Funny Business: Putting on the Ritz

By DAVID MARCHANT, Special to UPI  |  June 11, 2002 at 12:40 PM
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MIAMI, June 11 (UPI) -- Hotel management firm Ritz Carlton and leading golfer Greg Norman have been caught up in accusations of skullduggery against the developer of a $350 million construction project in the Cayman Islands.

No fewer than nine lawsuits have been filed against the Ryan Group -- all but one of them coming before construction finally started in April of this year after four years of inactivity.

Among the plaintiffs are long-time Ritz Carlton business partners, interior designers HBA International Inc. and architects Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo Inc., and a buyer of a yet-to-be-built condominium.

The allegations, which include fraud and breach of contract, are similar to those that have been made in Canada and Costa Rica against the Ryan Group, which is headed by Canadian national Michael Ryan.

The background of the developer has caused many ex-business partners and clients to question whether the Cayman project will ever be completed and to ask why Ritz Carlton and Greg Norman are even involved.

Although they are not parties to any of the lawsuits, their names have been used to attract more than $100 million of funds by the Ryan Group.

The involvement of Norman, who is designing a golf course, is seen as particularly odd since he also was involved in the Ryan Group's most recent project at Cacique del Mar in Costa Rica.

After selling property lots valued at more than $15 million, that venture has been all but abandoned by the Ryan Group after little construction over many years, clients told United Press International.

Not only is there no Greg Norman-designed golf course, as had been promised, but the few tenants who built on their land do not even have round-the-clock water, feeder roads or telephone lines, UPI was told.

Marga Menzies, a 48-year-old personal trainer living in Seattle, bought two lots, with a total value of $290,000 in 1999, which were both supposed to overlook the golf course.

"I was told that the golf course would be built within two years but here we are in 2002 and still no signs of the golf course even being started let alone finished," she said.

The first tenant at Cacique del Mar, 50-year-old American Mary Kjorvested, who spent $120,000 buying land and having a home built, told a similar story.

"I learned long ago to take what Michael Ryan says with a pinch of salt because very little that he talks about ever materializes," she told UPI.

She conducted the interview over her mobile telephone because she said the local telephone company cannot install a land line until the Ryan Group provides adequate infrastructure.

Water is only available from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily and the electrical system installed by the Ryan Group's contractor had to be ripped out and replaced because it was so shoddy, she said.

"There was supposed to be American standard electrical work and plumbing," she said. "But not one plug was grounded and I've gone through two air conditioners, two microwaves and four toasters."

In her first year, the electricity went off during at least six different months because the Ryan Group had not paid the electricity bills for the project, she said.

"I called the electricity company and they told me it was because the bill had not been paid. Yet whenever I contacted Ryan about it, he would say that was not true and blame it on something else."

Apart from the nine lawsuits against the Ryan Group relating to the Ritz Carlton project in Cayman, at least two more have been filed in Costa Rica.

Cayman resident Patricia Fleming won a judgment for approximately $300,000 last year against Michael Ryan and Villa Club de Los Caciques SA, represented by his father, John Ryan.

In its ruling, the National Commission of the Consumer in Costa Rica determined the defendants had offered services such as "cable television, water, streets paved and sidewalks, a private club, a hotel and golf course, among other things ..." which they had failed to deliver.

"I've been trying to collect on it without any success," said Fleming, who said the next step was to file criminal fraud charges in Costa Rica against Michael Ryan.

Robert Maxey, of North Carolina, who bought nine lots for more than $300,000, filed the other action.

"I hope the lawsuit can be settled equitably and the project sold to a new developer so that something can be made of the site, which is beautiful and has enormous potential," he told UPI.

Three members of Michael Ryan's own staff were so concerned for the well-being of clients of Cacique del Mar that they took the extraordinary step of writing them letters of warning.

"Circumstances have come up here which will not allow me to continue selling property at CDM with a clear conscience," wrote salesman Dan McCarty on March 21, 1999.

On April 18, 1999, Rick Radliff and Cindy Spicer wrote to the same clients disclosing their departures from the firm and warning that "the actions of some of the people in this company lack integrity."

While at least 11 different lawsuits have been filed against the Ryan Group relating to the Cayman and Ritz Carlton projects over the past three years, there were additional lawsuits in Canada during the 1990s.

These include Michael Ryan's father, John James Ryan, being forced into bankruptcy in 1997 with debts of $9.16 million following a petition by Montreal Trust Company of Canada.

Montreal Trust, which was owed money as mortgagee of a failed construction project in Ontario known as Brownstones East, also sued Ryan Associates Inc. of Toronto and Michael Ryan. Other defendants included more than 40 buyers of condominiums at Brownstones East through membership of a limited partnership that was set up as a tax shelter.

A group of disgruntled partners filed an action against the Ryan Group in an attempt to obtain records relating to the partnership.

One Canadian partner said a court awarded costs of more than $39,000 against John Ryan for failing to turn over the records but that he did not pay up.

Concerns have been raised about whether the Ryan Group has moved money around among its Canadian, Costa Rican and Cayman developments.

In a fax to Michael Ryan on Jan. 18, 1999, Cacique del Mar clients Patrick and Helena Johnson wrote: "Have you been diverting money from the Cacique Project to the Grand Cayman project?"

On Jan. 22, 1999, Ryan replied: "I can assure you that we have at all times acted completely correctly and will not comment further on the matter."

However, UPI has obtained evidence indicating that Michael Ryan has indeed used money designated for one project to meet the liabilities of another.

On Dec. 6, 1999, Ryan instructed Cayman National Bank to wire transfer $5,935.72 to settle the lawsuit that had been filed against him by Montreal Trust in Ontario over an unrelated project.

UPI has copies of a letter sent by the plaintiff's lawyer requesting payment and two letters from Ryan to CNB authorizing a debit from an account in the name of Condoco Grand Cayman Resort Ltd. Condoco Grand Cayman Resort Ltd. is one of a maze of companies the Ryan Group has set up to handle finances for the $350 million Cayman Ritz Carlton venture.

Ryan declined to explain the wire transfer or answer other questions that were submitted to him by UPI. "On behalf of my client, Michael Ryan, Mr. Ryan wishes to refrain from comment on the planned article about his business activities ...," stated his spokesman Marc Weinstein.

A question on many people's lips is why names as prestigious as Ritz Carlton and Greg Norman went into business with the Ryan Group and are continuing their relationships despite the lawsuits.

Landry Fuller, Ritz Carlton's public relations spokesman for the Cayman project, did not reply to e-mail and telephone messages from UPI.

Michelle Cook, Director of Marketing for Greg Norman Golf Course Design, in Florida, did not comment.

David Marchant is publisher of OffshoreAlert, Tel. 305-372-6267/305-604-2060. Address: 123 S. E. 3rd Avenue, PMB #173, Miami, FL 33131, USA.

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