Guilty plea in multimiliion-dollar fraud of Thunder Valley Casino owners

Published: Thursday, Jun. 12, 2014 - 5:26 pm

High-flying developer Bart Wayne Volen pleaded guilty Thursday to three felonies in connection with a scheme that prosecutors say looted between $17 million and $19 million from the owners of Thunder Valley Casino near Lincoln.

Volen, 55, also agreed to pay restitution of at least $17 million and to cooperate with federal prosecutors seeking convictions of two other men who are charged with helping him defraud the United Auburn Indian Community in an overbilling rip-off involving a massive construction project.

Wearing a white dress shirt and khaki slacks, the once boisterous Volen spoke in a hushed voice Thursday before Judge Troy L. Nunley in U.S. District Court in Sacramento as he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering and filing a false tax return.

The plea deal obligates the government to recommend a sentence of up to nine years in prison and a $15,000 fine, but the final outcome likely will hinge on the extent of Volen’s cooperation against his co-defendants – former tribal administrator Greg Baker of Newcastle and construction project manager Darrell Hinz of Cameron Park.

The nine-year sentence, which could have been up to 20 years had he gone to trial and been convicted, may be cut in half if he provides substantial assistance to prosecutors.

Tribal spokesman Doug Elmets declined to comment on the development, but attorneys for Baker and Hinz said their clients will fight.

“We are ​looking forward to a jury trial in this matter,” said William Portanova, who represents Hinz. “At the conclusion of the evidence, the entire story will be out there. Not incidentally, to prove our defense, we look forward to reviewing records of the tribal council’s governance and finances. We are going to go right at them.”

Baker’s attorney, Thomas Johnson, said his client is getting ready for trial. “Anytime a co-defendent is cooperating, there is concern. But this doesn’t change our position in terms of strategy or wanting to go to trial. If Volen defrauded the tribe, that’s his responsibility. I haven’t seen anything that connects Baker to Volen.”

The government charged that Baker and Hinz participated with Volen in a scheme that stretched from October 2006 through November 2007. The trio allegedly stole from the tribe by overbilling for an Auburn construction project involving four buildings and known as the Indian Hills Office Project, or IHOP, according to court documents.

Volen, a Sacramento developer at the time, was hired in 2006 to oversee the project, but prosecutors say he and his colleagues quickly settled into a pattern of thievery that at times was as simple as adding a digit to an invoice.

As an example of the result, prosecutors allege, a $768 waterproofing bill submitted by a contractor to Volen was passed on to the tribe seeking payment of $3,768. Another bill for $40,027.12 for asphalt morphed into an invoice for $1,906,828.48, the government alleges.

Court documents say the efforts resulted in a handsome payoff, with the proceeds being funneled into real estate, vacation homes, a $140,965 Lamborghini Gallardo and two Bentleys.

IRS documents filed in court say Volen lived life large, with two condominiums in Hawaii and a $1.1 million home in El Dorado Hills that he later spent another $801,000 remodeling.

Volen’s guilty pleas mark a low point for the brash developer, who once purchased a Sacramento office building housing the American Red Cross and was accused of tearing the charity’s signs down and yelling at workers to try to oust the tenant. Volen described those claims as exaggerations.

He also was accused in 2001 of tearing out 10 oak trees on property he owned in Roseville and faced a $30,000 fine. Volen defended himself at the time, saying there was nothing in the U.S. Constitution that forbids cutting down oak trees.

He is next due in court in December for a status conference, but sentencing has not yet been scheduled because of the pending charges against Baker and Hinz.

Call The Bee’s Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.

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