Vini Vidi Vito
Vito Simone came to Baltimore, saw opportunity, and conjured a real estate fantasy
In the fall of 2005, Herb Friedman discovered that his two-bedroom condo in Baltimore County, just over the city line west of Falls Road, was worth $135,000, triple what he had paid in 2000. He decided to make some money.
"I said, that's it," he recalls. "No more of this stock market shit. I'm going into real estate."
At age 72, living on Social Security and a small pension totaling less than $30,000 annually, Friedman did not have grand ambitions. He dreamed of moving back to New Orleans, where he grew up. He planned to make enough money for a down payment on a three- or four-unit apartment building, live in one unit and collect rent on the others, maybe get back into sailing.
Friedman played bridge at the Bridge Club of Baltimore on Bedford Avenue in Pikesville. Across the street from the Bridge Club sat the office of Simone Real Estate, one of about a half dozen businesses owned and operated by Vito Simone.
"He impressed me with his competence," Friedman says. "He impressed me with his honesty. He showed me a property, and I bought it."
Simone was indeed impressive in late 2005. He was a board member of Live Baltimore, the city-funded non-profit neighborhood marketing effort; vice-chairman of the Maryland Association of Realtors Housing Affordability Committee, a listing broker for the city's vaunted SCOPE--Selling City-Owned Properties Efficiently--program; a member of the federally-funded Flipping and Predatory Lending Task Force; and a board member and treasurer of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors (GBBR), which claims to be the nation's oldest real estate board. In 2008, Simone would be elected president of the nearly 5,000-member GBBR--a largely ceremonial, volunteer position that is nonetheless prestigious. In sum, Vito Simone projected an image of established, ethical professionalism. Signs advertising Simone Real Estate draped buildings from Washington Village to Patterson Park to Reservoir Hill.
Herb Friedman thought he was in good hands. He no longer thinks so.
Today, the Simones are bankrupt, owing more than $3.9 million to friends, banks, contractors, customers, and even the estate of an elderly gentleman Vito befriended.
Herb Friedman, his investment property pending short sale, owes more money than his modest condo is worth. "I'm going to die paying interest only unless I can get the bank to change it," he says.
At a glance, the story of Friedman and Simone mirrors the story of real estate across the country. There was a bubble; people made bad investments, disputes arose with contractors, time and money slipped away. In the ordinary telling, blame is apportioned relatively equally, with maybe a bit extra piled on the lenders and their agents who approved monstrous adjustable-rate mortgages for people with small or unsteady incomes.
But an examination of Herb Friedman's deal, and the tangle of other rehabs, developments, loans, lawsuits, and sales with which it competed for Vito Simone's attention, suggests a different hierarchy of responsibility. And a survey of Simone's career raises uncomfortable questions about the professional standards of the real estate industry--both during the bubble and today.
As a realtor, Vito Simone was ethically bound to serve his clients. When acting as a "buyer's agent," as he did for Friedman, he was supposed to tell them whether a given property was worth the asking price, and whether a rehab project made financial sense. But as a broker, builder, and developer, Vito Simone's economic interest lay with ever higher home prices for everybody, everywhere. And he collected money at nearly every stage of his transactions--taking commissions as a broker or as a buyer's agent, then collecting fees as a contractor and construction manager, and finally replacing his realtor's hat and selling the result for another commission. Like several other Baltimore developers, Simone's vertically integrated, circular business model depended on the propagation of a frenzy. When the music stopped, it could only fail.
On the evening of April 26, 2006, Vito Simone called Debra Donahoo--"Aunt Debbie" to the Simones' three children--to his home to ask an urgent favor: Simone said it was the night before closing on the biggest deal of his life, but one of his investors had backed out, leaving him $50,000 short of the cash he needed to close the sale. Would Donahoo help?
To sweeten the deal, according to Donahoo, Simone offered to pay 18 percent interest on the loan--an even $1,000 per month. Donahoo, a divorced mother of three who had been "best friends" with Vito's wife Gail for more than 30 years, agreed to tap her home equity line of credit. She dated her check April 27, expecting full repayment within a few months.
