Thursday, May 01, 2014

Korean Businessman Re-Emerges As WISH-TV Is Set To Air Investigative Story On Marion's Missing Millions

No sooner had WISH-TV's I-Team 8 began airing promos for an expose' on the missing millions Marion taxpayers plopped down on a Korean businessman's failed attempt to redevelop the old YMCA building set to air tonight than the man at the center of the controversy, Michael An, suddenly emerged from seclusion after dodging reporters' questions for months about the failed project. An sat down with the News Herald, not the Marion Chronicle-Tribune, which has done story after story asking questions about why there is no documentation of where the $2.5 million given to An to redevelop the building for a mixed commercial use was spent, to reassure the public that he intends to finish the project despite the fact that it has been the subject of a sheriff's sale order for nonpayment of property taxes, and that another former Marion businessman, Bill Reece, claims he's under contract to purchase the property from An after being assured that An had been let off the hook for the $2.5 million Marion taxpayers invested in his building.

As part of an interview with the News Herald's Doug Roorbach, An gave the newspaper's staff unrestricted access to the old YMCA building. "I want to finish it no matter what people say," An said. An told Roorbach that he has been stung by suggestions that he didn't use the money for its intended purpose, and claims that he spent nearly $2.8 million on wiring, plumbing, a fire suppression system and other repair items needed to renovate the building. "I am right here," An said. "I am not running away. I will have a grand opening." Lee Dunn, a former facilities manager for the building, told Roorbach that "a bunch" of work had been done on the building. "You can't tell from the outside of the building," Dunn said, but from the inside he estimates that at least $2 million has been spent on improvements. Dunn believed that roof replacement work had occurred as well. Dunn estimated that at least a half million dollars had been spent on a fire suppression system for the building.

An tells Roorbach that about 70% of the work is done on the building. "What will it take to complete the project?" Roorbach asked. More money, of course. An tells Roorbach that he is courting investors to raise the money necessary to complete work on the project. There is no mention of the Chronicle-Tribune's release of e-mails exchanged between Barnes & Thornburg's Bruce Donaldson, Marion's attorney on the project, and a potential buyer of the building, Bill Reece, assuring Reece that An had been released of all liabilities for the $2.5 million the City invested in the project when it refinanced the debt in 2011. "[I]f you move forward with the purchase of the YMCA building, you will not inherit any obligations with respect to the YMCA bonds," Donaldson assured Reece.

