LOS ANGELES — The most notorious new house in Los Angeles hangs from a Bel Air hillside, high above the sprawl and smog, unfinished and unloved.
Outraged neighbors call it “the Starship Enterprise,” and in truth it looks like nothing so much as an earthbound space station of curved glass and steel, draped in scaffolding and tarpaulin, roughly 30,000 square feet and nearly 70 feet high.
That height, about twice the legal limit, is among a litany of violations that have stalled construction at 901 Strada Vecchia for more than a year. Without the city’s permission, workers tore down the original house and leveled the hillside. Though the site is in an “earthquake-induced landslide area,” subsequent inspections found “unsecured open excavations” and other perils. Inspectors also uncovered a host of features, unapproved though befitting a house with an aspirational price tag of $100 million, among them underground bedrooms and an IMAX theater.
As unapologetically extravagant as the project is its impresario — Mohamed Hadid, father of the celebrity models Gigi and Bella Hadid, sometime guest on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and one of the city’s leading luxury developers. For years, Mr. Hadid’s Instagram account has featured photos of himself amid the rebar at the Bel Air site. He calls it his “office” and labels the photos with the hashtag #themodernhouseofhadid.
Yet for all that, over four years of violation notices, inspections and hearings, efforts to hold someone accountable for the mess at 901 Strada Vecchia have repeatedly hit a legal wall. It is, as a judge said during an October session where once again nothing got done, “an extremely complicated case.”
That is because “themodernhouseofhadid” belongs not to Mr. Hadid but to an entity that keeps the actual owner at a legal remove — a shell company named 901 Strada L.L.C.
Fueled largely by the vast streams of wealth crossing the globe as never before, a new generation of hyper-luxury homes with stratospheric price tags is colonizing the most gilded hillsides and canyons of Los Angeles. In some areas, every third or fourth home has been torn down, leaving gashes of dirt and debris where new mansions will rise.
And more often than not, the people behind the purchases are hidden by shell companies.
Here, as in other roosting places of the superrich, the recent influx of foreign money has gone hand in hand with the rising use of shell companies — generally limited liability companies. Shell companies were used in three-quarters of purchases of over $5 million in Los Angeles over the last three years, a higher rate even than the roughly 55 percent in New York, according to a New York Times analysis of data from PropertyShark. What is more, in Los Angeles, where so many of the new palaces are spec houses — luxury magnets for global wealth — not only are the buyers shielded by shell companies, but the developers are, too.
L.L.C.s were created to protect individuals from legal liability, and they have a range of legitimate uses. In an interview, Mr. Hadid said he used L.L.C.s for liability reasons, adding, “One hundred percent of the time that people build, they create an L.L.C.”
Today in Los Angeles, as at 901 Strada Vecchia, L.L.C.s have provided insulation — some would say impunity — amid a gathering anti-development backlash.
“That’s my — that’s the property I’m developing,” Mr. Hadid explained. “I’m the developer. I develop for other people.”
Law enforcement officials and anticorruption groups worry that while many foreign buyers are simply seeking to safeguard their wealth in United States real estate, some are using shell companies to hide illicit gains, despite banking laws designed to flag the movement of large sums of money by foreign government figures, their families and close associates.
This year, articles in The Times pierced the secrecy of shell companies owning units in one archetypal condominium complex in Manhattan — the Time Warner Center. Among the owners were a growing proportion of wealthy foreigners, including a number of government officials and people close to them. At least 16 owners had been the subject of government inquiries around the world, either personally or as heads of companies.
Here in several neighborhoods of the Platinum Triangle — Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Holmby Hills — a search for who is behind shell companies, based on property and incorporation records, as well as interviews, found a predictable mix of celebrities, lawyers, media executives and the like. But it also turned up owners from a diverse collection of countries, including some involved in current or past law enforcement inquiries.
Head up North Alpine Drive in Beverly Hills, for example, and on the right is a $14.7 million home owned by a shell company tied to Kola Aluko, a Nigerian businessman who is a figure in an investigation of that country’s former oil minister.
A block away is one of several local properties that have been owned by shell companies tied to a son of Suharto, the corrupt and brutal former president of Indonesia.
And back down the hill is Le Palais, a faux chateau — with a swan pond and a Turkish bath with hand-carved Egyptian limestone columns — that a shell company tied to Mr. Hadid sold to a shell company tied to Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, a daughter of the president of Uzbekistan. The Karimov family faces corruption investigations in several countries, according to two people who have worked in law enforcement and have knowledge of the inquiries.
