NEW ORLEANS — The FBI appears to be investigating a well-known New Orleans real estate developer accused in civil lawsuits of bilking investors out of millions of dollars in what one investor has alleged is a Ponzi scheme.
Multiple investors said that FBI agents have questioned them and sought documents related to money they gave to Roland Von Kurnatowski -- a businessman best known as the owner of the famed music club Tipitina’s, which he sold last fall to the funk band Galactic amid a flurry of lawsuits and admitted cash-flow problems.
Yvonne Perret, one of the investors who gave Von Kurnatowski money for what was at one time pitched as an investment in U.S. Treasury bonds, said she has met with FBI and Postal Service agents, who asked her “what I knew about his operation, why I got into it, what I had been told and what had been written down and sent to me.”
“They did call me in, and I know they’ve spoken to a couple of other people about what’s been going on,” said Perret.
Craig Betbeze, the public affairs officer for the FBI's New Orleans field office, said that based on FBI policy, he could not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.
The “operation” Perret is referring to is Bond Fund One, an investment fund Von Kurnatowski said he started in 1987. Documents provided by Von Kurnatowski as well as those filed in a series of lawsuits purport to show that he built the fund up over the years by convincing friends -- and later, the friends and family of those friends -- to give him hundreds of thousands of dollars to invest in relatively safe, easily cashed U.S. treasury bonds or bond derivatives.
Years later, according to Von Kurnatowski, he shifted the investments from the fund into a company he established in 1996 called BF-I LLC, or in other documents “BFI LLC” or “Bond Fund I (BFI) LLC,” that provided bridge loans and other financing for more than $272 million in real estate projects. He said investors were informed of the change.
Still, six of his investors are suing him in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, alleging their money should have been invested in liquid U.S. Treasury Bonds or bond-related securities and not in real estate. Court records show Von Kurnatowski signed up new investors as recently as 2008 with documents stating their money was for daily trading of bonds.
Those investors said they thought their money was still in bonds until 2017, when monthly distributions from BFI suddenly stopped, withdrawal payment checks bounced and Von Kurnatowski informed them he did not have cash available to pay them, even though monthly investor statements from January 2018 showed BFI with a value of more than $13 million.
One of the earliest investors, retired Jesuit priest Antone Lynch, alleged in his lawsuit that Bond Fund One is a “Ponzi scheme,” or a scam in which investment returns are falsified and early investors are paid out with the money received from later investors, until the money runs out and the scheme collapses.
Based on documents provided by Von Kurnatowski, his investment fund appeared to be wildly successful. The documents show returns of around 10 percent a year for Bond Fund One, with investors’ share of the fund growing from $300,000 in 1987 to more than $8 million by 2004, even as many of those investors took thousands of dollars in monthly distributions along the way.
Also included in the documents provided by Von Kurnatowski is an undated project description attached to a 1996 investor agreement. It lists BFI’s activities as “property development, property development services, property management, project bridge financing and music production.” Von Kurnatowski also provided documents that he called “investor selection forms.” They are signed by several of his investors over the course of the 2000s when they added or withdrew money from their accounts, though they say nothing about BFI being for real estate and are riddled with typos.
Von Kurnatowski said he’s used BFI to support several real-estate investments, including a $15 million renovation of the historic Sears Building in downtown Shreveport, $6 million in music co-ops used by his nonprofit Tipitina’s Foundation, the $13 million Orpheum Theater in downtown New Orleans and, currently, a $15 million event venue called Lakeshore Landing that he’s building on public property next to Lake Pontchartrain’s Southshore Harbor.
Von Kurnatowski said he understands some of his investors have hardships, but asked for their patience as he works to finish the event venue at the Lakeshore Landing project and make more income from apartments he built in Shreveport.
Asked how an investor would know their money was going to his real estate ventures by reading those forms, Von Kurnatowski changed the subject.
“What I was going to say is, there’s more to the discussion. For instance, Louis Pendarvis, he went to many projects with me,” Von Kurnatowski said.
