Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2007 | 7:21 a.m.
Homeowners around Las Vegas National Golf Course have feared for months that the sale of the course might mean they will lose their views and, thus, thousands of dollars in property values.
Now, as details of the deal emerge, they have a new concern. It turns out that one of the buyers pleaded guilty in 2002 to a federal tax charge stemming from a New Jersey mob indictment.
Jason Halpern, 38, is a New York real estate developer who late last month teamed up with John Knott, a local broker with CB Richard Ellis, and Gary Tharaldson, a Fargo, N.D.-based hotel developer, to purchase the golf course for $33.2 million.
Residents who live around the golf course are worried that the new owners might want to develop the property, near Desert Inn Road and Eastern Avenue. The land's zoning would allow more than 600 homes .
Halpern has projects across the country, from residential developments in New York City to a luxury hotel in Miami Beach, Fla.
He also has a criminal history.
Halpern struck a deal with federal prosecutors after he was named in a 2001 racketeering indictment involving members of the DeCavalcante crime organization in New Jersey, court records show.
The indictment targeted Girolamo "Jimmy" Palermo, who prosecutors said was one of three ruling members of the crime family, and several members of his crew.
In 1999, Halpern's company, JMHNJ LLC, was developing a residential complex called The Landing in Berkeley Township, N.J.
The indictment alleges that Halpern conspired with members of Palermo's crew to bribe a building inspector.
Halpern became associated with the DeCavalcante family through an unnamed New York associate, the indictment said.
In 2002, the racketeering charges against Halpern were dropped as part of a plea deal with prosecutors. Halpern pleaded guilty to not filing an IRS form documenting a $500 payment to an alleged DeCavalcante associate to bribe the building inspector.
His company also pleaded guilty to crossing state lines to bribe a public servant.
Halpern was sentenced to one year of probation and fined $2,500. His company was fined $17,500.
Halpern's background is disconcerting to many who live in the roughly 180 homes that surround the golf course, especially considering that four Clark County commissioners have admitted to or been convicted of accepting bribes in recent years.
"We not only are worried about our lifestyle going away and our property values dropping, but we'd also like the golf course to be in the hands of reputable developers," said Kate Bennett, whose home backs up to the fifth hole.
"Everybody is concerned about who is behind this," added Skip Cummins, another homeowner.
But Knott, the local partner in the purchase, said talk about Halpern's background in not relevant to the future of the golf course. He described Halpern and Tharaldson as passive partners in the deal.
Halpern did not return calls from the Sun. But his New York attorney, Andrew Levander, said Halpern and his company were the victims in the New Jersey case. The building inspector had continually threatened to shut down the project, he said, and the plea deal acknowledged that employees of Halpern's company were "repeatedly pressured" to provide money to the alleged mob associate to pay off the inspector.
In fact, Levander said, Halpern twice told his employees not to pay the bribe.
Although the facts to which Halpern pleaded guilty say otherwise, Levander said the only payment was of $500 , made by one of Halpern's employees without Halpern's approval.
Levander said the judge in the case stated that Halpern "certainly seems to have been the victim of some sort of plot" and "was a respectable, hardworking businessman, was successful, and going along doing what he thought was appropriate."
Facing a potentially long legal battle, Halpern decided to plead guilty to the misdemeanor charge instead of trying to clear his name, Levander said.
"You can put your life on hold for three years while you fight those charges and at the end of day you will probably be vindicated, but there is no guarantee," Levander said. "Meanwhile, no one wants to do business with you. Or you can acknowledge that a 1099 form has not been issued to the building inspector."
As for the concerns about houses going up at the golf course, Knott said there are no development plans now.
Instead, the new owners want to see whether they can make the golf course's operations more profitable, he said. They expected to reach an agreement with Harrah's this week under which the gaming company would manage the golf course, Knott said. That would help drive tourists to the course, he said.
However, he won't rule out future development of the site.
"As a leader of the ownership structure, I have a responsibility to investors to maximize the return on the investment," he said.