It is in Bel Air, though, that an army of resistance has risen, a coalition of influential neighbors with their own considerable resources. Call it the haves vs. the have-even-mores, or perhaps the old (for L.A.) money vs. the new. And while their bill of grievances extends to suspicions about shell companies hiding corrupt foreign money, what they talk about most is unethical and dangerous development — about dirt trucks run amok, the inevitability of mudslides and the waste of water in a time of drought. One of the Strada Vecchia neighbors, Nancy Walton Laurie, a Walmart heir, accused Mr. Hadid of encroaching on her land and harming her eucalyptus tree, damage she says will cost her $75,000.
The property at 901 Strada Vecchia is the crystallization of all this — in its grandiosity, its 60 pages of violations and other notices and the ire it has provoked.
And for the maddening elusiveness of its provenance.
“The person who is in control of the property has every interest in remaining invisible,” said James Spertus, a lawyer for the lawyer who is listed as 901 Strada L.L.C.’s manager and who became a co-defendant when the city took the highly unusual step of filing a criminal case. “They’re not charged, and they want to stay that way, so there is no public record of that person.”
‘Let’s Make a Deal’
Silver-maned at 67, Mr. Hadid, like many of his clients, is an immigrant. Born in Israel, he moved to Virginia as a teenager with his Palestinian family and spent his early business career in the Washington, D.C., area, developing office buildings and Ritz-Carlton hotels. Central to his success even then was his ability to woo foreign financiers — French and German backers, and in particular the SAAR Foundation, a group of Saudi investors.
In the 1990s, Mr. Hadid was involved with a number of small companies. Several ran into problems, and he filed for personal bankruptcy.
By the early 2000s, Mr. Hadid had moved to Los Angeles and begun his next act, as homebuilder to the stars. He built the estate where Michael Jackson died, as well as Palazzo di Amore, a Beverly Hills estate now listed for resale for $149 million. His clients were not always happy — among those who sued him and later settled was Sylvester Stallone — but new buyers kept coming.
Among his big-ticket sales was a Beverly Hills house, with a glowing pyramid in a reflecting pool, that was acquired in 2010 by a shell company tied to the stepson of the prime minister of Malaysia. (The prime minister is now a target of corruption investigations at home and abroad.)
When Mr. Hadid bought the 1950s ranch house on 1.2 acres at 901 Strada Vecchia for $1.93 million in 2011, the building boom was starting to pick up steam. Bel Air and Beverly Hills are among the areas most popular with foreign buyers in Los Angeles County, where more than 1,400 homes have sold for more than $5 million each since the start of 2013, according to PropertyShark.
While the prices are high — $20 million, $50 million, $100 million — people in real estate say that in terms of square footage, Los Angeles is actually a deal.
“L.A., it’s the cheapest real estate in the world,” Mr. Hadid said, sipping tea during the interview at Le Belvédère, the 48,000-square-foot mansion where he lives in Bel Air. “London is more, New York is more.”
Los Angeles has another important advantage, according to a leading high-end real estate executive, Aaron Kirman of the John Aaroe Group: Buyers do not have to worry about being vetted by co-op or condominium boards. (In fact, as The Times reported in February, New York condo boards, at least, almost never investigate the identity of the individual behind a shell company or the source of a buyer’s money. Nor are real estate brokers legally bound to ask such questions.)
“That’s the beauty of L.A.,” said Mr. Kirman, who says most of his buyers are foreign. “If somebody has the money to pay, let’s make a deal.”
Allan Alexander, a former Beverly Hills mayor who now practices real estate law, said he, too, had seen a steep increase in foreign buyers, especially from China.
“A lot of them are buying because of the safety of the investment here, and they don’t care about the price so much because, candidly, they want to get their funds in a safe place,” he said.
Some of those seeking a safe and secret harbor for their money are not buyers but investors, several real estate executives said. Developers pitch the projects with predictions of high returns, and the money flows in from shell companies with little scrutiny.
As for the new homes themselves, even the designation “mega-mansion” seems insufficient, so Angelenos have derisively labeled them “giga-mansions.”
“It’s another one of these — you walk in, and you’re at the Forum or something,” John Kelly, the lead investigator for the city’s building department, said of the Strada Vecchia house.
Water features are popular — man-made streams and waterfall walls and manicured lawns that go on and on — even as poorer areas turn brown complying with drought restrictions.
