James Webb sure looks and sounds like he's all that. He drives a Bentley, a Hummer and a Mercedes. He's been known to supervise his construction crews draped in a full-length mink, a Rolex glittering on his wrist. Over the last decade, the 42-year-old Brunswick County native and former N.C. Central University student body president has built a network of construction and real estate deals that stretches from the Triangle to the coast. He's landed contracts to build million-dollar houses in Durham's tony Treyburn subdivision and enticed strangers from across the nation to bankroll his plan to turn distressed low-income housing into high-stakes profits.
Fellow African Americans empathize with his lament about how hard it is for black general contractors to break into high-end neighborhoods, and often are charmed into signing on the dotted line when Webb describes his dream of becoming the "builder of choice" for wealthy black Triangle residents.
Progressives are impressed with his grasp of affordable housing shortages and his enthusiastic talk of rejuvenating blighted neighborhoods in towns like Rocky Mount and Fayetteville.
Christian business associates are disarmed when, in the face of their complaints about overdue invoices, Webb proposes they join in mutual prayer to ask God to help mediate their dispute.
And when his own word and record aren't quite enough to close the deal, Webb surrounds himself with influential and respected people, such as former U.S. Attorney and Superior Court Judge Sam Currin, and hires employees with reputable records who bring their local business relationships with them.
Fortune 500 executives, local high-tech business owners, Red Hat's former mergers and acquisitions chief and the founders of a California charitable foundation have all bought into Webb's flashy image and splashy sales pitches over the last five years. They've hired Webb Builders to construct magnificent estate homes and handed him seven-figure checks to finance Alpine Properties, the real estate firm that buys and renovates low-income housing Down East.
But all of Webb's well-spoken charm belies an inauspicious past, when he was convicted of lying to the federal government, dissolved his first enterprise in bankruptcy and drove a beat-up truck.
An investigation by the Independent shows his present isn't so pleasant, either.
Over the last year, disputes with former partners, clients and subcontractors over unpaid bills and unbuilt houses have escalated into litigation littered with words like "fraud," "unjust enrichment" and "deceptive trade practices." Currently, Webb is fending off his creditors--and defending his professional life--in more than a dozen lawsuits from Greensboro to the coast.
He and the companies he runs are involved in litigation in at least 10 counties, ranging from small claims by numerous subcontractors and suppliers to two multi-million-dollar disputes, both of which are heading for trial in the next six months.
Meanwhile, Webb's ventures have drawn attention from state regulatory agencies, three of which are now investigating complaints about his business dealings and allegations that he's practicing law and real estate without licenses for either, among other charges.
As a growing number of people who've trusted Webb with their checkbooks have learned, all his flash and splash ultimately seem to prove is that what he's most successful at is spending other people's money.
The Triangle business community got a glimpse of Webb's expensive tastes this spring in a full-page ad in the Triangle Business Journal. Soliciting investors for Alpine Properties, Webb poses in front of his $4-million mansion, between the grilles of his Bentley and his SUV, under the headline, "The Real Estate Investor and Developer's Best Friend." He talks about learning the art of the deal at the knee of one North Carolina's most prominent developers, Brunswick County land tycoon Odell Williamson. He boasts of having built "some of the most beautiful Estate Homes in the world," including his own, pictured in the background. But the ad fails to mention that his mentor was indicted in June 1999 on charges of using his position on the N.C. Board of Transportation to direct public road projects to benefit his private developments. (A judge ruled in December 1999 Williamson was medically unfit to stand trial, ending the case.) And it omits the fact that Webb and his wife didn't pay their $18,000 in annual property taxes on their cherished "Webb Estate" either of the last two years, until the county took them to court, Durham County court records show. Also absent is any mention that Webb's last four custom-home-building clients all fired him long before the roofs went on, and now are trying to collect damages.
Still, some who have done business with Webb say he really is the man in the ad.
"James is a smart guy, always innovative, always thinking of new ways of doing things, and he can see the broad picture," says Dr. Arnett Coleman, a Durham physician who has invested in Webb's business and been pleased with the results.
Others who have had less positive experiences say Webb simply falls behind in construction schedules or interest payments because he juggles too many projects.
