[BenIndy contributor Nathalie Christian: Here’s a real gem from the article below: Concord’s negotiations with Seeno were halted not by “term-sheet specifics or the deal point, but rather [by] accusations that were made through editorial comment that were in the local papers.'” There it is, folks – proof that your letters to the editor and other community-facing actions like making a public comment at a city council meeting, public hearing or study can absolutely change outcomes. They sure did in Concord, no? Never underestimate the value of sharing your opinion with your community. Your community is listening. In the next few days I will be sharing other viewpoints on this important topic. Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to share yours. – N.C.]
The Real Deal [Real Estate News], by Pawan Naidu, May 1, 2023
For a family that’s spent the last nine decades building a real estate empire spanning thousands of homes in the East Bay, the Seenos have generally tried to keep their business dealings quiet.
“They don’t take the Donald Trump approach and pat themselves on the back,” said Phil Tagami, CEO of California Capital and Investment Group, which partnered with the Seenos on a failed bid to redevelop a former naval base in the region. “They just go onto the next project.”
But the spotlight they’ve avoided for decades does find them occasionally — and not for the right reasons.
For the past year, 80-year-old patriarch Albert Seeno Jr. has been waging a battle for control of the family business with his son Albert III, who he claims mishandled funds and attempted to muscle him and other relatives out. That is only the latest chapter in the Seenos’ decades-long legal history, which is dotted with allegations ranging from political meddling to threats of outright violence.
The Seenos did not respond to interview requests for this story.
The American dream
The family’s Bay Area story began when Albert Jr.’s grandfather Gaetano Seeno came to the U.S. in the early 1900s, one of thousands of Italian immigrants who became fishermen in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and Suisun Bay.
Gaetano later worked in construction, eventually bringing his son Albert Sr. into the business.
Albert Sr. launched his own construction business in 1938, and at the time of his death in 2000, the company had built more than 30,000 homes, dozens of shopping centers, apartment buildings and offices, mostly in eastern Contra Costa County.
“In [the East Bay’s] Pittsburg, you can drive for miles and everything you see is a Seeno project,” Bob Rossi, a company executive, told SFGate in 2000. “[Albert Sr.] loved Pittsburg and took great pride in what he and his sons accomplished here.”
When Albert Sr. retired in the 1970s, he turned his company over to his sons, Albert Jr. and Thomas, who continue to run it as a family business across five companies: ADSCO, Seecon, West Coast Home Builders, North Village Development and Seecon Built Homes.
In 1997, third-generation exec Albert III followed in his father’s footsteps and started his own branch of the family business: Discovery Builders.
The growth that Albert Jr. led didn’t come without controversy, even though some locals have seen him in a different light.
“He’s almost like the pope with these people in town,” Allen Valentine, former Pittsburg Planning Commissioner, told SF Gate in 2002.
Nevertheless, he has been accused on multiple occasions of having improper relationships with local leaders — including allegations that he helped former Pittsburg Mayor Frank Aiello secure a favorable mortgage to buy a Seeno home, raising questions about whether the loan constituted a prohibited gift to an elected official. In 2004, Aiello agreed to pay $20,000 after failing to disclose gifts he’d received from Albert Jr., including Oakland Raiders tickets and trips to a casino in Reno, according to SFGate.
In 2003, former Pittsburg Councilmember Frank Quesada was sentenced to 300 hours of community service after pleading no contest to conflict-of-interest charges stemming from his votes on Albert Jr.’s projects while he owed the developer $370,000 in personal debt.
At a panel discussion ahead of the 2012 Pittsburg City Council election, voters expressed concern about the family’s outsized influence over the body, noting that the Seenos owned 90 percent of the city’s undeveloped land, according to the Mercury News.
Despite the alleged improprieties, the family has sought to maintain a favorable local reputation — and continue developing new projects. Last month, Discovery Builders scored approval to build 1,500 homes on 341 acres just outside Pittsburg after years of pushback from local officials and environmental groups.
But as Albert III tries to move the business forward, the family’s past keeps coming back to haunt him.
Other far more serious accusations have been levied against the family. In 2012, the Seenos sued influential Las Vegas lobbyist Harvey Whittemore, accusing him of embezzling millions from a joint real estate venture called Wingfield Nevada Group Holding Co.
Whittemore countersued Albert Jr., accusing the father and son of threatening him and his family of failing to repay millions of dollars in alleged debts from a real estate partnership that fell apart in 2011. Whittemore sought $1.8 billion in damages from Albert III and his brother, accusing the Seenos of racketeering, extortion, grand larceny and threats of bodily harm.
No criminal charges were filed, and the lawsuits were settled confidentially in 2013, months before Whittemore was sentenced to two years in prison for illegal campaign contributions to Senator Harry Reid.
“[Whittemore] filed a frivolous, baseless lawsuit that went nowhere and was dropped,” Louis Parsons, president of Seeno-affiliated Discovery Builders, told The Real Deal.
But Whittemore wasn’t the only one to make accusations of intimidation against a member of the Seeno family. In 2017, Ayman Shahid, a high school friend of Albert III and former president of Discovery’s sales arm, alleged that the younger Seeno issued him a “chilling death threat,” according to court documents. The alleged threat had to do with Shahid agreeing to assist the FBI in a probe into alleged mortgage fraud tied to the family business.
“Hey [expletive]. You’re going down! I’m going to kill you!” Shahid accused Seeno III of saying, according to court filings.
The charges were ultimately dismissed due to lack of evidence of a credible threat.
