State investigators have put a Durham real estate management office out of business, closing the latest chapter in the seven-decade history of a firm that helped the city become known as America's "Black Wall Street."
Citing property owners' complaints of missing rent money, auditors' findings of sloppy and nonexistent bookkeeping and license-related paperwork problems at AT&G Associates, the N.C. Real Estate Commission revoked the licenses of salesman Booker Tate and broker Joseph Williams last month. The two men, who took over the business of Dunbar Realty and Insurance Company four years ago, may also face criminal prosecution.
"It's never a happy situation when we have to shut down a business," says Blackwell Brogden, the REC's chief deputy counsel. "But there was evidence here that money has been misappropriated, and the commission had no choice."
There are more than 93,000 real estate licensees in the state, and the regulatory agency revokes only about 30 licenses a year. Tate is a long-time Durham businessman who also ran an accounting firm under the name AT&G; Williams is a former Butner police officer who currently works for the Durham Police.
Acting on complaints from four clients who employed AT&G to manage their rental properties in and around central Durham, investigators determined that Tate and Williams could not account for at least $35,000 and possibly as much as $100,000 in rent money that was paid by tenants but never reached the owners. A March audit of the firm's books revealed its trust account--where security deposits and other business funds are supposed to be held--had dwindled to $3.37.
As the proprietor of AT&G, Tate managed about 30 apartments and duplexes that rent for as low as $250 a month, according to commission and court records. Tate took over Dunbar's business in April 2000 from Lavonia Allison, a prominent local activist and chairwoman of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. Allison, whose family started the company in 1935, ran into her own problems with regulators throughout the 1990s. (See www.indyweek.com/durham/2001-11-21/cover.html ).
Tate moved into Allison's old office and assumed many clients from Dunbar. It is unclear what financial arrangement Tate and Allison made: Tate told investigators no money changed hands, while Williams said AT&G received about $16,000 in security deposits at the time of the switch.
Ann Henderson Brockenborough is one of the many former Dunbar clients who signed on with Tate four years ago. She told investigators that her problems started about six months after he took over. By the time she filed a formal complaint in April 2003, Tate owed her more than $11,000 in back rent on her family's four-plex on South Roxboro Street, according to commission records.
Brockenborough declined to be interviewed, pending possible litigation. In her statements to the commission, she provided copies of letters she wrote to Tate complaining of rental proceeds that were missing entirely or were paid with checks on the trust account that bounced, as well as his failure to return her phone calls or send her annual tax statements in a timely manner.
Sisters Pearl McAllister and Dora Green also sought the Real Estate Commission's help after months of frustration with Tate's management of their rental properties on Dunstan and Sedgefield streets.
"For nearly two years now, we have complained, called, left messages and written Mr. Tate, informing him of our disappointment and disgust over repeated and apparently willful tardiness in disbursing our funds," they wrote in March 2004. At that time, they wrote, they were missing rent proceeds for four months in 2003 and the first two months of 2004. In April, after the sisters hired a new management company, they told investigators that Tate had not transferred roughly $1,400 in security deposits to the new manager.
Williams told investigators he was only marginally involved in Tate's business, even though he was officially listed in paperwork as the "broker in charge" responsible for overseeing the books at AT&G. State regulations require each real estate firm to maintain at least one person with a broker's license to manage property for third-party owners; Tate was only licensed as a salesman. According to commission records, both men let their licenses lapse sporadically over their tenure at AT&G, including being on "inactive" or "expired" status several times, though they apparently still continued to operate the business.
All the while, Williams was employed in another job, first as a Butner police officer and currently with the Durham Police Department's crime analysis unit, according to commission records. Williams officially resigned from AT&G in May 2003, according to a letter he provided to investigators, though he was not replaced as broker in charge there.
Operating a real estate business with inactive or expired licenses and lacking a broker in charge are serious violations of state regulations that are designed to protect real estate consumers such as landlords, tenants, buyers and sellers.
In its formal statement of charges, the commission labeled Tate's and Williams' conduct "incompetent, unworthy, dishonest, improper and fraudulent."
Neither Tate nor Williams contested the commission's findings, and both surrendered their licenses just prior to a formal hearing in August. Tate declined to be interviewed; Williams did not return several phone messages.
After the commission ruled to revoke Tate's and Williams' licenses, its attorney forwarded the findings to Durham District Attorney Jim Hardin for consideration of possible criminal wrongdoing. Hardin has sent the case to the Durham Sheriff's Office, which has launched an investigation.
"It looked like there was enough there to send it onward," Hardin said.
Tate's history of real estate management difficulties also spill into the court system, where records show he owes a Hurdle Mills woman, Jean Tyler, nearly $24,000--a judgment imposed on him in March 2004 at the conclusion of a dispute over ownership of a house on Angier Avenue in Durham. In another civil suit, AT&G client Mildred Easterling sought the court's help with problems that echoed similar complaints other property owners had lodged with the state, such as Tate not paying her rent proceeds and failing to account for money allegedly spent on repairs to her property on Martha Street. Easterling won a judgment of $1,600. Records show both debts unpaid as of this month.
Durham County court records also show Tate has a history of traffic and misdemeanor criminal charges over the last two decades. Since 1983, he has been charged with 35 offenses, including three counts of writing worthless checks, one count of carrying a concealed weapon and several counts of driving with his license revoked.
Court documents also reveal property battles between Tate and Allison, who sought to evict her successor from the former Dunbar office, a house at 1213 Fayetteville St. that was also her childhood home. In April 2002, May 2003 and August 2004, Allison alleged Tate owed her back rent, at times approaching $3,000. Twice Tate paid up; the third complaint was dismissed on Aug. 26, when neither party showed up for the hearing.
As for other property owners hoping to collect back rent from the now-defunct company, Brogden predicted the N.C. Real Estate Commission may end up paying a portion of the claims out of its recovery fund, which provides relief for victims who lose money in cases like this one. The fund comes from money collected in licensing fees--not tax dollars--and repays claims up to a total of $50,000 per salesperson or broker.