But his harshest critics--some of whom have given him hundreds of thousands of dollars they don't expect to see again--use terms like "Ponzi scheme" when describing Alpine Properties, a business in which Webb moves other people's money to and from a dizzying array of corporate entities while buying, rehabilitating and selling hundreds of dilapidated fixer-uppers.
A-A-A Electrical Co. in Garner is suing Webb for payment of wiring and code-inspection work on some of those houses--a claim that at a mere $40,000 is one of Webb's smaller lawsuits. In a complaint filed last year, company president John Yates alleges Webb has refused to pay even after the houses had sold, and wouldn't return phone calls or respond to requests to settle the bill.
"There's some pretty rotten people out there, and he's one of them," says Yates. "He's one of those people who's so sold on his own idea, he can babble on and on about how great he is while he's not accomplishing a thing in the world except swindling a lot of people."
The explanation for why so many of Webb's business deals head south depends on who you ask--and on the advice of his many attorneys, Webb himself isn't answering questions. After initially agreeing to an interview with his client, attorney Perry Safran--who represents Webb's Webb Builders and Alpine Properties corporations--later changed his mind, saying Webb was traveling and unavailable. Safran and Webb's personal attorney, Ed Gaskins, also declined to answer written questions about Webb's history and businesses, even those unrelated to current litigation.
Though Webb isn't talking, court records, land transactions and other public documents dating back to the early 1990s reveal a paper trail that would make most investors think twice before cutting him a check.
A disastrous start
The Alpine Properties deal Webb promoted in his infomercial-like ad in March was his second attempt at turning run-down houses into profits. After graduating from N.C. Central with a degree in sociology in 1984, he moved to Wilmington to take up the construction trade he'd learned from his father and Williamson, the Ocean Isle real estate magnate and politician. Webb spins his early career as a big success in his ad copy: "Within the first three years James had purchased and renovated over 100 units of distressed rental real estate. His business had grown to a construction crew of over 30 men and only 1 administrative person. (You guessed right, just Him!)."
But the paper trail reflects a different reality: This first chapter of Webb's adventures in real estate ended in a federal conviction and financial ruin. In 1991, Webb faced nine charges stemming from real estate deals involving the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to court records, which show Webb pleaded guilty to one of the charges--lying to HUD. The rest were dismissed, and he served four months of a two-year sentence. In his application for a N.C. general contractor's license several years later, Webb said the conviction arose from his misunderstanding of HUD regulations about houses he was investing in needing to be owner-occupied.
A year after his sentence ended in April 1992, Webb declared Chapter 7 to escape his creditors, according to federal bankruptcy court records-- one of several "personal life crises" he refers to in his Alpine Properties ad.
After completing his three-year probation in the HUD case, Webb left the wreckage of his first business model in splinters at the coast and relocated to the Triangle. Obtaining an unlimited general contractor's license in 1996, he set out to master the more lucrative end of the housing spectrum. In the late 1990s, Webb Builders was hired to construct high-dollar private homes in all three Triangle counties, and to do various projects at several area churches, including White Rock Baptist, the historic African-American church in Durham where he worships.
This second phase of Webb's career gave rise to one of the two multi-million-dollar lawsuits now pending, a complicated conflict among Webb and four of his clients. Various documents entered in the court case, including affidavits, contracts, complaints and other evidence, detail the dispute.
In 1999 and 2000, the same years he was constructing his own mansion along the Wake-Durham county line, Webb contracted to build custom houses for four African-American couples. Two were related by marriage and planned to retire from out of state to the same street in Treyburn. In part because they liked the idea of giving their business to an African-American builder, Carl and Claire Williams and John and Betty Jones chose Webb to execute architectural plans for homes costing $1.4 million and $790,000, respectively. Webb was also hired by Bernard Law and Rudra Seegobin-Law to build a $442,000 house in Chapel Hill's Fern Creek subdivision, and by Earl and Terri Harris to build a $265,000 house in the Riverbend subdivision in Durham.
All four couples eventually fired Webb midway through the jobs, Webb acknowledges in affidavits. He filed suit against each of them in 2001, seeking to collect payment on the contracts. In the complaints, the contractor accused his former clients of costing him future profits by bad-mouthing him to potential customers, including a builder-selection committee at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Durham, where Webb claimed to be a finalist for a $1.4- million project.
"We started that action. We started that action because those families owe James seven figures," says Safran, Webb's attorney.