"He had a big brochure," Donahoo remembers. The prospectus, wire-bound and nearly three-quarters of an inch thick, is full of photographs, timelines, newspaper clippings, and boasts about the capacity, foresight, and expertise of Vito Simone and his partner in the enterprise, David Zichos, then 34 years old. "In the Reservoir Hill market area in particular, management believes that no company has rehabbed more units," the prospectus reads.
Donahoo says Vito Simone promised her a "secured second mortgage" on the Druid Park Lake project once settlement occurred the next day. "They made it sound like if I didn't do it, the whole deal would fall through," she says. "I learned later that there was never a settlement the next day, and, in fact, settlement did not take place until two months later." Simone put Donahoo's money in with more than $400,000 he collected from four other friends; she never got the promised lien against the project.
Simone's prospectus suggested that investors in Druid Lake Partners, LLC, stood to profit handsomely by paying Simone and Zichos' construction company, Baltimore Rehab Service, to transform the four dilapidated houses at 817, 819, 821, and 823 Druid Park Lake Drive into 12 two-bedroom condominiums. According to the plan, companies owned and operated by Simone would buy and rebuild the units for $220,000 each and then sell them for $300,000 to $350,000.
The ambitious schedule called for completion of the project and sale of all the units within 18 months. The partnership was buying the unlivable shells for nearly $1 million, and planned to borrow hundreds of thousands more to rehab them. The plan presupposed that there were plenty of people willing and able to pay $300,000 and up for two-bedroom condos in Reservoir Hill, a neighborhood that had seen an influx of middle-class residents, but which was still peppered with boarded-up, sometimes collapsing buildings and drug dealers.
"The Condo Market may change," the prospectus allowed. "There are currently several condo projects on the market in the interior parts of Reservoir Hill. The pricing of those units range from the low 200's to the upper 200's and low 300's. We believe one risk factor is the quality of workmanship by other developers." Other risk factors the prospectus acknowledged were the possibility that interest rates could increase, weather and vandalism could delay construction, and development of an adjacent property.
Simone and his partners do not seem to have contemplated the possibility that, as of 2006, home prices were already unsustainably high, and had nowhere to go but down.
Around the same time that Simone was borrowing money from Donahoo and others for Druid Lake Partners, he was showing Herb Friedman investment properties. "[Simone's] son, Mark, took me down to Patterson Park, Milton Avenue," Friedman says. "He showed me a couple of places. I'd never seen the neighborhood. I told him, 'I don't know a thing about real estate.' I said, 'You guys are going to have to lead me and convince me.' So they did."
Friedman was not entirely inexperienced with real estate. By his own count he had owned at least four apartment houses before, all in New Orleans, including a "four-plex" that he owned for over a decade and pocketed $100,000 on once he sold it. A mechanical engineer by trade, Friedman spent 18 years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and oversaw construction of some of the New Orleans levees. Friedman retired on disability from the Army Corps in 1987 at age 50 and shortly thereafter moved to Baltimore. "I figured Baltimore was full of sailors, opera, stage plays, and that'll be good," he says. After about 12 years living with his brother, he bought his modest basement condo in 1999. A few years later, he discovered he could leverage it to invest in more property.
"I had all kinds of equity," Friedman says. "So I went over to the bank and got myself approved for an equity loan." Friedman would use that line of credit just to pay interest and closing costs on the $260,000 he would ultimately borrow to finance his investment.
In the late 1990s, Baltimore became infamous as a capital for unscrupulous "flippers" who bought run-down rowhouses for a few thousand dollars each, made minimal if any renovations, and sold them at huge markup, often by means of bogus appraisals, to unwary people with little means.
As a member of the Flipping and Predatory Lending Task Force, an amalgam of lawyers and activists funded in part by federal grant money, Vito Simone pledged to help stop such abuses. "He's been a real strong advocate of buyers using buyer agents, not just going into a transaction without being represented," says Joseph "Jody" Landers, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors. "Because it's interesting--one of the things that came out in that flipping thing was, none of those unsuspecting buyers . . . were represented by a buyer's agent."
