Ritz developer: Grandiose plans rarely realized; History: Neil Fisher proposes building an Inner Harbor luxury hotel. But critics say his grand ideas elsewhere left more lawsuits than buildings.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On a downtown street, with the bright sunshine and a television camera on his face, Neil Fisher promised Maryland a lavish, $100 million Ritz-Carlton hotel, hundreds of jobs and a fortune for a charity aiming to "build back the glory of Baltimore."

His message appealed to many. "People need hope and something to dream for," he concluded in his pledge to help make Baltimore better.

But what the public didn't see on that October day were the other sides of Fisher: the tough-talking real-estate syndicator accused of multimillion-dollar fraud; the repeatedly bankrupt developer who says he likes the sport of being sued; the snakeskin-booted land dealer whose partner on the Ritz deal was once convicted alongside Maryland's most infamous swindler, Jeffrey A. Levitt.

And last but not least, the public couldn't see any of the fabulous hotel and waterfront projects he has repeatedly proposed up and down the East Coast.

That's because there's nothing to see. He never built one.

"It's easy to get into a deal," explains the 53-year-old Fisher, who has won citywide acclaim for proposing the first five-star hotel in Baltimore history. "But it's the smart guy who has the exit strategy."

His exits have left a path of fraud claims, bankruptcies, tax liens, corporate shells and disappointed people through Maryland, Florida, New York and beyond. Critics accuse Fisher of being the mastermind behind brilliantly complex land schemes that leave more lawsuits than buildings and at times feature partners with shadowy pasts in crime.

Since he arrived in Baltimore nine months ago, he has been welcomed by business and city leaders as an outsider with fresh ideas -- in addition to the Ritz, he says he wants to build the $150 million Wyndholme Village for deaf senior citizens in West Baltimore.

"I think Neil Fisher will be good for Baltimore," says Rebecca Hoffberger, director of the American Visionary Art Museum, which would be the Ritz's neighbor on the Inner Harbor. "If we let him, he will do a lot."

Maryland let him try before.

He proposed a resort city on the Potomac called Riviera, only to be dragged into court for deceiving investors. He pitched a plan for an "Inner Harbor" of Prince George's County only to see his partner successfully sued for fraud. He found a way to squeeze millions out of the Old Court Savings and Loan fiasco, when Marylanders were screaming in the streets to get back their deposits.

"I'm like a degenerate gambler," says the gruff but well-spoken son of a Harvard lawyer. "I just keep moving on to the next deal. The deal is what keeps me going."

When asked about his past, Fisher repeatedly says, "I have never been arrested, indicted or convicted." He insists that his intentions are pure and that he is a "messenger who brings tidings of great expectations" for Baltimore.

"The Ritz-Carlton and Wyndholme Village are set to become Baltimore's best-known landmark projects for the millennium, ushering the city into an entirely new stellar era of dynamic national prominence and international prestige," he says.

A week after being interviewed about his record as a developer, he called a news conference and pledged 5 percent of his Baltimore profits to local charities. Half the money would go to Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, an inner-city housing organization. Fisher said he could identify with the downtrodden.

"As a risk-taking developer and businessman, I've experienced hardship. Everyone needs a helping hand or second chance," he announced.

A slender, ruddy-faced man who loves fox hunting, Fisher makes his home in Palm Beach, Fla. He's on the road a lot, flying around the country to make deals. He drives leased Cadillacs and Jaguars, although in more flamboyant times he drove a Rolls-Royce.

There are signs of opulence in his life, but he tells judgment-collecting lawyers he never owns anything -- his $694,000 house, for instance, is owned by an investment company in his wife's name. She's Tamara Jeanne "T.J." Fisher, a 41-year-old diamond-clad beauty known in Palm Beach circles for a $113,000 vintage Howdy Doody puppet she bought two years ago.

"My wife is a very wealthy woman in her own right," Fisher says, although the source of her wealth isn't readily apparent from public records. "Through all of my life, I've been rich and poor, up and down."

Stuart Cornelius Fisher -- Neil is his nickname -- was born in Cumberland. His father served as an Air Force colonel for several years and moved the family often, with Neil graduating from an American high school in Paris.

From a young age, Fisher seemed to develop a taste for fast-moving, ritzy businesses. In the early 1970s, while going to California Western University School of Law in San Diego, he owned a dealership selling Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Rolls-Royces. After graduation, he opted to open a real-estate company instead of taking the bar exam.

