Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Freedom owner's debt woes multiply

Bank doubts truth of loan document

By Jennifer Edwards and Brenna R. Kelly
Enquirer staff writers

With debts looming on the unfinished Florence Freedom minor league baseball stadium last month, a part owner of the team mortgaged 20 acres in Warren County for almost $1 million, county records show.

But before Fifth Third bank gave Chuck Hildebrant the money, bank officials required him to prove he could repay the loan.

Here's what banks and others say they are owed as of Monday by Chuck Hildebrant:

• Fifth Third Bank, two revolving credit loans were taken out in August and October 2003: $705,300.

• Fifth Third Bank, Maineville property used as collateral for loan, taken out in July, 22: $987,729.

• Provident Bank, loan issued to "build baseball stadium" May 5: $2.75 million.

• Provident Bank, revolving credit loan, taken out May 5: $125,000.

• City of Hamilton filed lawsuit this month saying it is owed $3,726 in unpaid utilities.

• Nineteen contractors have filed 21 liens saying they haven't been paid for work done on the Florence ballfield: $3.7 million.
--Source: Warren, Hamilton and Boone County court records

In order to do that, Hildebrant gave bank officials a letter saying the Little Miami School District intended to either buy the Maineville property for $4 million or lease it for $275,000 a year for 20 years.

The letter appeared to be signed by the district's superintendent. Problem was, the superintendent said he never signed.

Now, Fifth Third is the second bank within days to obtain court orders requiring Hildebrant to immediately repay loans. The two orders demand repayment of a total of almost $4.5 million.

Federal authorities two weeks ago said Hildebrant is under investigation.

The investigation appears to be focusing on how he secured funding to build the Florence Freedom's stadium. Work on the stadium was halted in July after contractors said they were not paid for work done. As of Monday, 19 contractors have filed 21 liens demanding payment of $3.7 million.

"The cloud right now is cast over Chuck Hildebrant," Florence Mayor Diane Whalen said Monday. "We need to give this an opportunity to work through the system and determine what the ultimate result will be."

Hildebrant, 45, of Morrow is a 20 percent owner in the group that owns and operates the Florence Freedom baseball team. That group and the city signed a lease last year saying the city would rent the group land to build the stadium.

Whalen has insisted that taxpayers will not have to pay for the stadium if Hildebrant or other members of the baseball ownership group can't come up with the money.

Last week, Hildebrant left a reporter a voice mail saying he is out of town for the month of August and "obviously" can't comment on the stadium situation.

He referred calls for comment to his lawyer, Ray Stewart of Covington, who has not returned repeated calls for more than a week.

Move to seize assets

Last week, two banks filed separate lawsuits to recover money they said Hildebrant owes.

• Provident Bank said Hildebrant owes $2.75 million on a loan they granted to build a baseball stadium. Bank officials also said Hildebrant owes the bank $125,000 on a revolving line of credit; its purpose was not listed in court documents. Friday, a Hamilton County court ordered Hildebrant to repay those loans.

• Fifth Third said Hildebrant owes more than $700,000 on two revolving lines of credit. A court ordered him Friday to repay those loans. The bank also said Hildebrant owes $987,000 on a loan secured by the Maineville property. That loan was issued July 22 - one day after a contractor filed the first lien on the baseball stadium. A judge Wednesday ordered that loan to be paid.

Friday, a Warren County judge authorized the sheriff to go into Hildebrant's Morrow home and seize his possessions. The sheriff's office has the order and that action is pending, sheriff's spokesman Capt. John Newsom said Monday.

Also Monday, a lawyer for Fifth Third Bank asked Kenton County Circuit Court to freeze bank accounts and properties owned by Hildebrant and/or companies he is associated with.

"Given the past history of the defendants ... and the numerous potential creditors of Mr. Hildebrant ... Fifth Third reasonably believes that (Hildebrant) is about to remove, or have removed, or are about to transfer or have transferred the above-mentioned property," Fifth Third lawyer Alan Statman wrote in court records.

'... not my signature'

Aug. 9, Little Miami School District Superintendent Dan Bennett picked up the phone, and a representative from Fifth Third Bank was on the other end.

The bank representative asked Bennett if the district had plans to buy a 20-acre industrial site in Maineville. The bank asked him about the letter that purported to have his signature.

In an interview at his Morrow office Monday, Bennett looked at the letter and said the signature wasn't his.

"That's not my signature. I am saying I didn't sign it," Bennett said at his office Monday. "I am disappointed that something like this would happen. We didn't do anything wrong."

In a letter attached to Fifth Third's lawsuit, the school district's lawyer wrote: "Mr. Bennett unequivocally denies signing this document and expressly indicates that the signature on the document was not placed there by him."

Under Ohio law, a school superintendent cannot legally buy land without a vote of the school board.

The fast-growing school district did consider buying the property for a new school, but ultimately passed on it because it didn't meet its needs and wouldn't have saved the district money, Bennett said.

Statman said the bank wants the loans repaid immediately because the school district does not have a legally binding agreement to buy the property

"Fifth Third learned that the purported signature on the letter of intent was a forgery,'' according to court records Statman filed Monday.

In 1991, Hildebrant was convicted of two felony counts of forgery in Warren County, according to court records.

In addition, Statman wrote that the bank wants out of its relationship with Hildebrant and his companies because "there have also been a series of highly negative 'reports' regarding a Hildebrant business venture in Northern Kentucky."

Those reports along with the invalidity of the letter that Bennett said he didn't sign, have made the bank "generally insecure with the borrowing relationship with Hildebrant and his related companies.''

In an interview Monday, Statman added: "Typically Fifth Third Bank gives money to people who are going to pay it back ...

"It appeared a reasonable deal to do. Unfortunately, circumstances may not have been what people thought they were."


E- mail jedwards@enquirer.com or bkelly@enquirer.com

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