The couples countersued, alleging shoddy workmanship that failed inspection, unreasonable delays and other complaints about Webb's professional performance and business practices. The couples, who hired other contractors to finish their houses, are seeking damages and reimbursement for the extra expenses they incurred by having to switch builders and redo Webb's work, which they allege included significant structural defects.
"We're talking about workmanship that was shoddy, workmanship that was defective, workmanship that was certainly below standard, requiring my clients to spend significant amounts to repair," says Donald Eggleston, who represents the couples.
The cases, which involve parallel scenarios and evidence, eventually grew so complex and contentious that the Durham and Orange county judges combined them into one suit and sent it to the specialized N.C. Business Court in Greensboro. The trial is scheduled for the first week of January for the Williamses and the Joneses. The Laws and the Harrises settled their disputes with Webb earlier this year, at least in principle. While the terms of the settlement are sealed, it's clear that Webb was the one laying out cash to the couples he initially brought legal action against: Court documents show Webb wrote two checks to complete the settlements.
Both of them bounced, according to a motion the couples filed asking for sanctions. A plaintiff in the other multi-million-dollar suit now pending had put a hold on Webb's account, causing the checks to be returned unnecessarily, Webb's lawyer says.
"That was an illegal attachment," says Safran, who subsequently convinced a judge to remove the hold. Though the paperwork isn't complete, lawyers on both sides predict the Law and Harris settlements will be finalized before the trial date arrives next month.
Asked whether Webb lost the first two cases, based on the couples collecting an undisclosed amount, Safran says: "A settlement's a settlement; neither side admits guilt. It made sense for my client for me to cull the litigation down to two cases."
The four house projects at issue also spawned a number of smaller lawsuits, including several brought by the owners of Guy C. Lee Building Materials in Smithfield, who say Webb didn't pay for the lumber and other supplies they delivered. Most of those suits are on hold pending the outcome in Greensboro.
Community service or complicated swindle?
As the custom-home business spiraled down into a legal quagmire, Webb reinvented his career one more time. Reviving his idea of turning a profit while resuscitating low-income neighborhoods and putting affordable housing on the market, he founded Alpine Properties in May 2002. According to the company's own marketing materials, court records and other documents, Alpine's two-step business model was set up to work like this: An investor would loan Webb cash to buy a distressed house and refurbish it in towns such as Rocky Mount, Fayetteville and Danville, Va. In return, the investors received a deed of trust for the value of their loans, which generally fell in the $40,000-per-house range. Webb would buy the houses in Alpine's name for roughly $10,000 to $15,000 each, leaving the rest of the initial capital for repairs and his own profits. Webb Builders crews would then transform the houses into dwellings that could be sold for an affordable price but still a healthy profit--Webb claimed an average sales price of $65,000--to low- or moderate-income home-buyers or to investors seeking rentals. Webb would then sell the house and pay off the initial investor. In at least some cases, if the buyer was an investor (as opposed to an owner-occupant), Webb retained an interest in the houses through corporate entities he created jointly with his buyers, and Alpine would find tenants and collect rents, generating ongoing income for the second investor and property management business for Alpine.
It's clear from the deeds of trust on file in various counties that Webb was pretty successful at selling the front end of the deal. Some investors put in $40,000 to finance one house and took their payout when it sold, in a few cases doubling their money in a matter of weeks, according to sources close to the operation. Others invested multiple times for multiple houses. Spitfire Investments, a group based in Salt Lake City, put up $200,000 for five houses, says manager Roger Fuller.
Probably expecting that such high-stakes backers would do a background check likely to uncover his legal problems with HUD and his 1993 bankruptcy, Webb reversed his best-face-forward approach and confessed his history to the potential investors, Fuller says, using it to explain that he particularly needed their help because he couldn't qualify for bank loans.
Spitfire took the chance, and Webb delivered 80-percent returns on their money, Fuller says. The venture was so successful the investors ponied up another $200,000 on a second set of houses. But this time, the deal hasn't gone quite as smoothly.
"To make the returns he was promising, he had to turn the homes around in a short period of time," Fuller says. "He wasn't turning the homes around as fast as he needed to, and he wasn't closing the deals on the back end."
It's not surprising that Webb had difficulties finding buyers, says Tasha Harrison, the housing counselor for the Rocky Mount/Edgecombe Community Development Corporation, who says she doesn't know of any houses Alpine has sold to low-income homeowners.