Trouble was never far. In 1973, he says, his business that sold San Diego duplexes went bankrupt because a partner absconded with $750,000 of the company's money and fled back to Sicily, where his mother supposedly ran an olive oil company.

"He left me holding the bag," Fisher recalls matter-of-factly. "I've never heard from him since."

Investment fund

From there, Fisher moved to the Washington, D.C., suburbs and started a real-estate trust called the North American Doctors Investment Fund, which offered wealthy doctors a chance to shelter their assets through property acquisition. Fisher used their investments to develop properties, including the Playboy Atlantic City Hotel and Casino, which he points to as one of his proudest achievements.

A snag developed during the 1979 deal, and Fisher says he sued Playboy owner Hugh Hefner. "I went ballistic on him, and they settled," Fisher says of the project, which he lists on his resume. Fisher says he was bought out of the deal before it was finished.

Playboy officials, however, say they have no record of him being involved. A lawsuit against Playboy at the time doesn't mention Fisher's name, but does list a doctor who invested in Fisher's company. That doctor, John W. McTigue, later sued Fisher and alleged misappropriation of money.

Fisher's life then, as now, was frenetic and fast. Friends recall he would show up at business meetings in a mink coat, talking of huge deals. He also started earning his reputation for being a remarkably savvy property seller.

"He would never develop a property," Charles S. Shaw, a longtime partner and friend, once said during a legal deposition. "He's not a developer. Mr. Fisher is like a porpoise. He's a flipper. I don't know what he has built."

By the early 1980s, Fisher was claiming his investment trust, NADIF, had racked up more than $1 billion in assets -- a figure that would seem unlikely. The largest real-estate trusts in America at the time reported having assets of $250 million.

Some said his money came out of the pockets of the doctors who had trusted him. McTigue, the investor who appears in the Playboy Club case, is a Washington eye surgeon who said he'd hired Fisher to be his personal business manager, only to find that his money was disappearing.

Suspicious, McTigue brought in a team of accounting experts to determine where his $1 million-a-year income had been going.

"It was pretty dramatic," says Bert Ely, one of the accounting experts. "We showed up, and after that first day, Fisher realized he had lost control. After that, we never saw him again."

Fisher settled out of court after the accountants alleged he'd skimmed more than $2 million. Ely said he found that the money went toward a fast-paced, extravagant lifestyle. Fisher, who says he went into seclusion for two years on a Virginia farm after the incident, wouldn't comment other than to say he was trying to help the doctor.

"The business I'm in has a lot of ups and downs," he says about past problems.

A friendship forms

One day in late 1984, at the corner of 59th Street and Sutton Place in Manhattan, fate drew Fisher and John R. "Jack" Quinn together.

Fisher was looking at a property Quinn owned. Quinn, a noted land dealer who hailed from the quiet town of Glen Cove on Long Island, wouldn't sell. But a friendship ensued.

"I took an immediate liking to him," recalls Quinn, 61. "I thought he seemed like a pretty interesting person."

The two had a lot in common. Like Fisher, Quinn had a passion for the real-estate game. And like Fisher, there was no shortage of stories in his past.

Quinn's presence is described by many as unforgettable. At 400 pounds, Quinn was said to have been halted by his girth from fitting behind the wheel of his new Mercedes-Benz, but it didn't stop him from showing off dance moves at Long Island parties.

Around his hometown of Glen Cove, Quinn's real-estate company had been making headlines. It wasn't always making buildings. The flashy projects he'd been proposing, from a $9.5 million office park to a $25 million showcase hotel, had ended up on the scrapheap. Sometimes, investors claimed Quinn didn't live up to his promises.

It wasn't long before Quinn introduced Fisher in 1985 to a friend named Don Luna, who was starting a finance company with offices in Nashville, Tenn., Houston and Beverly Hills, Calif. Luna liked Fisher and offered him a $1 million-a-year job to head the company, called Universal Mortgage Advisors. Fisher accepted.

The problem was Luna was a confidence man, with a record of convictions for tax and loan fraud dating back a dozen years. In his oft-repeated scheme, he posed as a Teamster representative and told clients -- ranging from a Maryland developer to then-New England Patriots owner Billy Sullivan -- that he could procure union loans in return for a "finder's fee." Fisher says that at the time, he had no idea of Luna's background.

