Saturday, November 23, 2002

Builder on stand, but says very little

FBI takes items from Erpenbeck

By James McNair
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COVINGTON - A. William "Bill" Erpenbeck took a witness stand Friday, an oath and the Fifth.

Publicly swearing in for the first time since his Erpenbeck Co. flamed out in April, the former homebuilder took part in a personal bankruptcy proceeding brought on by three of his company's unpaid subcontractors.

Sporting a dark blue windbreaker and a Florida tan, Mr. Erpenbeck was serious throughout the half-hour session.

The court proceeding was a creditors meeting, with lawyers for at least one subcontractor and seven banks sitting in. The masses of people with tens of millions of dollars in claims for unpaid services, unrefunded down payments and delinquent trade balances were nowhere to be seen. The main reason: The court can't notify creditors until Mr. Erpenbeck surrenders a list of their names.

Nor would Mr. Erpenbeck, 41, discuss what he owns. Seated at a table across from Mike Baker, a Crescent Springs lawyer named trustee by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge William Howard, Mr. Erpenbeck invoked his Fifth Amendment rights more than 70 times. Failing to budge the witness, Mr. Baker said he will go to the judge for instructions on how to proceed.

Mr. Erpenbeck and his bankruptcy lawyer, Robert Goering of Cincinnati, hastened from the hearing room and declined to take a reporter's questions.

While business creditors await the chance to recover their money in Bankruptcy Court, the federal government took a more direct approach with regard to Mr. Erpenbeck's assets. FBI agents entered his $1.3 million Crestview Hills house Thursday and loaded a Ryder truck with possessions and valuables. The bureau said the seizure was conducted with court approval.

"It was roughly a couple of motorcycles, valuables and maybe some jewelry and a fur," FBI spokesman Jim Turgal said.

The federal government had placed a lien on the house in May, alleging that money obtained through bank fraud was used to buy it. Mr. Turgal said the forfeiture case extended to the seizure of personal property.

"The asset forfeiture aspect of any case is designed to take the assets acquired by the subject of investigation in order to secure them and make them available for liquidation for victims," he said.

Mr. Baker and federal prosecutors were concerned about the possibility of the removal of valuables by Mr. Erpenbeck. Oct. 16, Mr. Erpenbeck consented to an order from Judge Howard not to spend or dispose of any assets without the court's permission. Nonetheless, Mr. Baker conducted a photographic and videotaped inventory of the house Monday.

Mr. Baker said Friday that he continues to monitor the contents of the house.

"We are going to explore that further," he said. "It has been confirmed to us that the FBI seized items from the house yesterday, and we will need to see if items are not there that the FBI didn't seize."

In the bankruptcy hearing Friday, Mr. Erpenbeck answered routine questions about his name and Social Security number before reciting the Fifth Amendment. Among the questions he refused to answer were those about his bank accounts, securities, receivables, real estate, cars, airplanes, boats, machinery, animals, crops, collectibles, precious metals, country club memberships, firearms and his current occupation.

Mr. Erpenbeck also refused to say if he removed any items from his house and how he paid for his travel from his family's new home in Fort Myers, Fla.


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