Having a buyer's agent who is ethically bound to represent the buyer's interests is supposed to protect naive buyers against paying too much for a house, or buying a place that's on the verge of collapse. In the late 1990s, a typical rowhouse might be acquired for $15,000, painted or re-carpeted, and flipped a few weeks or months later for $75,000.
In November of 2005, a company called YCC, LLC bought 155 N. Milton Ave. for $19,000, according to land records. It paid past-due tax liens on it, according to its lawyer, but did not make any physical improvements to the building.
Guided by his buyer's agent, Vito Simone, Herb Friedman bought 155 N. Milton for $126,000 on May 8, 2006. "I didn't negotiate because they were the boss," Friedman says. "I said, 'Is it worth it?' They said, 'Absolutely!'"
According to court records, Simone offered to have Baltimore Rehab Service rebuild the house. Simone estimated that the work could be completed by January 2007--within six months--after which the renovated home would sell for about $320,000. Friedman took out a $130,000 construction loan, bringing his total debt on the property up to about $260,000, and left Simone in charge of the project.
Simone's estimates were not entirely fanciful. In 2006, the market north of Patterson Park was dominated by the non-profit Patterson Park Community Development Corporation (PPCDC), which was then paying more than $100,000 apiece for otherwise worthless shells and selling the renovated 12-foot-wide rowhouses for $300,000 each. Smaller developers around the city were doing likewise--or trying to--apparently convinced that the supply of young singles and couples earning six figures and eager to pay dearly for small homes in marginal urban neighborhoods was inexhaustible.
PPCDC filed for bankruptcy protection in February 2009 ("Neighborhood Watch," Feature, March 11).
On June 29, 2006, Vito Simone walked into the South Charles Street office of his settlement lawyer, Jerry Sopher, carrying $426,211.31. He was there to consummate the purchase of four big houses on Druid Park Lake Drive, a million-dollar deal that had been years in the making. Three of the houses, numbered 817, 819, and 821, were owned by Marc Golston, a savvy young investor who had purchased them in January 2004 from Sidney Sakols, their 88-year-old owner who lived next door. According to land records, Golston paid Sakols $259,700 for all three houses.
With help from several friends, 18 months later, Vito Simone was paying $800,000 for them.
Charitably speaking, the properties were a work in progress. Golston (who could not be reached for comment) had borrowed $1.2 million from 1st Mariner Bank, including a $600,000 construction loan to rehab 817, 819, and 821. City records show no permits pulled on those addresses since 2002, although the buildings' roofs and floors were removed by the time he sold them to Simone's partnership.
According to the settlement sheet, Simone Real Estate, LLC, earned a $14,000 commission of the sale of that property to Vito Simone and his partners.
"What he's doing is he's gone to friends to put money up so this deal can happen, and he takes his commission anyway," says Andre Weitzman, Donahoo's lawyer and a former colleague of Simone's on the flipping task force. "It's just not a nice thing to do."
According to their bankruptcy filing and other court records, the Simones and David Zichos owe $498,000 to the investors in Druid Lake Partners--the money Simone raised in order to pay closing costs. Although the terms of those loans have not been made public, it appears that Simone borrowed from friends some $71,788 more than he needed to close the deal.
Simone also borrowed the full purchase price of adjoining property 823 Druid Park Lake Drive, $150,000, from the owner, Sidney Sakols. That deal raised eyebrows around Reservoir Hill.
"Vito knew Sidney was really old," says Adam Meister, a neighborhood activist and former candidate for City Council who has kept a close eye on real-estate developments in Reservoir Hill. "He knew he would die soon. He knew that Sidney owned some properties that he'd be interested in--basically, the houses facing the lake."
Several other neighbors tell much the same story, though they do not want to be quoted in the newspaper. The consensus is that Simone began courting Sakols around 2004.
Meister says Simone began visiting Sakols at his home, bringing him kosher chicken, "and he appreciated that." Simone would drive Sakols to run errands. Sakols, who owned dozens of run-down properties over his lifetime, was no naïf, according to some who knew him.
"Sidney was basically of sound mind," says Meister. "But he had bad days. He had a bad day--he basically signed over his house."