Cooperated with FBI

Within a year, the FBI was investigating Universal Mortgage Advisors. Luna, whom Fisher later described as "the best scam artist in the country," was convicted in an intricate scheme in which he made fraudulent loan applications during a failed renovation of Manhattan's Gotham Hotel.

Fisher was not charged and says he cooperated fully with investigators. "Once [Luna] stop-ped paying me, I became disillusioned and I went to the FBI," Fisher says. "I delivered records to the FBI, and then I left."

Just before he left in the summer of 1986, he got a phone call. It was Quinn. He was in a lot of trouble and he needed Fisher's help.

Fisher didn't hesitate. He headed straight for Long Island, where Quinn was waiting in handcuffs after being indicted with Maryland's worst financial charlatan.

Quinn had been working for the previous two years on the biggest real-estate deal of his life -- Gatsby's Landing. It was to be a sprawling waterfront extravaganza in Glen Cove, a rebuilding of what he called Long Island's "Gold Coast."

With 328 luxury condominiums, a golf course and a marina proposed on the land where author F. Scott Fitzgerald and friends romped during the Roaring '20s, Gatsby's was intended for the Long Island rich. Instead, it turned out to be one of the biggest real-estate debacles in New York state history. Among its problems was that the land had been classified as a toxic waste dump.

Quinn's partner and financier on the project was Jeffrey Levitt. At the time Quinn met him, Levitt was in his heyday as the garishly wealthy head of Maryland-based Old Court Savings and Loan.

"Quinn came to me at the time because he was broke and in hock up to his eyeballs," recalls Levitt, now a Florida cigar salesman. "I remember him as being shrewd and well-connected up there. How do you think we got the zoning? It wasn't because I was a nice guy from Baltimore."

It wasn't long before everything came crashing down.

Levitt had been embezzling millions from Old Court depositors, and it touched off an uproar in Maryland. Tens of thousands of depositors staged a run on the banks, and regulators froze more than $9 billion in savings and loan assets throughout the state in a desperate attempt to calm the crisis.

Authorities began paying close attention to Levitt's lavish spending -- including the money he sunk into Quinn's project. Levitt and Quinn were charged in June 1986 with multiple counts of real-estate fraud for filing misleading financial documents in the Gatsby's deal.

Quinn says it all took him by surprise.

"One day I put on the news and saw Jeffrey Levitt and a run on the bank in Maryland," Quinn says. "Then I remembered Neil."

Fisher moved into Quinn's house. "Let's straighten out your life," Quinn recalls Fisher saying.

Levitt convicted

By that time, Levitt had been convicted in Maryland of embezzling $14.7 million from Old Court and was serving a 30-year Maryland prison sentence. He pleaded guilty in the Glen Cove debacle and received a concurrent one- to three-year term.

Quinn pleaded guilty to real-estate securities fraud and to making a false financial statement -- both misdemeanors -- in order to "put the whole thing behind him," says Fisher, who recommended that Quinn take the plea.

Fisher also wrangled Quinn out of his financial troubles -- at the expense of Maryland depositors. Because Quinn had a legally binding partnership with Levitt, he had clout in hanging on to the Gatsby's properties.

Maryland officials, wanting to get their hands on the land so it could be sold and the profits returned to Old Court depositors, were forced to give Quinn a $2.3 million settlement. Fisher negotiated the deal.

"Quinn lucked out by meeting Jeffrey Levitt," says Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, who for more than a decade has overseen efforts by financial sleuths to recoup hundreds of millions that Old Court cost Maryland. "We couldn't get them out of the land without paying the settlement. They made money on it, there's no question about it."

Kaplan says Glen Cove represents one of the two biggest losses Marylanders took in the Old Court era. Of $60 million Levitt sunk in the Glen Cove projects, only about $20 million was recovered.

Fisher vehemently denies he and Quinn profited from Old Court's travails, saying that the settlement only paid Quinn back for a portion of his losses. But in a 1990 legal deposition, he spoke of the settlement being a big financial boost that helped him and Quinn start a company.

"We had done remarkably well," Fisher said, adding that he, Quinn and another partner decided to form a real-estate business "and keep things going because we were doing so well."

