Three go down in FBI sting
Three prominent South Lake Tahoe businessmen are expected to plead guilty in federal court Monday to charges of tax evasion stemming from a scheme to conceal more than $500,000 in cash from the sale of a Park Avenue motel.
Pembroke Gochnauer, 55, a real estate agent with Aspen Realty, Mahesh “Mark” Patel, 38, former owner of Secrets Motel near Stateline and former president of the East Indian Motel Owners Association and Scott MacDonald, 38, owner/operator of Chateau Suites motel, were nabbed after a two-year FBI sting.
Each has reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors. The maximum sentence for the tax evasion charges could have been five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
MacDonald also pleaded guilty to three counts of money laundering.
The men were partners in a scam to sell the Secrets motel on Park Avenue to an FBI informant posing as a drug dealer, according to court records. In addition, the three men schemed with the informant on other ways to launder money.
The FBI informant met Gochnauer in August 1997 to discuss ways the he could launder drug money and cover his purported drug trafficking. One suggestion made by Gochnauer was for the informant to buy motels and launder money through those businesses.
After several meetings, Gochnauer introduced the FBI informant to Patel, the owner of four motels in South Lake Tahoe, as well as motels in New Mexico and Oklahoma. Patel agreed to let the informant launder money through his businesses, as well as sell motels to the informant.
Patel proposed selling two motels – Secrets and Beachside Inn – for $1.5 million cash. In exchange, Patel agreed to create bogus notes on those properties so that it would look as if the deals were owner financed.
MacDonald joined the scheme in November 1997, when he was brought in as a possible manager for those motels with the purpose of laundering as much as $30,000 a month during busy tourist seasons.
While all three men apparently thought the money was cash from drug sales, it wasn’t until Jan. 9, 1998 that they became part of what looked like an actual drug deal. That evening, MacDonald and Gochnauer were present when two undercover FBI agents bought what appeared to be 10 kilograms of cocaine for $200,000.
At that point, MacDonald took $10,000 in cash to launder. According to court records, he would launder an additional $50,000 over the next year.
For the next year, the FBI informant often met with Gochnauer, Patel and MacDonald, suggesting other schemes or possible purchases to hide money gained in drug deals.
In February 1999, the informant met with MacDonald and Patel to discuss purchasing Secrets. During that time, Patel revealed his ability to launder large amounts of money through his native country, India. Patel said he was able to move large amounts of cash out of the United States within 48 hours, according to court records, and turn around “clean cash” in 15 to 20 days. Patel said he would keep 25 percent of the cash as his payoff.
No such transaction took place, but the plan convinced all parties that a large cash purchase of Secrets could happen without detection.
In July 1999, the three men struck a deal with the FBI informant to buy Secrets for $1.2 million. According to court records, the scheme involved reporting to the Internal Revenue Service a $700,000 purchase of the motel. Of that amount, $70,000 was to be paid into an escrow account, $370,000 was to pay down legitimate liens against the property and $5,000 was paid to open escrow. The remaining $255,000 was to be listed in escrow as an owner-held note. But, according to the plan hatched by the participants, it was to be paid in a lump sum of cash to Patel.
The additional $500,000 the FBI informant agreed to pay for the motel was to be paid as cash under the table.
Gochnauer agreed to put the deal together for 2 percent cash from both Patel and the informant. He requested, according to court records, the deal be conducted outside his workplace, Aspen Realty.
MacDonald, on the other hand, was to manage the motel and keep a lucrative money laundering scheme operating there, according to court records.
MacDonald also agreed to open an escrow account for the transaction at Placer Title Company.
The cash was to be paid out in three installments over three months.
Finally, on Sept. 27, 1999, MacDonald obtained a rental house where the deal was to occur. The informant got a key to the house and the FBI wired the house with video cameras.
All four men met Sept. 29 at the rental house to transact the first $150,000 cash installment. The informant gave Gochnauer his $10,000 cut. Patel took the remaining $140,000 in cash, which was stuffed into a red gym bag.
The FBI and South Lake Tahoe City Police contacted Patel, Gochnauer and MacDonald shortly thereafter. Patel still had the gym bag in his possession. Police recovered the remaining $10,000 from the rental house.
All three men admitted to their involvement in the scam, according to court records. All three worked out plea agreements with federal prosecutors.
They face sentencing in U.S. District Court in Sacramento on Monday.
“You have heard just one side of the story,” Patel told the Tahoe Daily Tribune on Thursday. He refused to elaborate.
Patel is expected to forfeit his $846,837 interest in Secrets, which has since been sold, and faces $2,500 in fines. He may face jail time as well.
Gochnauer also may face jail time and a $2,500 fine.
Gochnauer did not return phone calls to the Tahoe Daily Tribune on Thursday.
MacDonald, who pleaded guilty to one count of tax evasion and three counts of money laundering, could face six months in jail. He also forfeits his $60,000 interest in Chateau Suites motel and faces $2,500 in fines.
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