Dino Rossi’s real-estate investments have made him a multimillionaire and, he says, show his skill as a negotiator. They’ve also proved to be fertile ground for political opponents’ attack ads.
This summer, as former Republican state Sen. Dino Rossi spun up his campaign for the August primary in the 8th Congressional District, he got a nasty surprise.
Subcontractors renovating a 32-unit Lake Stevens apartment complex Rossi owns were getting stiffed by the general contractor he’d hired to manage the project.
Seven companies — including window and insulation installers and labor providers — filed liens totaling $200,000 against Hartford Court Apartments and the general contractor, Landmark Construction Services, between June 29 and Aug. 28, public records show.
Rossi was alarmed. He says he had regularly been paying Landmark when the company abruptly collapsed, going into receivership even as the Hartford Court renovation neared completion. He says he has since personally been working to pay the subcontractors, an account some of them confirmed.
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Worried that Democrats would use the liens against him in misleading attack ads, Rossi and his campaign manager, Andrew Bell, asked a reporter not to publicize the business headache.
“It’s not the kind of stress you need in the middle of a campaign … I am getting screwed here,” Rossi said, adding he’s concerned other subcontractors might come out of the woodwork and seek payment even if they can’t prove their work.
The episode illustrates how Rossi’s career as a real-estate investor and landlord — while making him a multimillionaire — also has proved problematic at times during his campaigns for elected office.
In each of his three previous unsuccessful statewide runs for governor and Senate, opponents have found grist for attacks in his business dealings.
This year, as Rossi faces off with Issaquah pediatrician Kim Schrier, Democrats have run TV ads hitting Rossi for headlining a 2010 seminar on how to profit from foreclosed homes, and for doing business with “Washington state’s biggest fraudsters.”
That refers, in part, to Rossi’s association in the 1980s and 1990s with Melvin Heide, the owner of Capretto and Clark, a real-estate firm that went bankrupt, leaving a sea of bad debts and fraud allegations that eventually landed Heide in prison. While Rossi was not accused of any wrongdoing, he followed Heide from one firm to a second, even as some other agents departed.
This week, Schrier’s campaign launched another ad tying Rossi to fugitive developer Michael Mastro, who sold two buildings to Rossi in the 1990s, and loaned him money. Years later, Mastro was indicted on a charge of money laundering and bankruptcy fraud and fled to France with his wife.
Rossi denounced the ads as “sleazy,” and James Rigby, an attorney who spent years investigating Mastro on behalf of creditors, called the guilt-by-association attempt unfair and said Rossi had no role in the developer’s misdeeds. Rigby has donated to Rossi’s past political campaigns.
In addition, Rossi has faced periodic complaints from tenants of buildings he has owned about mold and other problems they say went unresolved. A few former tenants of a Monroe apartment complex co-owned by Rossi told The Seattle Times they experienced similar problems within the past couple of years.
Income and assets
In between his runs for political office, Rossi has built considerable personal wealth.
He and his wife, Terry, reported real estate, stock-market and other assets worth between $9.6 million and $44 million this past year, according to a personal financial disclosure filed with the U.S. House of Representatives. He reported income of between $240,000 and $3.4 million, according to the disclosure, which requires candidates to list income and assets in broad ranges.
A more precise assessment of his wealth is difficult, because Rossi has declined to release his federal income-tax returns.
Rossi’s private-sector background has been a constant part of his political biography, as he tells audiences how he worked his way through Seattle University in construction jobs and as a janitor.
In his 20s and 30s, Rossi says, he negotiated real-estate transactions “with self-made millionaires and attorneys on both sides … and I didn’t get paid a single dime unless I got them to agree.”
He said those deal-making skills translated to his time in the state Legislature negotiating budgets with Democrats and would also be useful in a fractured Congress.
Over the past decade, Rossi has worked to attract investors for Coast Equity Partners, an Everett-based real-estate company founded by Tom and Shawn Hoban, brothers who were early supporters of Rossi’s first gubernatorial run in 2004.