The Fisher-Quinn partnership still exists. But in a 1990 legal deposition, he spoke of the settlement being a big financial boost that helped him and Quinn start a company.

"We had done remarkably well," Fisher said in the deposition, adding that he, Quinn and another partner decided to form a real estate business "and keep things going because we were doing so well."

The Fisher-Quinn partnership still exists. Quinn is an officer of the Fisher company that is developing the Baltimore Ritz, and Fisher introduced him as a backer of the project at a meeting with Federal Hill community leaders.

Quinn is also involved with Fisher's Wyndholme Village for deaf seniors in Baltimore. But Fisher plays down Quinn's presence in the projects, saying Quinn is scaling back his involvement "because he weighs 450 pounds and his health isn't good."

Levitt, who was paroled from Maryland prisons in 1993, says he can't believe Quinn and Fisher are in Maryland.

"It's amazing that those guys have come home to roost," Levitt says. "First, they walk away with millions from Old Court, and then they come back to town and build a Ritz. They make me look like an amateur."

'Litigation is fun'

Fisher and Quinn called their new company AQN, after its three principal officers. The "N" stood for Neil, the "Q" for Quinn and the "A" for their latest partner, 68-year-old Karl Anton, a powerful Long Island businessman who owned an ink company and 22 community newspapers.

A former colleague recalls that Fisher kept a stuffed coiled snake on his desk at AQN's Long Island offices and drove a shiny white Porsche. Fisher was identified in AQN publicity materials as president and general counsel, though he'd never taken the bar exam.

He did, however, openly speak of his love for lawsuits. In depositions, he baited lawyers and gleefully spoke of getting into legal entanglements. "Litigation," he says, "is fun."

Backed by Anton's money and the Old Court settlement, Fisher and Quinn launched some of the biggest projects ever proposed on Long Island. But only one -- the headquarters for the Computer Associates software firm -- was built, and construction came only after AQN was replaced as developer because of Quinn's conviction, according to news accounts at the time.

Nevertheless, Fisher and Quinn held on to an interest in the land and sold it for $18 million. But a half-dozen of their other projects were never completed.

Chief among them was a Long Island city along the Peconic River, supposedly to have featured a luxury hotel, upscale restaurants and condos with boat docks. But the project, called Hamptons Cove, unraveled in disgrace amid a 1990 lawsuit filed by an investor.

The investor, called Long Island Financial Services, alleged that Quinn and Fisher had no intention of building Hamptons Cove, had attempted to cover up Quinn's conviction, and had violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) act.

AQN was also accused of hiding the criminal past of Fisher's manager on the project, Wilbur S. Stakes, a disbarred lawyer who'd been convicted of wire fraud in Kansas after a notorious real estate scandal. While managing Hamptons Cove, Stakes was working separately on a $3 billion deal in Brooklyn that led to another fraud conviction.

With their deals under scrutiny, Fisher and Quinn cut their losses. They settled the Hamptons Cove lawsuit for $1.8 million. They sold out of AQN. Their partner, Anton, ended up losing much of his fortune in bankruptcy. And several Long Island communities found that their dreams of big changes had vanished.

"It was so strange. These guys promised to turn the world upside down," says Millie Roth, a Long Island homeowner who had opposed Hamptons Cove. "The town changes all its plans, and then, suddenly, they're gone."

Fisher and Quinn were turning their attention south.

By the early 1990s, Fisher and Quinn were embroiled in another grandiose project that proved to be a debacle.

It was called Terra Ceia Isles, an 1,800-acre, waterlogged marsh outside Tampa, Fla., where Fisher announced plans to build a city with hundreds of homes and a championship golf course. Unable to build on or resell the land, he waged a vigorous battle with government lawyers over control of the property.

His company was found in contempt by a judge after opposing lawyers repeatedly complained that Fisher used fraudulent, underhanded tactics in corporate filings. Fisher's companies filed twice for bankruptcy, with one of the filings dismissed as a "bad-faith" maneuver.

"It is clear that the corporations formed by Mr. Fisher have been consistently used for wrongful purposes and to avoid creditors," a Resolution Trust Corporation attorney, Anne S. Mason, wrote in a 1994 filing. The RTC, a collection arm of the federal government for failed savings and loans, was involved in the foreclosure because Fisher and Quinn had originally bought the land from the collapsed Florida Federal Savings.