"Because of where they're located, you run into a lot of issues," Harrison says. "You can't just put a house on the ground and say, 'OK, now a buyer's going to come.'"
Webb stopped making the $11,000 bimonthly interest payments on Spitfire's second deed of trust this spring, Fuller says. The remaining balance on the note came due in July, and when no check arrived in the mail, Fuller began to suspect Webb's business model was built on a shaky foundation.
"We're concerned now that he's running a Ponzi scheme," says Fuller, who figures his group is out about $75,000 of its second round of capital. "That's a strong word, but if he's been using other investors' money to pay off previous investors, that's pretty much the definition of the word, isn't it?"
Fuller was referring to a scheme named after New Englander Charles Ponzi, who ran a postage stamp speculation con in 1920. Like pyramid schemes, Ponzi schemes use income from new investors to pay off earlier investors until the whole structure collapses. Ponzi schemes are operated by a central company or person, who collects money from new investors and administers it to the old ones--unlike a pyramid scheme, where a hierarchy is created by people joining under others who joined previously, and those who join make payments to those above them.
Former U.S. Treasury agent Bill Branscum, who runs a private investigation firm specializing in financial scams, explains it this way: "The Ponzi operator typically represents that he has some sort of 'system' that is either incredibly complex or a proprietary secret. His system makes it possible for him to pay incredible rates of return. The elaborate office, exquisitely tailored suits, involvement with the church and generosity toward charitable organizations are all classic window-dressing. Ponzi schemes do not decline and fall; they are typically hugely successful until they collapse. Everyone is making money, everyone who wants their money out gets paid, and everyone is happy until the regulators shut it down or something precipitates a run on the bank."
Safran dismisses the comparison.
"It's like investing in a stock," Safran says. "If you invested in a stock and didn't get the returns you thought you were promised, do you sue the company?"
Safran also says he's willing to listen to Alpine investors' concerns.
"If they want to use the newspaper to complain, that's fine, but if they haven't complained to us, how can we address that?" Safran says.
In Webb's investment pitch, he claimed he could generate up to 100 percent returns for investors in as little as four weeks, according to affidavits and Alpine's marketing materials. Webb also claimed to have between $6 million and $7 million in investor capital, a waiting list of buyers for 1,200 refurbished houses and 600 renovation projects under his belt in just two years.
After seeing Webb's PowerPoint presentation of those details last November, SilverDeer Management LLC partners Howard Jacobson and Rick Deckelbaum agreed to commit about $3 million to Alpine. It was the beginning of a relationship that soured quickly, spawning the second multi-million-dollar trial Webb's facing in 2005.
Jacobson and Deckelbaum were no strangers to fast-paced business: Jacobson headed mergers and acquisitions for Red Hat for five years before starting the private equity firm with Deckelbaum, who ran his own high-tech headhunting firm during the boom years of the '90s.
Webb was recommended to the two men by a business associate they both respected but declined to name in court records, a senior executive at a large financial institution who had successfully invested in Alpine. Webb made his pitch to Jacobson and Deckelbaum surrounded by the mutual associate and a second person who loaned credibility to his proposal: Sam Currin, the former judge, U.S. Attorney and chair of the N.C. Republican Party, whom Jacobson says in his affidavit was identified in the meeting as "an adviser" to Webb.
Currin declined comment, citing attorney-client confidentiality.
"I just don't make comments about former clients," says Currin, growing audibly agitated at questions about the relationship. "But I think you really ought to check your facts."
Later, Currin calls back to clarify that not only is Webb a former client, but he is also a current client. Asked again whether he attended the Alpine sales pitch as Webb's lawyer or to lend his hefty reputation as a character witness, Currin says: "He's my client, and any time I go to a meeting with him, I'm there as his lawyer."
Bringing Currin along is just one example of how Webb continually polishes his public image by surrounding himself with people who hold sway with the people he's trying to connect with. In another example, electrician John Yates had misgivings about rewiring Webb's Rocky Mount houses because he'd done a background check and found a sampling of Webb's pending lawsuits. But Webb hired a reputable project manager with local experience--including engaging Yates for jobs with other general contractors--and her vouching for Webb convinced Yates to do the $40,000 worth of work for which he's now suing to be paid.
