In less than two weeks in Miami Beach, a former Baxter Village company, Advantage Financial, paid nearly $10,000 to two different hotels, $5,000 to settle a bar tab at a Miami Beach club, and made more than $15,000 in cash withdrawals.
Just a few weeks later, more than $1,000 was spent from the company's operating account for a vacation rental in Debordieu. The next day, another luxury vacation was debited from the account, this time in Florida, totaling nearly $4,000.
From January 2009 to June 2009, in addition to the vacations and the bar tabs, Advantage Financial spent more than $30,000 in Charlotte on items ranging from dinners to $1,000 trips to Sam's Club.
That money, according to lawsuits filed in York and Mecklenburg counties, wasn't meant to be used for dinners, vacations and fishing trips. Those funds were supposed to be held in escrow as down payment for high-dollar construction loans that Advantage Financial Corp. promised, the lawsuits allege.
Wink Rea, a Fort Mill real estate developer and president of a business-based group called Move Fort Mill Forward, is suing Advantage Financial based on the transactions. He alleges the group took escrow money he put up that was intended to help another developer with a project in Indian Land. Instead, he claims in the lawsuit, the company spent his money and other escrow funds on personal items.
"They were spending $300,000 a month playing, living out of these accounts. It's Armani this, Gucci this, buying automobiles, just tens of thousands of dollars spent," Rea said, reciting transactions that are listed in six months' worth of bank statements that are included with court documents related to the lawsuits.
Rea blames BB&T for allowing funds specifically earmarked for escrow to be placed into Advantage Financial's operating account. Rea is planning a class-action lawsuit against the bank, he said, although no suit has been filed yet.
Rea isn't the only former Advantage client claiming fraud. Rea's lawyer, Ward Davis, also represents K&K Motorsports, another client of Advantage Financial that claims they were bilked out of a $121,000 escrow payment.
Davis said there are at least two more cases pending against Advantage Financial and partners Craig Richards and Thomas Brandenburg in Mecklenburg County. The cases include dozens of former Advantage clients, he said.
The proof, he said, is in the bank records that detail personal expenditures out of the account Advantage represented as an escrow account. Neither Brandenburg nor Richards could be reached for comment. The attorneys listed in court records as representing Brandenburg and Richards said they are no longer involved with the case.
"That's the clearest proof. If you cross-reference the account number, that is the account that Advantage represented as an escrow account, and that can't be touched," Davis said. "It's clear-cut proof. They got their hand caught in the cookie jar. It doesn't matter if it is business expenses. If it's in an escrow account, they can't spend it. Period."
Some of that money was spent on trips that York County Councilman Paul Lindemann took with Brandenburg and Richards, including a trip to Miami and one to Atlantic City. But Lindemann said he didn't know then that the money came from escrow payments.
"I feel bad that they were spending other people's money," said Lindemann, a Fort Mill resident. "They had been lying to everybody."
Lindemann said he and Greg Rogers, former partners in Pinecrest Holdings, an investment company, were contracted by Advantage Financial to recruit business for the company. Rogers also lives in Fort Mill and is an appointee to the York County Economic Development Board.
Brandenburg and Richards claimed the trips were for recruiting business, Lindemann said, and that he was brought along on the trips to help with public relations and marketing Advantage to clients he was trying to recruit for the firm.
"This is more blatant than anything I've ever seen," Davis said. "The gall they had. It's like a bad movie. I've seen fraud, but to have this evidence of them living this lifestyle in Miami Beach - it's like a TV show. There was no way they could get away with it."
Davis said that he isn't optimistic that the victims of Advantage will get their money back.
Brandenburg's home is in foreclosure and he has no known assets, Davis said. Richards has an $800,000 home in North Carolina but laws in the state make it difficult to go after the home because it is co-owned by Richards' wife, Davis said.
Rea filed a civil suit in September 2009 against the company, Brandenburg and Richards. He's seeking the $173,125 he gave the company for escrow, as well as an additional $7,000 in attorney fees.
The loan never came through and the escrow money, Rea said, was never paid back.
In a response to the lawsuit filed in York County common pleas court, Richards denied allegations of wrongdoing. He did admit owing money to Rea and Young. Brandenburg has not filed a response with the court.
Lindemann and Rogers also claim they are owed money by Advantage, for commissions on business they brought to the company, including Rea, who said he was approached by Lindemann about working with Advantage to secure a construction loan.
Lindemann said he has been interviewed by the FBI about Advantage Financial and its day-to-day operations.
Officials at the U.S. Justice Department did not respond to phone messages regarding the case.