To compensate for the city’s strict height restrictions, a huge selling point is the “daylight basement,” an expanse of subterranean luxury built into a hillside so that a wall of windows opens out to the view. But such vast basements require removing dirt, vast quantities of it. Last year, an out-of-control dump truck collided with a police car in Beverly Hills, killing an officer. Two months later, a concrete truck killed another officer.
“The trucks will come and fill up the whole road,” said Maureen Levinson, a Bel Air resident who closely monitors the special hauling routes the city set up to manage the dirt-truck traffic. “I have feared for my daughters’ lives.”
Impunity is a word that comes up a lot these days. It was big news here when a car belonging to a Qatari prince was caught on video racing through a residential neighborhood of Beverly Hills in September; the prince then left the country, claiming diplomatic immunity. According to Steve Soboroff, vice president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, some motorists have taken to installing license plates that, with the touch of a button, flip around to display fake plates at the approach of the police.
“Ask a cop and they’ll tell you that 50 percent of their day dealing with the privileged is miserable,” Mr. Soboroff said.
Web of Political Connections
One of Mr. Kirman’s top listings is a home perched on a promontory in the Trousdale Estates section of Beverly Hills, with seven bedrooms, 10 baths and $2.5 million worth of Baccarat chandeliers. It is listed for $135 million.
“It’s the single best view in all of Los Angeles,” said Stephen Shapiro of Westside Estate Agency. “I think most people would consider tearing it down.”
The house is owned by a shell company, Inch & Meter Limited, whose corporate filings trace to the family of Gilbert R. Chagoury, a Lebanese-Nigerian businessman who was a close associate of Sani Abacha, the general who ruled Nigeria with a fierce grip in the 1990s. Mr. Abacha is believed to have stolen $4 billion from public coffers, which is the focus of a long-running international recovery effort.
In 2000, Mr. Chagoury was convicted of money laundering in Switzerland in connection with the Abacha family, court records show. He paid a fine, and in 2010 the PBS program “Frontline” reported that his record was expunged. Mr. Chagoury’s lawyer acknowledged that Mr. Chagoury had helped Mr. Abacha’s sons open bank accounts at Credit Suisse.
In recent years, the Justice Department has been searching in the United States for Abacha money to return to Nigeria. Mr. Chagoury has never been accused of wrongdoing in this country.
At the estate, the house manager confirmed Mr. Chagoury’s ownership and agreed to forward an email to Mr. Chagoury’s deputy. The Times did not receive a response.
To the west of Trousdale is Beverly Park, a heavily guarded gated community of roughly 80 homes that is considered a classic redoubt of the celebrity class. The likes of Mark Wahlberg, Rod Stewart and the Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone have lived there.
Beverly Park also has a complement of homes that The Times traced to current or former political families from around the world.
Some owners’ names could be found in corporate records, while others were in a 2007 lawsuit that pitted homeowners on the south side of the community against those on the north. (At issue was driving access for nannies, maids and other household employees.)
Just inside the gates, at No. 10, is a home owned by the Dastel Corporation. That company traces to the family of Mikhail Lesin, a former top aide to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and an architect of the government’s media and technology apparatus. Mr. Lesin purchased the home for $13.8 million in 2011, and then bought others in the area.
Last year, Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, asked the Justice Department to investigate the Lesin homes, questioning how a longtime public official could afford such expensive real estate. It is unclear if an investigation was begun.
Mr. Lesin was found dead in a Washington hotel in November. A family spokesman called him a “very successful media executive in Europe” who had purchased the homes legally and said the family knew of no Justice Department inquiry.
At No. 73 is a home owned by TBN Holdings Inc., which traces to a Saudi prince, Turki bin Nasser. As a high-ranking military official during the 1980s and ’90s, Prince Turki was involved in arms deals with the aerospace company BAE that led to allegations of bribery and large fines in Britain and the United States. According to reports by The Guardian, the BBC and “Frontline,” Prince Turki was a bribe recipient, but, as had long been their practice, American and British authorities prosecuted only the company.
Prince Turki did not respond to requests for comment.
At No. 58 is a home bought in 2004 by a shell company tied to another Russian politician, a former senator named Alexander Sabadash. Last spring, Mr. Sabadash was sentenced in Russia to six years in prison for attempted embezzlement of public funds, according to Russian news reports. A man who answered at the phone number listed for the shell company said the Sabadashes might be renting the house.
Finally, at No. 27, is a home owned by a shell company that has ties to the family of Bambang Trihatmodjo, long a contentious figure in Indonesia because his businesses amassed great wealth during the reign of his father, Suharto. Though Mr. Suharto died in 2008, his family’s fortune remains a focus of questions and legal action. Last summer, the Indonesian Supreme Court ordered the Suharto family to return $324 million that was embezzled from a foundation established with public money, according to news reports.
The money was to have paid for education for the poor.
A man who answered at the number listed for the shell company that owns the Beverly Park house acknowledged knowing Mr. Trihatmodjo, but hung up after learning the call was from The Times. Mr. Trihatmodjo did not respond to other messages seeking comment.
The home, with a fountain out front, is being marketed online for $36 million.
A Neighborhood Battle
On Strada Vecchia, the neighbors tend to frame their cause as a campaign against the forces of greed.
It is not that they have not done well for themselves. Joseph Horacek III is a Hollywood lawyer; his wife, Beatriz, is a former bank compliance officer. Mr. Horacek likes to recall watching his client Michael Douglas film the famous Gordon Gekko “greed is good” speech in “Wall Street.”
The Horaceks have made documenting the violations at No. 901 almost a part-time job. The battle over the property, Mr. Horacek said, “started out as a matter of principle, then it got to the point that, ‘Oh my gosh, this is unsafe.’” They live directly down the hill, and they showed a reporter photos that appeared to show landslides.
The Horaceks are hardly the only upset neighbors. There is the Walmart heir, Ms. Laurie, with her damaged eucalyptus. Carole Cramer, who sang with Tommy Dorsey, says Mr. Hadid encroached on part of her property. Another critic is Fredric D. Rosen, well-known for his tough tactics in building Ticketmaster into a powerhouse.
“We all want to know how that house got to be the size it did,” Mr. Rosen wrote in an email to city officials in February, adding, “We all feel that we are being gamed.”
In the interview, Mr. Hadid said he did not want to discuss accusations about his construction practices. But he did want to discuss neighborly etiquette. His own neighbor, he said, has been doing construction for 11 years. Still, he said, “I never complain because I understand these complexities.” They come with the business.
“I seek the highest end of the smallest percentage of the market,” he explained. “There’s a lot of need for the high end here.”
Without naming names, Mr. Hadid said that the Strada Vecchia neighbors were “extortionists” and that they were the ones motivated by greed. Mr. Horacek, for one, dismissed that, saying Mr. Hadid had offered him $2.5 million to drop his complaints but he had turned down the offer. It’s not about money, he said.
Whatever the neighbors’ intentions, city officials say the project is in extensive violation of the building code.
The list of violations, in summary, goes like this: After the unapproved teardown and leveling of the hillside, the construction team did ask permission to grade the hill but used a survey that made it appear that workers had not already removed significant loads of dirt. Then they joined two buildings that were supposed to be separate and built so high that they drastically violated the city’s height limit.
“The house is nearly 70 feet high and it’s only approved for 36 feet,” said Mr. Kelly, the building department investigator.
In July 2014, the city said it intended to revoke the project’s work permits. That week, Mr. Hadid posted on his Instagram, “The construction must go on.” It did, even after the permits were pulled. Neighbors documented workers on the site that Thanksgiving.
In the spring, after repeated reports from neighbors about continuing construction, city inspectors found that parts of the project had been hidden with tarpaulins, plants and taped-over doors. That was when they found the underground bedrooms and theater — an entire unapproved basement below the basement, in fact.
“As you’ve seen in evidence of pictures, during all these years after stop-work orders, that work continued,” Larry Galstian, the chief of inspections at the city’s buildings department, said at the hearing on the violations last summer, according to a recording.
Indeed, a lawyer who works with Mr. Hadid said at the hearing, “We’re not challenging the fact that work that’s unapproved appears on this site.”
City officials said their offices had been utterly drained.
“We have no trust,” Mr. Galstian said. “As a manager of this bureau, I have allocated multiple hundreds of hours of my staff to monitor this project. This is unfair.” He added: “Every time you come to the project, gates are closed. Every time we knock on the door, they have to take 15 minutes to open the door.” His belief, he said, was that workers were being hidden.
“There is no cooperation from 901 Strada Vecchia L.L.C.,” he concluded.
Oil, Water and Accountability
Mr. Hadid is not the only developer flirting with nine-figure price tags. His main competitor is Nile Niami, a former film producer building a Bel Air home he has said he hopes to sell for $500 million.
One of Mr. Niami’s past projects was a boxy, modern house at 755 Sarbonne Road. In April 2012, a shell company tied to Mr. Niami sold it to a shell company traced to Kola Aluko, the Nigerian businessman.
What followed was a tangle of events spanning two continents, involving oil and water, a host of shell companies and lessons in the difficulty of tracing responsibility.
Mr. Aluko, it turned out, was on a buying spree. In addition to purchasing the Sarbonne Road house for $24 million, shell companies tied to him soon bought another Beverly Hills house for $14.7 million and two others in Santa Barbara for $33 million.
At the time, Mr. Aluko was a beneficiary of an agreement with Nigeria’s state oil company; in the first four months of 2012, the company he co-owned, Atlantic Energy, shipped $49 million in crude to the United States. But that deal came under fire back home amid growing questions about Mr. Aluko’s friendship with the oil minister at the time, Diezani Alison-Madueke.
In 2013, the governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank said billions of dollars were missing from the nation’s oil revenue. Among the troubling matters was the Atlantic deal, which looked as if it “was structured in such a way that it would just rip off the country,” Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the bank governor at the time, said in a recent interview.
The deal allowed Atlantic to sell oil in exchange for paying some production costs. But subsequent investigations indicated that while Atlantic was selling oil, it was not paying its full share, according to a document read to The Times, as well as Nigerian news reports.
It did not help that Nigerians saw Mr. Aluko in news reports partying with celebrities overseas, driving racecars and buying luxury real estate. “People in the sector started wondering,” said Aaron Sayne, who recently co-wrote a report on the industry for the Natural Resource Governance Institute, a nonprofit in New York. “Has the government given this company a sweetheart deal, and if so, for whose ultimate benefit?”
In California, the problem was water.
First, water from the Sarbonne Road property began running into the street, according to a neighbor who provided photos to The Times, Chantal Burnison. The water seeped under her driveway. It ruined her koi pond. And when it reached her house, she installed retaining walls to hold back the hillside. Ms. Burnison recalled commiserating with Mrs. Levinson, the neighborhood watchdog, about how, with all the L.L.C.s involved, it would be hard to figure out whom to sue.
Then the Sarbonne Road house became a flooding victim itself, when part of a hillside above collapsed, creating a cascade of “water, muddy soil and debris,” according to a lawsuit filed by Mr. Aluko’s shell company.
That flood came from the new house up the hill, at 864 Stradella Road, on the market for $49.9 million, which has become infamous in the neighborhood as a water waster because of another leak into the street. Beginning last fall, Mrs. Levinson said, she began trying to contact the owners, but signs at the site listed only untraceable L.L.C.s. After the construction manager told her he could not remember the owner’s name, she said, she photographed the leak and wrote to her city councilman. “You couldn’t find out who was responsible,” she said.
The leak has ebbed somewhat, she said, but in October a reporter observed water still flowing.
Mark J. Rosenbaum, a lawyer for the shell company that owns 864 Stradella, said that the flooding onto the Sarbonne property was due to rain, and that the legal dispute had been resolved. Any water flowing into the street, he said, would be minimal and within normal limits.
Neighbors, sensitized perhaps by news reports that Bel Air harbors four of California’s top five residential water users, were unmollified.
“A little? Excuse me, it’s a river down the street,” said Helen Erickson, who owns the house across the street. “It goes down at all hours, midnight, morning, afternoon.”
Recently, construction vehicles have been heading back to 755 Sarbonne. Mr. Aluko’s shell company had sued the developer, Mr. Niami, alleging building defects. But with the case settled, a new round of construction has begun. (Mr. Niami declined to comment.)
Mr. Aluko’s broader legal entanglements continue.
Law enforcement officials in Nigeria, Britain and the United States are examining whether the former oil minister improperly acquired funds. Among the issues being studied are the Atlantic deal and whether Mr. Aluko helped enrich the former minister, according to three people with direct knowledge of the matter.
How many of the California properties are actually Mr. Aluko’s is a mystery, since shell companies are not required to identify their actual owners. Mr. Aluko is listed in their incorporation papers, and the purchase agreement for 755 Sarbonne says the home was for Mr. Aluko or his “assignee.” Mr. Aluko and his lawyer did not reply to requests for comment; a lawyer for Ms. Alison-Madueke said she was receiving medical treatment and was unable to answer questions.
Mr. Sayne, the oil industry researcher, said it would be difficult to connect any properties to Ms. Alison-Madueke.
Any “ties between the former minister and U.S. property,” he said, “are almost sure to lead partly offshore, to the opaque world of tax havens and shell companies.”
The ambiguities surrounding Mr. Hadid and the ownership of 901 Strada Vecchia came to a head over the summer, as the neighbors pressed their case for legal action. At a hearing about the violations in June, several speakers pronounced themselves totally confused.
Documents trace a shifting trail of ownership over time.
When Mr. Hadid purchased the property in early 2011, he put it in his own name and took out a loan through an L.L.C., with himself as “sole member/manager.” Early violation notices were addressed directly to Mr. Hadid.
But by the next year, the city was addressing notices to another shell company, Syntra Wva L.L.C. Mr. Hadid had sold the property at a below-market price to that L.L.C., which in turn resold it to another shell company, 901 Strada L.L.C.
As recently as spring 2014, Mr. Hadid signed a bank loan as “sole managing member” of 901 Strada L.L.C. And then there was the inspection this past spring, when Mr. Hadid “introduced himself as owner of the property,” according to Mr. Galstian, the buildings department official.
As the legal process ground on, Mr. Hadid was, increasingly, steps removed from 901 Strada L.L.C.
At the hearing, a lawyer for the L.L.C. made a point of saying, “Our client is not Mr. Hadid, who has been mentioned by name. Our client is an entity. It’s an L.L.C. Its managing member is here. He’s from Washington D.C.” That was a Virginia lawyer, James Zelloe, who is listed as 901 Strada L.L.C.’s manager in its incorporation documents. The L.L.C.’s phone number in city lobbying records is a recently disconnected cellphone for Mr. Zelloe.
When the city filed a criminal case in July, alleging a range of misdemeanor construction violations, Mr. Zelloe was listed as a co-defendant, along with the L.L.C.
Suddenly, the explanations began changing again.
Mr. Zelloe’s lawyer told The Times that his client was a mere functionary. “He has incorporated this property, as hundreds of attorneys do, but he doesn’t have any control or oversight of the property,” the lawyer, Mr. Spertus, said.
Calls to the L.L.C. seeking comment were not returned.
As for Mr. Hadid, he would not say if the L.L.C. was in fact his.
The opacity of Mr. Hadid’s financing is one aspect of the project that the neighbors, the Horaceks, have emphasized in urging the city attorney to add Mr. Hadid to the criminal case. (Though the Horaceks’ home and several of their neighbors’ are owned by trusts, the trusts are in their own names.)
Until a few years ago, Mrs. Horacek worked as a bank compliance officer, investigating clients for possible money laundering. Several aspects of Mr. Hadid’s background, she said in a letter to the city attorney, would raise flags in a compliance review.
A case in point, she wrote, is his own residence, Le Belvédère. According to public records, his shell company sold the property for $50 million in June 2010 to an individual who quickly transferred it to an L.L.C. that in turn gave it to another shell company. But Mr. Hadid still lives there.
The letter also cited the transfers involving 901 Strada Vecchia.
“Changing the property title multiple times among his L.L.C.s from 2011 to 2015 may also be deemed as ‘layering,’ which is the process used to obscure the audit trail and sever a direct link to the beneficial owner,” Mrs. Horacek wrote.
Mrs. Horacek also pointed the city attorney to Mr. Hadid’s sale of Le Palais to the daughter of the president of Uzbekistan. “Spec houses,” she wrote, “are a perfect vehicle for money-laundering and tax fraud, especially if the property is purchased in cash or by an entity used to obscure the beneficial owner, or even more so by foreign buyers from ‘High Risk Countries.’ I am not saying that Mr. Hadid is engaged in money laundering or tax evasion but there are certainly many red flags.”
Ms. Karimova-Tillyaeva of Uzbekistan, who is tied to three other multimillion-dollar homes in the area, has not been charged with any wrongdoing. Her lawyer said she and her husband had “always conducted themselves lawfully” and had not “benefited from her family connections.”
Mr. Hadid said he knew nothing about the sources of his client’s money, but added, “All of my transactions involve United States-licensed banks, title companies and real estate companies.”
For the Horaceks, the entire business has become a bit overwhelming. In November, they decamped to the desert for the winter.
Last Wednesday, at a hearing on the misdemeanor case, the judge noted that there was a new defendant — Mohamed Hadid.
Still, the central question remains: What will become of the unfinished behemoth up on the hill?
For all the criticism, Mr. Hadid said, “We are diligently working to finish this project under the supervision and approval of all necessary government agencies.”
The Horaceks, though, believe that the only way to bring the house into compliance is to tear it down.
Whether the city might eventually order that — and given the ambiguities of ownership, precisely whom it might order to do it — remains unclear.
But even with all of the case’s tentacles and mysteries, Mr. Horacek has hope.
“I think there is a chance we’ve opened up a piercing of the corporate veil,” he said.