The SilverDeer managers apparently were convinced by Webb's high-profile supporters, the financial successes he detailed and his salesmanship. They were also attracted to the dual option of making money while accomplishing a goal in the public interest.
"We were enthusiastic about the opportunity to use our expertise and our money to help restore communities in Eastern North Carolina," Jacobson says in his affidavit. Soon after meeting with Webb, they created a new company called Housing and Community Revitalization to partner with Alpine Properties.
Unlike Alpine's other "front-end investors," HCR purchased houses outright, rather than loan Alpine the funds to do so. Under the partnership contract, HCR would raise capital to buy houses and fund the reconstruction process; Alpine would operate the renovations and the property management side of the business.
A contract was signed on Dec. 11, 2003, with HCR purchasing 72 houses primarily in Nash and Edgecombe counties, with a few sprinkled in Pitt, Pasquotank and Wilson counties, as well as across the Virginia state line in Danville. Webb agreed to bring them all on-line in mid-February. But within a few weeks, the HCR partners allege, it became evident Webb wouldn't fulfill his promised timeline. The longer it took to flip the houses, the lower the returns, so for big investors like HCR and Spitfire, Webb's missing deadlines translated directly into dramatically lower profits--and the possibility of none at all.
"The model could work really well if you run it right," says Spitfire's Fuller, who has seen similar strategies involving apartment complexes succeed in other states. "The bottom line is, you've got to keep up the pace of the work."
One delay that apparently affected Webb's turnaround time, at least in Rocky Mount, was intervention by building inspectors. The city shut down several of Alpine's projects because unlicensed subcontractors were performing plumbing and electrical repairs, says Richard Strickland, the city's inspections services administrator. Alpine also moved tenants into houses before work was completed or final inspections passed, Strickland says.
Though Webb eventually improved his compliance with building codes and city regulations, Strickland says the 40 to 50 jobs Alpine ran in his jurisdiction were the source of contentious meetings and at least one fine.
"Every time we went to an Alpine site, there was a 99-percent chance that it would be a problem," Strickland says.
Meanwhile, according to Jacobson's affidavit, the HCR partners continued to pay Webb six-digit construction installments while becoming alarmed about the lack of progress. In mid-January, they toured the job sites and complained that very little work was started even though they had paid 50 percent of the contract and the Feb. 11 deadline loomed.
At the end of March, the investors allege, Webb quit working on their houses altogether. By then, HCR had paid Alpine about $1.6 million for remodeling, as well as laying out $1.2 million to purchase the houses--funds they had amassed from 14 individual investors. They filed suit in Wake County Superior Court, asking, in essence, for a refund.
They allege their former partner used as little as half of their money for its intended purpose. They contend Webb spent the rest to make interest and principal payments to his previous investors and to settle other business debts unrelated to HCR, as well as squandering large chunks on personal expenses like a New Year's vacation in the Bahamas with his wife.
Webb alleges in counterclaims that HCR did not meet its contractual obligations to finance the renovations.
"We spent more money than they gave us," says Safran.
The plaintiffs declined comment on the pending lawsuit, except to say that since terminating their partnership, they have progressed in renovating their 72 houses and plan to follow through on their investment in affordable housing.
The case is scheduled to go to trial in May.
Regulators get involved
While the civil litigation grinds slowly through the various courts, state regulators at the N.C. Licensing Board for General Contractors, the State Bar and the Real Estate Commission have begun to investigate various aspects of Webb's business life. Though Webb's contractor's license remains in good standing--a fact that reassured potential home-building clients who checked before hiring him--that board is looking into two complaints, says complaints administrator Susan Dixon. One was filed in August 2003 and the second in August 2004. Since both are unresolved, details of the nature of the problems and the complainants' names remain confidential.
The State Bar is looking into the possibility that Webb misleads the public by implying that Alpine Properties offers legal services in ads like the one that appeared in the Triangle Business Journal, according to an investigation launched by deputy counsel Jennifer Porter in a letter to Webb on May 18, 2004.
Under state law, Porter says, a company cannot provide legal services to the public--or even advertise as qualified to do so--unless it's licensed as a law firm, which Alpine is not. In response to Porter's inquiry, Currin replied on Webb's behalf, asserting the mistake was inadvertent and would not be repeated.