In June 2006, Vito Simone and David Zichos, each as "sole member" of Druid Lake Partners IV, LLC, promised to pay Sakols $150,000 for 823 Druid Park Lake Drive in installments, at 10 percent interest, according to land records. At age 89, Sakols agreed to act as the bank for Druid Lake Partners IV for one year, after which the partners promised to pay the full amount in one lump sum.
Sakols died in July 2007, still waiting for his first payment. According to Simones' bankruptcy, the debt now stands at $200,000.
"To say that we're distressed would be an understatement," says former state senator Julian "Jack" Lapides, a lawyer for Sakols' estate. "Neither Sidney nor his estate ever received one cent on that sale. I think it was a very lousy deal for Sidney--at his age I'm not sure he fully understood it."
At least four other people lost money in the Druid Park Lake deal, according to the bankruptcy filing. William Yerman, the respected city realtor who merged his office with Simone's last fall, put $250,000 into Druid Lake Partners. Stanley and John Zerden are owed $63,000. Toni Davis is out $10,000. Yerman, the Zerdens, and Davis could not be reached for comment as of press time.
And Joseph Haw lost $125,000. "There's not much to say," Haw smiles after a recent bankruptcy hearing. "Holding the bag."
Herb Friedman's monthly interest-only payments on his 155 N. Milton Ave. purchase and construction loans started out at about $1,000, he says--a sizable chunk of his $2,500 monthly retirement income. To pay it, Friedman borrowed more money, taking out a home equity line of credit against his condo. His plan was to pay the interest on the loan with that, and then pay it all back when the rehabbed house sold.
"At the time, things were going great," he says, and "we thought we'd sell it quickly." But Simone did not get to work quickly, as promised, Friedman says. He calls demolition "demobilization."
"I guess he didn't do any demobilization there until August," Friedman, who kept a photographic diary of the progress, says. "He just didn't do any demo. And then the weather got cold and bad, and he took advantage of that. Didn't do any work at all during the winter."
The front wall threatened to collapse, necessitating replacement and increasing Friedman's cost. Throughout 2006 and into 2007, Friedman watched anxiously as Simone burned through the construction loan, increasing Friedman's monthly interest cost from $1,000 to $2,000 and beyond. "Vito got me to sign a couple of things--of course, I didn't know what I was signing--that gave him the right to get paid by the bank," Friedman contends. "They used to pay straight over to Vito. All I could do was make entries of what checks I wrote out [to the bank]."
Unable to control the project, Friedman visited frequently to photograph progress, and kept a ledger of his ballooning expenses.
In September 2007, some nine months after his deadline, Simone or his company took the final payment from Friedman's construction loan escrow--a step traditionally foregone until the customer is satisfied. "I don't know if I got the lawyer before or after the last [payment]," Friedman says. "That's when he picked up the last $1,000 and declared himself finished."
The house still lacked a complete bathroom in the basement and some closets and wiring were left unfinished, according to Friedman. A subcontractor complained he had not been paid and placed a $6,650 lien on the property. Now indebted more than $300,000, Friedman had little prospect of selling the house quickly for what he owed.
"At the beginning I was all for Vito," Friedman says. "But over time, I got suspicious. And at some point he says, 'If you sue me, you'll get a couple of typewriters, that's all.'"
Friedman's bad luck was two-fold, apparently: Not only did he overpay for his shell at the peak of the real estate bubble, but his contractor, Baltimore Rehab Service, was breaking up just as it started his job, according to David Zichos, who owned half the business with Simone. "I was more of a consultant on that one," Zichos says of 155 N. Milton Ave. in a March 31 phone interview.
"I started having some health problems." Zichos says, and was less involved in the project, but his replacement project manager "ended up having a heart attack" and nearly died, necessitating Zichos' return to the job. But by this time, he says, his relationship with Simone was strained because of problems with the Druid Park Lake project--and because Simone's grand plans and personal spending habits clashed with Zichos' smaller ambitions.
"Our goals and how to run the company were just not in line," Zichos says. "He and I are completely different. He's more aggressive." Zichos, whose role in the partnership was to coordinate and oversee the construction, says he felt queasy about the size of the project the company was undertaking, and the debt load they were amassing in Reservoir Hill. "I gave up my interest," he says. "[Simone] brought someone else to take over. They wanted me out of the deal."