Rossi describes Coast Equity’s philosophy as like his politics: conservative.
“We don’t take a lot of risk,” he said. “Our investors call us the ‘boring husband’ investment … we don’t project these big screaming returns that a lot of people have, but they’re good solid returns on investment that we’ve been able to achieve.”
On its website, Coast Equity says its strategy is to buy “underperforming multifamily properties in strong markets” and manage them “to optimize financial performance.”
Rossi left Coast Equity this summer to concentrate on his campaign.
For the first part of the year, Rossi said everything seemed to be going well on his renovation of Hartford Court, one of several properties that Rossi owns separately from his stake in Coast Equity buildings.
Rossi said he decided to fix up Hartford after discovering dry rot caused by problematic vinyl siding. His construction manager hired Landmark as the general contractor.
But by May subcontractors were going unpaid, and in June the company abruptly went into receivership, a bankruptcy-like proceeding.
In a King County Superior Court filing, Landmark listed $1.5 million in debt to more than 150 creditors. Its assets were valued at roughly $270,000.
It wasn’t the first time Landmark’s owner, Rener Vieira, got overextended, records show. He and his wife filed for bankruptcy in 2011, listing assets of $327,750 and debts of nearly $1 million, after his previous contracting business failed.
Rossi says he was astounded by Landmark’s collapse this year. “How could you go broke in a market like this?” he said.
Vieira could not be reached for comment. His business phone number was no longer working, and he did not respond to a message left with an attorney.
Representatives of some subcontractors confirmed to The Seattle Times that Rossi has been working to make them whole after Landmark’s collapse.
“He has been a perfect gentleman on this whole deal,” said attorney Richard Beresford, who represented his son’s construction-labor company, Beresford LLC, which filed a lien in June for more than $50,000 in unpaid bills.
Beresford said Rossi paid the company and signed a settlement agreement. “Thank God we filed a lien. We weren’t going to get anything out of Landmark,” he said.
A representative of Leed Staffing West said he believes Landmark was to blame for the $14,600 owed the company, not Rossi. Several other firms that filed liens did not respond to inquiries.
As of this week, all but one of the liens against Hartford remained active, according to records on file with Snohomish County.
Rossi said wants to make good on legitimate debts, but he was concerned other subcontractors might emerge seeking payment and he’d have “no way of verifying” their work. “Maybe they see this as an opportunity to extort me,” he said.
While he notes he’s never been personally sued by a tenant, Rossi periodically has faced complaints from some about conditions at his properties. In the 1990s, a woman at a Rossi-owned Seattle triplex was advised to move out by a health inspector because of out-of-control moisture, according to a 2004 Seattle Times story.
More recently, at the 222-unit Morning Run apartment complex in Monroe, which Rossi co-owns as part of a Coast Equity partnership, some former tenants say they dealt with moisture and mold problems that went unfixed despite complaints to property managers.
Larry Hughes, who lived with his wife at Morning Run for about a year starting in the summer of 2015, said “within that time every room had black mold going up into every corner up to the ceiling.”
Hughes said the management response amounted to “crack your windows.” He said they sprayed the walls with bleach, but the mold kept coming back. “You could smell it. Everyone we talked to said we have mold too,” he said.
His wife, Christine Hughes, said multiple complaints brought no adequate response.
Another former tenant, Megan Sauceda, said she experienced the same mold problem. “When I lived there it was horrendous,” she said.
Asked about such complaints, Rossi said he does not personally manage Morning Run. He earned between $100,000 and $1 million from the building this year, according to his financial disclosure.
Rossi said that Coast Equity regularly sets aside money for repairs and maintenance and that Morning Run was about to undergo a renovation to replace vinyl siding, much like the Hartford Court complex in Lake Stevens. On a recent fall day, workers were already stripping siding off some of the units.
Over the years, with thousands of tenants, Rossi said, “Yeah, I guess you are going to find a few” who have had criticisms. “They should have their problems dealt with.”