October 31 to demand it be handed over by November 6.
Claiming that no response was received, and that he and his wife had performed their side of the agreement, Mr Ross claimed: “Despite plaintiffs’ demand for payment, 4M breached the settlement agreement by failing to pay them the $500,000 payment by October 17, 2019. Plaintiffs also anticipate that 4M will not make the $500,000 payment by January 17, 2020.
“As a direct result of 4M’s breaches and anticipated breaches, plaintiffs have suffered at least $1m in damages, the exact amount of which will be proven at trial, plus reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in enforcing the settlement agreement.”
The lawsuit described 4M as the “alter ego” of Mr Wiener, and claimed he had “controlled, dominated, managed and operated 4M as his alter ego to suit his convenience; used 4M funds and assets for his own personal use; disregarded legal formalities; used 4M as a mere shell, instrumentality or conduit for himself; manipulated the assets and liabilities so as to concentrate the liabilities in 4M and the assets in himself; and used 4M to shield against personal obligations”.
Mr Wiener, via a spokesperson, declined to comment when contacted by Tribune Business about the lawsuit yesterday. However, this newspaper understands that the developer had explained to Mr Ross prior to the October payment data that he was withholding the second installment on the basis that the former project manager had left more work undone than previously thought.
It is unclear whether Mr Wiener now regrets his involvement with Mr Ross, who he previously said he had hired based on his personal moral principals of “forgiveness and second chances.”
The Tribune previously revealed Mr Ross’s colourful past in April this year, including how he escaped from police custody in 1976 - the same year he was charged and convicted of heroin possession.
Mr Ross was sentenced to five years for heroin possession, five years for violating his probation, and five years for escaping prison. The sentences were to run concurrently, but he only ultimately spent 11 months in prison.
He has legally changed his name at least twice. He changed his last name from Doelling to Ross in 1986, before filing a petition to change his name from Gary Ross to Bernard Ross in 2016. Yet despite this background the Immigration Department gave him a work permit that was valid from March 2018 to March 2020.
One source, speaking on condition of anonymity yesterday, suggested that Mr Ross’s lawsuit was merely a pressure tactic designed to force the developer to pay up. “He’s [Mr Wiener] paying the price for having put his faith in the guy in the first instance, and saying we were aware of all this before but are going to give him a second chance,” they said.
“You put faith in the fella, give him a chance and he’s trying to bit the hand that feeds him.” Mr Wiener, when challenged about Mr Ross’ involvement by The Tribune earlier this year, said: “The project has not been put into Mr Ross’ hands. He is my local representative, but I am involved with the development on a daily basis.
“I am the only authorised legal representative and surrounded by the best talent in their fields (legal, construction management, general contractor, civil engineer, etc), all of whom are Bahamian with one exception.... Specifically, in reference to the employment of Mr Ross, this was a decision I made in furtherance of my own values, which includes the principles of forgiveness and second chances.”
A government representative said then that the Bahamas Investment Authority (BIA) was aware of Mr Ross’ record because Mr Wiener was open about it. The Government was satisfied with the developer’s assurances, the source said.
4M’s Briland Residences & Marina project has itself been subject to Judicial Review challenge in the Bahamian Supreme Court by rival Harbour Island hotelier, Benjamin Simmons, and Briland Island Responsible Development.
Both sides have agreed that the site plan approval previously granted for the project should be quashed due to confusion over which planning law applies. Justice Diane Stewart now has to determine whether it is the Town Planning Act or the Planning and Subdivisions Act.