According to the timeline included in the prospectus for Druid Lake Partners, the summer of 2006 was to be a frenzied time for construction on Druid Park Lake Drive. By September the "complete structural framing and roofing for 823 and 821 buildings" was to be complete. By October's end, the interior framing of 823 Druid Park Lake was to be done, and the "complete structural framing of 819 and 817" was to be completed. By August 2007, a model condo unit on the first floor of 823 Druid Park Lake was to be done--"prepare launch of marketing."
But as the seasons turned, no construction crews attended Druid Park Lake Drive. There was no further financing obtained for the project, and Vito Simone was in no position to finance the construction himself.
Despite the downturn in the local real estate market, which deepened in 2007, the Simones kept borrowing and spending at an impressive pace. According to their bankruptcy filing, more than $153,000 in debt is listed as "personal," with no ties to business activities.
One family friend, who asked not to be quoted, says that from 2006 until the bankruptcy, the Simones helped their oldest son, Mark, remodel the kitchen in his three-story Gough Street home, renovated their own home on Old Pimlico Road, took several vacations, including a trip to Las Vegas, and hosted several parties at their house.
Zichos says the spending--including the rebuilding and landscaping of an in-ground pool at the Simones' Old Pimlico Road home--drew the notice of his construction crews. "On some of our job sites, when guys needed to get paid, the joke was they should go get their payments from Vito in his swimming pool," Zichos says. Zichos says his refusal to assign work crews to Vito Simone's home and to the kitchen rehab in Mark Simone's home contributed to the friction between the two partners.
Another distraction: In February 2008, a quasi state agency called the Injured Workers' Insurance Fund filed a lawsuit against Vito Simone, David Zichos, and three of Simone's companies--Baltimore Rehab Services, Simone Construction, and Simone Real Estate. According to the complaint, since 2005 Simone and Zichos repeatedly and fraudulently mischaracterized their construction businesses in order to avoid paying workers' compensation insurance premiums.
Zichos says he was shocked to learn of the lawsuit. "I didn't handle anything in the office," he contends. "I'm not trying to push blame away, but that's how we were set up. I always thought [Simone] was very diligent in making sure that our stuff is above board."
A judgment for of $173,442 was entered against Simone, Zichos, and companies in Dec. 2008. Simone and Zichos have separate lawyers trying to vacate the judgment.
Simone, who has been named a civil defendant in state court 37 times since 1986, has developed a reputation in some circles as a sharp-elbowed guardian of his own interests.
"I remember this guy--he was piece of work," says Charles Kountz, a lawyer who sued Simone eight years ago on behalf of one of Simone's ex-real estate agents, Lawrence Sonnenreich.
"Larry was an employee of this guy, and [Simone] tried to cheat him out of some commissions he had earned," Kountz says. "What he would do is he would hire these people, make them all kinds of promises about being part of the business . . . they would go out and do all of this work to secure a sale, then they would get terminated." He says Simone paid a settlement covering part of the money owed.
Not everyone noticed this side of Simone, however.
"From the standpoint of the industry, he's just given a tremendous amount of time and leadership," says Jody Landers of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors. "When we had our 150th anniversary celebration last year, he co-chaired that along with Cathy Werner [and] did an incredible job on that." The pair raised $150,000 for the charitable GBBR Foundation, Landers says.
"You know the Stadium [Place] playground," Landers asks, speaking of the lot behind the YMCA on the former grounds of the Memorial Stadium. "We committed $50,000 in kind to that, and a whole lot of volunteers. Vito's company agreed to put the roof on, the trusses in the roof for the little shelter that's there."
Still, Landers endorses Simone's decision to resign from the GBBR presidency in late March after City Paper broke the news of his bankruptcy. "I think he cares about the organization," he says. "He did care that [the bankruptcy] had the potential to reflect negatively on the organization."
Landers says that Simone's practice of taking a commission on the sale of property he bought, and of investing in real estate on his own, are common industry practices.