“There is no evidence that Shahid was ever in any actual danger,” federal prosecutor John Hemann wrote to the court. “Though totally and completely inappropriate and potentially retaliatory in nature, it appears that his former boss was venting anger rather than actually threatening death or harm to Shahid.”
The FBI’s investigation into mortgage fraud started in 2010 and ended in 2017, with a federal raid of the Seeno family’s headquarters in Concord. Investigators alleged that Seeno companies misled bank underwriters about the true value of homes, according to an FBI spokesperson. The alleged misconduct took place between 2006 and 2008 when Discovery took steps to avoid losing its position in the market, according to court documents.
The filings revealed that Discovery incentived new homebuyers by funding their down payments and subsidizing their mortgage payments. The company’s employees and others worked to ensure these incentives were not disclosed on mortgage loan applications.
While no member of the Seeno family was charged, Shahid pleaded guilty to bank fraud and Discovery Sales was fined $8 million and ordered to pay $3 million in restitution. Albert III denied any involvement.
“The U.S. attorney’s office confirmed after years of investigation and interviewing hundreds of people that there was no evidence that Albert Seeno III or other leadership knew or participated in the actions by rogue [former] employees,” Parsons told TRD.
Even though Shahid cooperated with the federal investigations, he still received a 46-month prison term in 2017.
“It’s important to me that white collar defendants believe if they act this way they will suffer serious custodial sentences,” Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rodgers said at the sentencing.
Throughout the various accusations, it has always been the Seenos on the same side. But a new lawsuit between father and son has changed that.
The recent lawsuit filed by Albert Jr. claims that Albert III was terminated as CEO of two of the family companies: Seecon and Seecon Built Homes. It was a role Albert III was elevated to in July of 2020. Albert Jr. claims he attempted to fire his son in February and March of last year, but his son did not comply. Albert III instead argues that there is language in his employment agreement that states he can only be terminated if he commits a felony that affects his father’s businesses.
Albert Jr., however, claims his succession plan was to promote his son without immediately ceding his own control over the companies. The lawsuit also alleges that the younger Seeno, along with Parsons, retained attorneys to draft an employment agreement with language that could force his father and other shareholders out.
Not long after the agreement was drafted, Albert III allegedly began “coercing, intimidating and then bullying” his father into fulfilling the contract, according to the lawsuit.
“Seeno III intimidation tactics included, but were not limited to, attempting to bully and denigrate his father. When these tactics failed, Seeno III resorted to pressuring Seeno by telling him that if he did not sign the employment agreement, Seeno would never see his three grandsons again,” the filing reads.
Albert Jr. has also accused his son of blocking him from accessing company records and using Seeno Companies employees for Discovery Builders projects.
In one example, the lawsuit alleges that Discovery Builders used the Seeno Companies’ name and trademarks on a project to bring 252 single-family homes to Brentwood.
Albert III has denied all of the allegations in the lawsuit, according to Parsons.
“This is reflective of some natural tensions with succession planning that are often typical, unfortunately, and in my opinion, hardly newsworthy,” he said.
Albert III countersued his father in October, disputing claims of roughly $100 million of debt allegedly owed by Albert III and Discovery Builders.
Albert III alleges that funds from a trust his parents set up were used to pay down Albert Jr.’s debts without his permission. Albert III also accused his father of attempting to interrupt operations at Discovery Builders in the lawsuit.
The family feud has not only pitted father against son, but it also sent a warning shot across the Bay and played a role in killing a major project for the firm.
A partnership between Discovery, Lewis Group & Cos. and California Capital and Investment Group was selected to transform a former naval station in Concord into 16,000 new homes and more than six million square feet of commercial space. The partnership known as Concord First Partners was approved by the Concord City Council in a 3-2 vote in August 2021.
But after a two-hour special meeting on Jan. 28 of this year, the council voted to cut ties with the group, citing concerns over the Seeno family feud and why it wasn’t disclosed sooner.
“Where’s the integrity, where’s the information to let us know?” Concord Mayor Laura Hoffmeister said during the meeting. “We had to read about it in the newspapers, that’s not what I’m looking for in a partnership arrangement.”
The development team believes the city’s decision to halt negotiations was misguided.
“A lot of the questions are personal and aimed at personalizing the issue,” Capital California’s Tagami said. “It didn’t have to do with the term-sheet specifics or the deal point, but rather addressing accusations that were made through editorial comment that were in the local papers.”
It’s another issue the father and son duo will have to sort through as the future of one of the last family-run development firms in the Bay Area hangs in the balance. While the court can settle their business dispute, it’s up to Albert Jr. and Albert III to squash their personal differences. Otherwise, it will be an awkward Thanksgiving for the Seeno family.
CONCORD/CONTRA COSTA BACKGROUND:
- Concord Communities Alliance: SEENO IS AT IT AGAIN. SHOW UP SATURDAY, Jan. 7th at 9AM, Concord Senior Center, 2727 Parkside Circle.
- Save Mt. Diablo: The Seeno Way—Why the Seenos Are Bad Community Partners
SEENO stories on the Benicia Independent (many stories, going back to 2016).
- Benicia Green Gateway (citizen study of 2008, archive)
- Seeno / North Area Study – Stakeholder Seat at the Table, March 23, 2023
SEENO stories on the Benicia Independent (36 stories, going back to 2016).
- City of Benicia Open House on Nov 29, 2022 – What’s the Future of Benicia’s North Side?
- Benicia Green Gateway (citizen study of 2008, archive)
CITY OF BENICIA
For current information from the City of Benicia, check out their North Study Area web page, https://www.ci.benicia.ca.us/northstudyarea: