By Dan Horn
and Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer
FBI agents raided the Vine Street office of would-be developer LaShawn R. Pettus-Brown Tuesday as part of their investigation into how the city of Cincinnati lost $184,172 on the ill-fated Empire Theater project.
The agents seized records and equipment in an attempt to learn more about what happened to Pettus-Brown, who accepted thousands of dollars in city loans and grants and then failed to deliver on his promise to fix up the 89-year-old Over-the-Rhine landmark.
City officials have not heard from Pettus-Brown, a professional basketball player in Japan, since declaring the project in default last month.
In a search warrant affidavit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court, FBI Special Agent Matthew W. Drake provided new details about the investigation, disclosing for the first time that $92,915 of the money the city paid to Pettus-Brown is missing.
City officials previously believed that all of the $184,217 went for work on the theater, but that the project collapsed because Pettus-Brown couldn't get a bank to finance the project.
Pettus-Brown wrote five bad checks totaling $33,850 to a construction contractor for work at the Empire Theater site, according to the affidavit.
Oddly, Pettus-Brown would write two or three checks on the same day to RLE Construction, said RLE president Rich Enyeart.
"I asked him why he did that. He said, `My accountant told me I should do it this way,' " Enyeart said Tuesday. "I think he was his own accountant."
All five checks - written in July and August - bounced.
That was news to Assistant City Manager Rashad Young, who said Tuesday the city had no idea that contractors weren't being paid.
"Nobody told us that. To me, that sounds like a problem," Young said. If the city had known, officials would have pulled the plug on the project in July or August, instead of waiting until September, he said.
Enyeart said that, unlike private-sector projects in which checks are made out to the developer and contractor jointly, the city's checks were written directly to Pettus-Brown, a 26-year-old with no development record.
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