The attorney representing about 20 property owners in a civil lawsuit against the Sun 'n Lake of Sebring Improvement District and a number of co-defendants says he is not looking for a quick settlement in the case.
Miami attorney Michael Schlesinger said many of his clients are elderly and they feel like they should have been protected.
"I am the type of lawyer who brings a case to trial," he said. "I didn't bring this for a quick settlement or a quick hit, so unless there is an offer that compensates them for all their losses and their attorneys fees, I don't see this getting resolved quickly."
The lawsuit was filed in the 10th Judicial Circuit in Highlands County in August 2012.
Schlesinger filed an amended complaint on Jan. 15, which states, "This case is about the fraudulent scheme orchestrated by the former president of the board of supervisors for the Sun 'n Lake Improvement District, Robert Severino, with the crucial assistance and participation by the co-defendants."
The co-defendants in the lawsuit are: Severino Management Inc., aka Sun 'n Lake Real Estate Services Inc.; Robert Dygert, Sun 'n Lake Municipal Income Fund LLC; National Recreation of Properties of Sun 'n Lake, LLC; and Sun 'n Lake of Sebring Improvement District.
The amended complaint states that the "collective actions" of Severino and the co-defendants fraudulently induced the plaintiffs and other district residents to transfer nearly $300,000 for what was intended to settle outstanding bond debts.
In actuality, the complaint adds, it led to a "theft" of their funds and the imminent threat of foreclosure on their properties by outstanding bond holders.
Schlesinger said he is at the stage where they are going to start taking depositions.
Sebring attorney Nicholas Schommer, who is representing Dygert, said Wednesday that the Sun 'n Lake Improvement District attorney filed a motion to dismiss the case and the court dismissed some of the counts in the original complaint.
Schlesinger said Wednesday that the judge wanted to know if the Sun 'n Lake Improvement District assisted Severino or Dygert in any way, so the amended complaint adds details of conversations where district employees are vouching for Severino.
The amended complaint states that a number of property owners telephoned the improvement district between May and July 2010 to inquire about Severino's trustworthiness.
Improvement district employees vouched for Severino, despite their knowledge of his prior misdeeds and lack of trustworthiness, the amended complaint states.
Schommer said he has responded to the amended complaint with the position that Dygert was just a salesman in Severino's office and everything was done at Severino's direction, and all the money that came in went to Severino or to his realty office or to an account he had in the Florida Keys.
Severino kept telling Dygert that he would get the bonds paid off, Schommer said.
When the sheriff's office started investigating, Dygert realized that he, too, had been "duped" like everybody else and Severino was not going to "make good" on these things, he added.
The attorney representing the Sun 'n Lake Improvement District, Donovon Roper of Apopka, filed a response to the amended complaint on Jan. 30 that states that the plaintiffs have not shown facts that the improvement district had knowledge of any fraud or provided substantial assistance to advance the fraud.
Randy Bascombe of New York told Highlands Today that he and his wife purchased a piece of property in Sun 'n Lakes from National Recreation of Properties.
"At the time we felt like we were making a sound investment decision; now we realize we were probably a part of one big scam," Bascombe said. "Over time we paid for the property outright, not realizing that the bond attached to the property was like paying for this property twice.
"Realizing that we were part of a bad deal, I contacted Bob Dygert of Sun 'n Lake Realty to help us unload this property. Over the years he told us that sales were few and far between."
Bascombe said a few years back he did get a call from Dygert, who said that if he gave him $5,000 this would satisfy the bond on the property.
Dygert told him that some sort of deal was being worked out with the district, and if things did not pan out he would get his money back, Bascombe said.
"Luckily for us, we had just purchased a new house and did not have the extra funds to send Mr. Dygert or we also would have been defrauded," Bascombe said.
Severino, who was convicted of multiple counts of grand theft involving Sun 'n Lake property owners, was sentenced in September to eight years in prison and 12 years probation.
He was also ordered to pay $297,374 in restitution and relinquish his real estate license, and will not be able to work in bookkeeping or accounting or handle money, court documents show.
According to court records, 49 people paid Severino between $1,874.59 and $28,000 each, totaling $297,374.59.
His troubles began March 30, 2011, when he gave the district nearly $211,000 in worthless checks.