FBI, IRS, Secret Service raid Seeno family development offices
By John Simerman, Josh Richman, Robert Salonga and Lisa Vorderbrueggen
Contra Costa Times
February 18, 2010
CONCORD — Federal agents raided the headquarters of the Seeno family development empire Thursday, hauling out stacks of documents from two office buildings at the heart of a 70-year-old home-building dynasty that has shaped much of East Bay suburbia.
About 30 agents from the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service criminal investigation division and the U.S. Secret Service served search warrants about 8 a.m. at the offices of Discovery Builders and the Albert D. Seeno Construction Co., both in the 4000 block of Port Chicago Highway.
Outside, an FBI spokesman declined to discuss the nature of the probe or what type of records the agents sought, but said they made no arrests. The IRS often joins in investigations
that involve possible financial crimes, said spokesman Joseph Schadler. He said he could not say why the Secret Service was involved. Secret Service officials acknowledged assisting in the raid but referred questions back to the FBI.
The investigation emerged from the FBI's Concord office and "has probably been going on for some time now," Schadler said.
"It's not a guess. We already have a good idea what we're looking for and what we would find here," he said.
Schadler said Thursday's raid was limited to the two Concord offices, where yellow crime-scene tape stretched across the doorway and agents were seen leaving the Discovery Builders office toting documents. A sign on the front of the construction headquarters said the building would be closed for the day.
A woman at the Clayton home of Albert Seeno Jr. said there was no one there to comment and hung up the phone. William Goodman, an attorney who represents Discovery Builders and other Seeno family enterprises, said the companies are "cooperating fully" with the FBI.
"We expect in the coming days to learn more about the basis for their request for documents," Goodman said. "The documents will demonstrate that we've always conducted lawful activities and believe the U.S. Attorney's Office will agree."
The two firms are part of a development and home-building dominion founded by the late Albert D. Seeno. His sons, Thomas Seeno and Albert Seeno Jr., and grandson, Albert Seeno III, now manage a phalanx of Seeno companies. Pittsburg Mayor Sal Evola, cousin to Albert Seeno III, also works for Discovery Builders.
The Seeno family also holds major stakes in companies that own Peppermill Resort Casino in Reno and a casino resort complex in Wendover, Nev.
The California Secretary of State's office lists at least nine active business entities licensed to the family's office complex on Port Chicago Highway in Concord, while in Nevada, Albert Seeno Jr. and Thomas Seeno are listed as officers or directors in some 30 business entities.
Nevada state regulators in 2004 recommended Albert Seeno III as a suitable beneficiary of interests in corporations that owned five casinos, only after concerns about earlier associations with outlaw bikers and felons were resolved.
The three Seenos faced a Gaming Control Board allegation that they associated with unsavory characters including members of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. The state Gaming Commission eventually levied a $775,000 fine against Seeno Jr., while Seeno III was fined $25,000. Frank Schreck, their attorney at the time, said Seeno III had some youthful problems but had "grown up" and taken on numerous family and business responsibilities.
Attempts to reach the Seenos at the Peppermill were unsuccessful. But Bill Hughes, the casino's director of marketing, said the federal investigation does not reach to the casino.
"This matter definitely does not involve the Peppermill in Reno or the Peppermill Casinos Incorporated," Hughes said. "The ownership would have told me that."
Regardless, it will trigger an investigation by Nevada gambling authorities, said Renee Shaffer, deputy chief of enforcement for the state Gambling Control Board.
"It doesn't have to be an indictment. It doesn't have to be an arrest per se. It has to be any area of concern that a licensee is involved with any illegal activity," Shaffer said. She said the board works closely with the FBI, but that investigations are confidential.
The family's imprint on the East Bay — in building and politics — is centered in East Contra Costa but spreads far wider. The Seeno Homes Web site lists more than two dozen Seeno communities in Antioch, a dozen in Oakley and eight in Brentwood, along with scores more in Concord, Clayton, Fairfield, Tracy, Walnut Creek, Martinez and elsewhere.
But nowhere is its stamp bigger, and its roots deeper, than in Pittsburg, where the company has built most of the city's housing, listing 44 home communities and apartment complexes. Its development companies also own a handful of shopping centers, and the Seenos can often be spotted at local social events.
"No comment," replied Pittsburg City Manager Marc Grisham, when asked about the raid. Evola, the Pittsburg mayor and Discovery executive vice president, also declined to comment, saying he didn't know any of the specifics of the search.
Pittsburg Councilwoman Nancy Parent expressed surprise, saying she wanted to learn "if they find anything or if it's just a witch hunt," before responding.
"In my experience with them, we've had our differences, but what they say they're going to do, they're pretty much going to do it," Parent said.
According to its Web site, Seeno Homes — encompassing A. D. Seeno Construction Co. and Legacy Luxury Homes — "has built homes for more than 30,000 satisfied families."
That may capture only a portion of its customers. According to a 2006 J.D. Power and Associates study, Seeno ranked worst among 16 Bay Area homebuilders in customer satisfaction. The company also has faced rebuke over environmental concerns.
In 1996, the regional water quality control board ordered a part of Albert Seeno's construction empire to pay $138,600 for erosion in a Petaluma subdivision.
Seeno agreed to pay $1 million in fines in 2002 for violating the federal Endangered Species Act by killing threatened red-legged frogs and ruining habitat in his San Marco subdivision in Pittsburg.
And in 2008, Albert D. Seeno Construction Co. agreed to pay $2.9 million to settle a civil case with the state Attorney General's Office over environmental issues at an Antioch residential project. State officials found that three creeks and four seasonal ponds had been filled in during home construction. The company also agreed to give about 60 acres of land to the East Bay Regional Park District.
As with many private firms, "we know they do things their own way" and "run their business the way they want to run their business," said Pittsburg Councilman Ben Johnson. He declined to "even speculate at this point and time what was being investigated."
With the housing bubble's loud burst in many of its core markets, Seeno homebuilding appears to have slowed dramatically. Its Web site lists just three "upcoming communities" — two in Oakley and one in Vacaville. At the same time, casino revenue across Nevada fell nearly 20 percent from 2006 to 2009.
Even so, the business empire has afforded the Seenos hefty political influence: Campaign finance records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics indicate the family has made at least $516,000 in contributions to federal candidates since 1989.
That includes sizable contributions to national and state Democratic and Republican party organs, as well as to California and Nevada politicians including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who heads the environment and public works committee; House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Martinez; former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Alamo; David Harmer, a Republican who sought to succeed Tauscher in last year's special election; and former House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Tracy.
In California, the secretary of state's campaign finance database shows the company and members of the Seeno family have given at least $435,000 to various state candidates and causes over the past decade.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaigns and committees received at least $65,585 from the family and its businesses, while likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate and state Attorney General Jerry Brown's campaigns received at least $45,500.
Among the family's greatest beneficiaries has been Oakland mayoral candidate and former state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata. The Seenos and their businesses gave at least $131,400 to his campaigns or committees under his control. Perata was the subject of a years-long FBI public corruption probe that ended this year with federal prosecutors declining to bring charges.
Staff writers Paul Burgarino and Paul Thissen contributed to this story.