Fisher said he and Quinn lost $2 million each in the Terra Ceia deal, and the IRS had tax liens against Fisher for $1 million. Their primary investor, an eccentric Florida businessman named Franklin R. Schachter who made his fortune in a deal with junk-bond king Michael Milken, lost $4 million.

Praise for Fisher

Schachter says he doesn't hold any grudges.

"I see the money I lost in Terra Ceia coming back to me in spades," says Schachter, who adds that he is investing in other Fisher projects, including the Ritz-Carlton in Baltimore. "Mr. Fisher is an amazingly creative man. There is no one I would rather be in business with today than Neil Fisher. He looks out for his investors."

The Terra Ceia loss didn't cramp Fisher's style. He drove a Rolls-Royce and lived with Quinn in a $292,000 gulf-front penthouse outside Sarasota. Basil Petricca, the condo's owner, says they signed a contract to buy the condo but never paid. His lawsuit to compel payment was dismissed.

"Those guys were too smart for me," says the 69-year-old Petricca, now living in Massachusetts. "They're good. They didn't pay me a nickel, and they lived in that condo for a year. I had a good lawyer, but I could never get them to budge."

Fisher dismisses the complaint as unfounded and emphasizes that it went nowhere.

In Maryland, Fisher and Quinn were proposing another grand project. "The Riviera," as they called it, would be a new city along 1.7 miles of the Potomac River in Charles County. Their partner in the deal was James Burch, a developer from Virginia whose past distinctions included owning a Washington go-go bar and running unsuccessfully for U.S. president in 1980.

"I didn't think I was actually going to win," says Burch, now a Free Catholic priest who sells marriage services on the Internet. "It was an effort to get the ideas in front of people."

Burch, badly in debt, needed money, and Fisher gave him a lifeline and a new house. He also sent Burch on a mission to West Africa to discuss a $600 million real estate deal with the king of Morocco that never got off the ground.

Fisher and Burch were also working on two other Maryland projects: a Charles County high-rise called Shipwatch, and a lavish waterfront project named Port America, billed by Burch as the Inner Harbor of Prince George's County. Neither was built, and Burch was successfully sued for $1.5 million in a fraud case involving Port America.

Fraud judgment

Riviera, though, was moving fast.

"WHAT A PLAN!!!!!" a brochure said. "Riviera will be the 21st-century home to more than 15,000 residents, providing more than 30,000 full-time jobs, while offering a unique riverfront resort and shopping environment."

Fisher and Burch never followed through. Instead, they sold the property for $17.5 million in a deal they were accused of keeping secret. When other Riviera investors learned of the sale and demanded their share of the profits, Fisher rebuffed them, investors said. At a lunch with investor Richard Bliss, a Washington lawyer, Fisher refused to budge.

"Sue me," Bliss recalls Fisher as saying, "I like to be sued."

So Bliss and other investors did. "The object of this scheme was simply to abandon development of the project for a quick, no-risk, multimillion dollar profit," the lawsuit alleged. The ensuing legal fight, delayed repeatedly by Fisher and his lawyers, lasted six years.

In 1995, a jury saw it the way the investors did. Fisher and Quinn were found personally liable for fraud and were ordered to pay $1.28 million. Fisher filed for personal bankruptcy a few months later.

To this day, Fisher refuses to pay the judgment. He says he has no assets, earns no paychecks and is careful not to turn a profit.

"That judgment will remain uncollected until I die," says Fisher, who dismisses the jury verdict as unfair and lists the Riviera sale on his resume. "They can string me up, but I'm not going to make any money that I'm going to let them get their hands on."

But none of his financial and legal problems, he says, should preclude him from working on multimillion-dollar properties. Even as a Manhattan law firm -- hired by defrauded Riviera investors -- tries to collect the fraud judgment, Fisher has entered into an array of deals.

In the past two years, his name has cropped up in connection with a botched hotel sale in Orlando, Fla., and two Miami hotel projects overseen by a convicted felon who once had ties to organized crime.

And now, with his past in pursuit, Neil Fisher has arrived in Baltimore.

Tomorrow: Neil Fisher's recent past, from bankruptcy to Baltimore, and how he found his way into the good graces of one of the world's most prestigious hotel chains, the Ritz-Carlton.

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