"I'm gonna say that you're gonna find--I wouldn't say half, but maybe 20 percent or more of agents are involved in investing in real estate as well [as selling it]," he says. "Some of them may do some of the rehab. I would say that's a relatively small number."
But, Landers says, the GBBR's corps of volunteer leaders seldom knows much about one another's day-to-day business. "It's kind of a meritocracy, in a way, based on the level of involvement and participation in the organization," he says, with few questioning the actual business practices of the members.
"I don't really get involved a whole lot in any of our members' business models," Landers adds.
Room 2650 in the U.S. District Court on West Lombard Street is a low-ceilinged space furnished with plastic chairs. People sit waiting for their case to be called into one of the side rooms, marked A, B, and C. On March 24, shortly before 2 p.m., Vito and Gail Simone walk in to face questions from their creditors. Vito is in a dark blue suit, Gail wearing a sweater and gray slacks.
They're a handsome couple. Vito Simone is trim, square-shouldered, with a Roman nose and a distinguished salt-and-pepper beard. Gail Simone, her brown hair cut short, even today carries her statuesque frame with a confident bearing. Until recently, at least, the couple were gregarious and ebullient, hosting parties at their home and quick to greet acquaintances and strangers alike in their search for new clients, customers, and business partners.
Today they decline to be interviewed. Their bankruptcy lawyer, Constance Hare, turns her back on a reporter, saying, "We have nothing to say to you."
Joel Sher, the trustee, eventually gathers people into room A. It is a smaller room with more plastic chairs. In front is a heavy table where Sher faces the Simones, who face away from their creditors.
Sher's gentle voice manages to convey an avuncular, no-nonsense skepticism. He asks the Simones for proof of their penury, including business and tax records going back several years. He also takes pains to tote up all the assets the couple has, including a Lexus and two other vehicles--all titled under the names of their companies.
Vito and Gail Simone seem evasive at times, or confused, or perhaps just forgetful of what they own. At one point, Vito Simone is presented with partnership papers he signed indicating he holds a one-third interest in 756 Reservoir St. Simone says he doesn't remember the deal but that, as usual, his company was going to rehab the place and his other company was going to sell it, while he would have taken a share of any profits.
The couple's creditors ask questions. One customer of Baltimore Rehab Services asks after a $25,000 deposit she paid; Vito Simone responds that Baltimore Rehab commingled its customers' funds. Mike Dunn asks Vito to account for the money earmarked for the rehabilitation of Simone's planned downtown office, at 2101 St. Paul St.
"What did you do with the money I lent you?" Dunn asks. "It was $70,000."
"I know some of the money was used for Saint Paul Street," Simone replies.
Andre Weitzman, Donahoo's lawyer, tries to find out why Simone did not pay back his friends with the money he borrowed later at lower interest. And he wonders how the millions Simone borrowed could have all evaporated with so little to show for it.
"When you borrowed all of this money from your friends," Weitzman asks, "weren't you already insolvent?"
"I don't know that," Vito Simone replied.
"But," Weitzman presses, "where did $3.9 million go?"
One creditor who did not make it to the hearing was Herb Friedman. He says his lawyer told him it wouldn't be worth the money it would cost him, and anyway, Friedman has a more pressing appointment on this sunny afternoon: saving his condo from possible foreclosure.
"I was gonna go over to the bank and tell them they have got to do something about my note, because I just found out today, my [law] suit is empty," Friedman says just before the scheduled creditors meeting. With the Simones bankrupt, "it's not worth anything. So it's just a matter of time before I can't pay them, and I'm going to go on . . . foreclosure. On my house."
Friedman has received some good news since then: His lender is prepared to accept a short-sale offer on the Milton Avenue house. The buyer is paying $150,000--a bit less than half the amount Friedman owes. The closing is scheduled for April 27.
"And then my only problem is the $67,000 equity loan I have on the (condo)," Friedman says. "The interest-only payment on that is $150" each month, down from as much as $400 when interest rates were higher. Friedman is paying it on time, but he's not chipping away at the principal, and that worries him.
"It's not a little problem," Friedman says. "It's a big problem."
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