Louis Pendarvis, a licensed pilot, said he did fly Von Kurnatowski’s private plane to a few of the real estate projects.
“And I commented, ‘It looks like it’s going to be successful, Roland,’” Louis Pendarvis said. “But never did he say, ‘You know, this is where your money’s going.’”
Louis and Mary Lynn Pendarvis invested $165,000 in 1994 and 1995 as Louis was retiring from a long career as a schoolteacher and coach.
The Pendarvises’ account grew to more than $570,000 in early 2018 according to investment documents they received, and Louis convinced his daughter, Paula Pendarvis-Milham and her husband, former WDSU meteorologist Dan Milham, to invest in BFI in 2004, eight years after Von Kurnatowski said he had converted BFI into a real estate support company.
The investment description signed by both Pendarvis-Milham and Von Kurnatowski on Feb. 26, 2004, states the “purpose of BFI is to engage in the trading of U.S. Treasury Bonds on a daily basis.”
When asked about the discrepancy, Von Kurnatowski called it a “clerical error” and a “misunderstanding.”
“I believe that they just got this by mistake as opposed to the current operational one, you see what I’m saying?” he said.
“This is not a misunderstanding,” Pendarvis-Milham said. “Roland handed me that document and he went over it line by line by line, explaining his daily trading of U.S. Treasury Bonds and what a great investment it was and how safe it was. And he signed it right there. He and I both signed it right there with my dad in the room as a witness.”
Regardless of when Von Kurnatowski changed his investment strategy, he never registered as a bond broker or dealer, according to allegations in some of the investors' lawsuits. Von Kurnatowski said he didn’t have to register because Bond Fund One was an informal “investment club” where he was just one of several “co-investors.”
But Tom Potter, a Nashville, Tenn.-based securities attorney who reviewed the investment documents for the funds, said registration is required for anyone managing or directing the trading of U.S. Treasury Bonds.
“He should have been subject to registration and oversight under any of several different variations of this,” Potter said.
Many of the investors suing Von Kurnatowski had trusted him with their money for years, and in some cases decades, and were relying on the income from a safe investment to pay for long-term care as they aged.
Mary Lynn Pendarvis, 84, was diagnosed with dementia five years ago, and Louis said they relied on monthly distributions of $2,000 or more to pay for in-home care. But the payments stopped in late 2017, and Louis asked to withdraw the rest of his money.
“He made three payments (of $11,000 each), and that was the end,” Louis Pendarvis said. “I’m getting very near the end of my finances and I don’t have enough now to be able to pay the sitters weekly.”
Jim Willeford, an attorney for Lynch, the Jesuit priest, says Lynch needs the money in his account to pay for his end-of-life care at a nursing home. He hasn't been able to get it.
“Father Lynch was incredibly trusting of Roland,” Willeford said. “(Von Kurnatowski) promised to make monthly payments, but then they stopped. And now, Roland’s lawyers are not even returning phone calls.”
Vincent and Val Spear invested in BFI in 2002 and their daughter, Yvonne Perret, followed in 2008.
Vincent Spear died in 2010, and Perret said her mother, now 89, told her children that they had invested in Bond Fund One to cover her care in case she needed to move into a nursing home. Now, Perret says her mother needs to go to a nursing home but can’t afford to because the $383,000 documents show is in her BFI account is “all she has.”
Some investors said they are willing to wait. Chris Grayson, a Los Angeles-area businessman, says Von Kurnatowski told him about the shift to real estate in 2002.
“It’s about investment and then patience,” Grayson said. “And sometimes it takes you longer than you think to get to that harvest mode.”
But Perret said Von Kurnatowski told her last year that she and her mother could get their money as soon as he sold his half of the Orpheum Theater.
“The Orpheum sale went through, and I texted him a couple of times and he said, ‘Yeah, we’re getting everything set up. There will be checks sent out within the next couple of weeks,’" said Perret.
"And of course that never happened," she said.