"Mr. Webb has advised me that he has always used the legal services of outside counsel for Alpine loan closings in particular, and any other legal services required by his company and clients," Currin wrote.
Porter's investigation continues, however; she plans to take the matter to the bar's unauthorized practice committee for review next month.
The Real Estate Commission's probe centers on the agency's concern that Webb might be engaging in business activities that require a real estate license he doesn't have. One such enterprise is managing rental property owned by a third party, says the commission's chief deputy counsel Blackwell Brogden, who opened an investigation in April. In his response, Webb assured the commission that he was obeying the law and would run any real estate deals requiring a license through yet another of his corporate entities, Diamond Eagle LLC, an agency that had been licensed by the commission in 2004 but at the time of the inquiry was suspended from activity.
Shortly after Brogden began asking questions, Webb hired Chris Spicer, a licensed agent, who in turn obtained real estate certification for Alpine in May. In a follow-up letter in August, Brogden asked whether Alpine was holding property management-related funds, such as security deposits, and requested that Spicer submit the mandatory financial paperwork about trust and escrow accounts. Days later, Spicer resigned.
"I had some suspicions about some things and that was enough for me," Spicer says, declining further comment. "I really don't want to be involved."
Spicer is not alone among Webb's former employees and associates distancing themselves in recent months. Amy Robinson, a Littleton attorney who handled many of Alpine's land transactions, notified the N.C. Secretary of State in October that she has withdrawn from the various Alpine-related corporate entities she helped set up. Saying she's turning her practice from real estate to criminal law, Robinson declined comment other than to state she no longer handles any legal work for her former client.
Alpine's former executive director, Brenda Peak, who is also a licensed broker and so fell under the scope of the Real Estate Commission's fact-finding, wrote a letter to the REC on Aug. 31 saying she was no longer associated with the company or its president.
As Alpine's staffers vacate their positions, the company itself has vanished from its headquarters. The doors are locked and the sign dismantled at 6131 Falls of the Neuse Road, Suite 200--the address at which Webb's March newspaper ad invited investors to "Call and allow us to become Your Best Friend."
"The success from that model has been realized," Safran says. The houses Alpine owned or managed are in the process of being sold or transferred to other property management companies, he says. "The model was complete, and Mr. Webb has closed out that particular format of his business."
That news came as a surprise to some, including investor Arnett Coleman, the Durham doctor who'd spoken highly of Webb.
At the same time, more people who wrote Webb checks continue to come forward with claims.
After waiting three years for Webb to break ground on his $1.1-million house right next door to "The Webb Estate," Maryland businessman Fred Cherry hired a lawyer just this fall to recoup his $75,000 deposit.
Cherry hoped the threat of legal action would spur the contractor to get moving or give the money back, but Webb's done neither, says Cherry's lawyer, Jeffrey Gray.
"It's not unusual, in the building business, to have a contractor not build a house in a timely manner," Gray says. "But apparently, this guy is running the scam that we thought."
With trials looming, industry regulators probing and his companies winding down, Webb is apparently moving on.
One former business associate reports that Webb has been contacting creditors who have taken out liens on his Raleigh mansion, asking to negotiate a payment scheme that would cancel the liens--a necessary step before the house could be sold.
Its occupant is apparently heading for new endeavors in a warmer climate.
Miami doctor Mark Nestor met Webb in Florida this summer, at the end of a long circular driveway leading up to a waterfront estate just west of Fort Lauderdale.
"There was a Bentley in the driveway, and he and his wife and kids were there, and they wouldn't let us see the house," says Nestor.
Nestor and his wife were house-shopping and had come to tour the $3-million mansion, which Baltimore Orioles pitcher Omar Daal was selling.
Webb had planned to buy the house himself and was living there with his family already, under some arrangement with Daal pending a January 2005 closing, Nestor says. But the deal apparently had fallen through, and Daal put the house back on the market while the Webbs were still parked there.
The potential buyers came back three times before Webb would let them in.
"The whole thing was pretty bizarre," says Nestor, who finally purchased the house in late October. Webb was long gone by then, but at the headquarters of the Florida Construction Industry Licensing Board in Tallahassee, Nestor's new address remains on file under Webb's name. Records show that Webb applied for a general contractor's license while living there in September, and has been cleared to take the exam. His application is pending.