Curiously, the same edition of the News Herald which ran Roorbach's story on An's development plans for the YMCA includes a regular opinion column "Where's Mike" by Michael Roorbach (any relation Doug?). Mike Roorbach describes himself as the director of the Grant County Family YMCA that had as its board of directors names like "Seybold," as in Mayor Wayne Seybold. Roorbach said he left the old YMCA building "amazed" after he toured it last week. "I think last week I was able to 'go home again' to that building on Third Street and revisit the dream that those who went before me at the YMCA had for the building," Roorbach gushed. Neither Roorbach seemed much concern about reports that An had hired Mayor Seybold's brother, Chad, to run the project for him, or that the City's building commissioner, Larry Oradat, had filed suit against An's company seeking unspecified damages for work he says he did on the building for which he never received payment.
UPDATE: Contrast I-Team 8's report last night to the whitewash contained in the News Herald:
After I-Team 8 filed an open records request asking for all the financial records, the city provided the 200-page original bond agreement along with 16 pages of documents that supposedly account for the $2.5 million. But all of those records come back to An’s companies: Global Investment Consulting or World Enterprises Group. 
Before An could get money for the project, he was supposed to submit “distribution requests” in writing to First Farmers Bank and Trust, the trustee the city hired to manage the bonds. Five distribution requests were included in the reply to I-Team 8′s open records requests. One is for $481,000 for a “construction fee.” The others include expenses like $250,000 for an HVAC system, $95,000 for an elevator and $305,000 on plumbing. 
But none of the documents explains what vendor did that work, when it was done, or if it was completed. Noticeably absent are bank statements, receipts, invoices or any details of how the money was taken out of the bank, how often and for what purpose. 
I-Team 8 took those concerns to Mayor Seybold, who during a lengthy interview this spring defended the project, An and his administration’s use of TIF. When asked about the $2.5 million loan and the public concern that it isn’t unclear how the money was spent, Seybold said: “That’s not true. The information that the trustee has given the city is that there was $2.5 million and $2.5 million dollars worth of bills paid out.” Later, when pressed about whether the city was satisfied with the amount of documentation provided, Seybold said: “No we’re not. We’ve talked to the trustee to find out if there is more to this pile of paper than what they presented to us.” 
Seybold also could not provide answers as to why he didn’t know more about the project or why more receipts were not available given that at one time his brother, Chad Seybold, was working for An’s company World Enterprise Group, according to his LinkedIn profile. “You’d have to talk to him, and to Michael An, and you’d have to talk to the trustee,” Seybold said. An has been difficult to reach. 
Over the course of two and half months, I-Team 8 has made several attempts to reach him through phone calls, voice mails and texts. We even asked those who know him to have him get back with us. He has not. When An did speak with I-Team 8 briefly in March, he hurried the reporter off the phone saying he was in the hospital and couldn’t talk. Additional attempts to reach him were unsuccessful. Stephen Wilson, the general counsel for First Farmers Bank in Converse refused to provide additional financial documents, stating in an email that they “couldn’t respond to our inquiry” because An didn’t agree to it.
I-Team 8 found that Marion has 16 TIF districts owing $36 million in debt to be repaid with property tax revenues diverted from other units of local government. Grant County's auditor complains that Marion's excessive use of TIFs is causing the county to lose out on $2 million in property tax revenues because the heavy use forces the county up against the property tax caps imposed by state law. The I-Team 8 story has a database so you can look up how much revenue in your county is being diverted to TIF districts. Marion County, by far, is at the top of the list. Over $3.5 billion in net assessed value is diverted to TIF districts, which is costing taxing districts that rely on property tax revenues about a $110 million a year. I think that data is old because the actual number is now closer to $120 million. Neighboring Hamilton County, the state's wealthiest county, has over $2.3 billion in TIF districts that are capturing about $52 million in property tax revenues. Ironically, TIFs were created originally to aid blighted areas, but the City of Carmel uses TIFs to fuel redevelopment in the state's wealthiest city. TIF districts in Lake County capture over $1.7 billion of assessed value, which represent revenues of nearly $53 million. Allen County TIF districts represent over $477 million in next assessed value, capturing $13.1 million in revenues.


Doug Roorbach said...

This is Doug Roorbach. I wrote the story in The News Herald, which I own. Thanks for quoting from the story. My only objection is your characterization of the story as a "whitewash." In what way? We got access to both the building and Mr. An and reported what we saw and what he said. We made no claims as to whether what he said was true; we let our readers decide. We brought in an independent expert, Mr. Dunn, who had been in charge of that very building for 12 years, to tell our readers what he saw. He did so. We did not (and do not) offer an opinion in our news story. We reported.

Mike's column was his opinion, but he didn't make claims about Mr. An's statements, just about being back in the building where he had worked for so many years.

Not exactly a whitewash, so your characterization is baseless.

Three other things worth pointing out: 1. Mike is my brother, a fact which we have pointed out in our pages repeatedly, so hardly a secret 2.) When we met with Mr. An, his face was bruised and his teeth were broken. He said he had fallen down the steps the week before, so it is quite believable (at least to me) that he was, in fact, in the hospital when WISH-TV called him to ask for comments. Finally, 3) we talked to Mr. An before WISH-TV's story, so implying he emerged as a result of the story is not accurate.

Thanks for reading The News Herald, and please encourage your readers to do so.

Gary R. Welsh said...

The WISH-TV story showed a building with no visible repair work on it. Your article talked about new windows, while the WISH-TV article showed broken windows and other visible signs of disrepair to the building.

Your description of An's injuries makes it seem like they were recent injuries. Reporters have been trying to reach him for months without success. This building has sat there without any work on it for years. The property taxes haven't been paid, and it was ordered sold at a sheriff's sale. It completely overlooked all the conflict of interest issues the Chronicle-Tribune raised in its reporting, which are of serious concern from the public's standpoint since public funds were invested in the project.

Did you ask Mr. An if he has entered into a contract to sell the building to Bill Reece?