That concluded the meeting. But it started so much more. Because when the eviction papers came, Lesser noticed the company name didn't match the registered owner of One Market Plaza. Lesser later learned the man without a name worked for the Yarmouth Group, a property management firm contracted by IBM — also not a registered owner. Even after Abouab went out of business and his proceedings became moot, Lesser and fellow attorney Michael Mendelson continued digging into who owned One Market Plaza.

On paper, One Market Plaza was 90 percent owned by Equitable Life Assurance and 10 percent the property of Southern Pacific, and controlled by a joint venture between the companies. But when Lesser and Mendelson buttonholed building tenants, they claimed the IBM Pension Plan — a subsidiary of the computer giant — was calling the shots. "A friend of mine works for Equitable," says Lesser. "And I said 'Would you do some checking for me? Does Equitable own this building?' He got back to me and said, 'On the QT, no!'"

Federal and state filings Mendelson unearthed corroborated this, indicating Equitable and the IBM Pension Plan (the Plan) had executed an arcane financial transaction, obscuring the true ownership of One Market Plaza. When asked if the assessor could have obtained these documents, Mendelson grins. "Abso-fucking-loutely," he responds.

Years of litigation in the One Market Plaza case, triggered by Wayne Lesser, earned the city $23 million. Lesser got nothing.
Michael Short
Years of litigation in the One Market Plaza case, triggered by Wayne Lesser, earned the city $23 million. Lesser got nothing.
One Market Plaza remains the only
commercial property in the state in which a concealed change of ownership resulted in fraud penalties.
Michael Short
One Market Plaza remains the only commercial property in the state in which a concealed change of ownership resulted in fraud penalties.

But that didn't happen. The Office of the Assessor-Recorder received an anonymous tip regarding One Market Plaza in late 1990 or early 1991, per court records. An appraiser asked an Equitable executive if a change of ownership had taken place. He was told no. This was the legal equivalent of shining a flashlight into the hen house and being told "Ain't nobody here but us chickens." But it was good enough for San Francisco's assessor.

After Lesser and Mendelson filed a legal writ in 1992, more substantive work was undertaken. Stephen Dunbar, then the chief assistant assessor for the city, overruled several underlings, who had made a few calls and insisted no change of ownership had occurred. Instead, Dunbar exercised his office's subpoena power; he still recalls the day UPS wheeled 26 boxes of documents from the Plan into his office. "They were hoping somebody who didn't give a damn would pick that case up," he says with a laugh. "Instead they got me." For four months, he waded through the documents in those boxes, connecting the dots Lesser and Mendelson had uncovered. Dunbar pieced together a scheme as brilliant as it was underhanded, which deprived the city of scores of millions of dollars. "I am still blown away," he says, "that someone would do what they did."


Decades later, Lesser and Mendelson still complain the City Attorney's office never truly grasped the complexity of the scheme behind One Market Plaza. Representatives of the City Attorney's office, meanwhile, portray the private lawyers as self-interested money-grubbers angling for a chunk of the millions the city stood to gain. Both points of view are compatible.

The ploy Equitable and the Plan pulled off was Byzantine even by the advanced standards of Prop. 13 property reassessments. The origin of the maneuver was amusingly simple, though. The Plan, looking to add to its real-estate portfolio, asked investment adviser Equitable for advice. Equitable found a solution seemingly beneficial to everyone — why not fob off its own building on the Plan? A simple transaction would have resulted in a giant reassessment. But this is where simplicity ends.

Equitable made its bones selling annuities — contracts providing a distribution of income over time. So it structured the transaction in the form of an annuity, largely backed by one gargantuan asset — One Market Plaza. In exchange for $185 million, Equitable put 90 percent of its 90 percent stake in the building into the annuity. But rather than a guaranteed income stream, the Plan stood to gain or lose based on the fortunes of One Market Plaza. The Plan collected tenants' rents, and assumed day-to-day control of the building. In Dunbar's eyes, this constituted a change of ownership. "What ironclad rights IBM had!" he recalls. "They dotted every I and crossed every T to ensure they had 100 percent complete control of the property, even though there was no deed in their name." As a later Appeals Court ruling quipped, "Apparently, the only right of ownership denied to the Plan was the right to record the deed." The Plan avoided a hefty reassessment, and Equitable could demand a higher "sale" price based on that fact.

Equitable, retaining ownership on paper, placed the annuity within a "separate account" it ostensibly maintained for the Plan. "Separate accounts" are segregated from insurance companies' general accounts; even if Equitable were to founder and be swarmed by creditors, the "assets" held for the Plan would be safe. They were also safe from the eyes of San Francisco's assessor, hidden beneath strata of paperwork in a place no one would have thought to look.

Again and again, Equitable and the Plan took pains to conceal their moves from the city. Equitable claimed no change of ownership had occurred on state tax forms, even after it subsequently sold its remaining interest to the Plan, had no ownership or management involvement whatsoever in the building, and canceled its property insurance coverage of One Market Plaza. The Plan denied it owned the building — to the city. But it represented itself as the owner to the Department of Labor, and also in its contract with the Yarmouth Group — which it brought in to "bury" tenants.

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10 comments
Roland Shield
Roland Shield

Mr. Eskenazi, Your article is well-researched and informative to say the least. And I feel that I am reasonably informed enough to make this assessment (no pun intended). I am a former employee of the California Wildlife Conservation Board and I saw these sort of shenanigans being orchestrated for "conservation" properties for nearly 5 years before I was drummed out as a would-be whistleblower. The only success I has was getting California Watch to post a fairly weak article that only vaguely scratched the surface of this phenomenon [ ref. http://californiawatch.org/env... ] . Let me be clear here: there are hundreds of transactions representing hundreds of millions of dollars in unreported assessed and collected taxes across California every year. And yes, many of the "hogs" are in places such as Sonoma and Napa Counties, but they are everywhere to be sure.

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Teotwawki Jones
Teotwawki Jones

Actually, property taxes are raised annually and tied to inflation. In the 12 years I've been in my home, my taxes have gone up about 25%. By the time I pay off the mortgage, they will have almost doubled.

Joe Eskenazi
Joe Eskenazi

Sir --

In California, there is a cap on how much property taxes can be raised: 2 percent per year. Also, if your tax base is higher than the value of the home, you are entitled, via Proposition 8, to apply to the assessor for a downward reassessment every year.

Best,

JE

Partyisover
Partyisover

Why are we allowing our adult children, who were born and raised in California, to pay for the selfish-sins of their grandparents? When their grandparents were young, they bought homes all over California at dirt cheap prices with low-low interest rates. Yet, when they were given the opportunity to pay-it-forward, they instead decided to keep everything for themselves.

Dear old Granpa and Granma voted for Prop 13 which keeps their property taxes at the 1978 tax rate, that was back in the good old days, when a gallon Gas was only 63 cents.

Briansays
Briansays

the lesson here ispeople think government is corrupt, wasteful, incompetant and always looking to expand the social welfare stateergo they hate it more than they do the rich and greedy in the private sector

Dreamer
Dreamer

In a perfect world, Mean Greedy People and Mean Gun Slinging People would cancel-out each other (two equally gruesome entities neutralize each others power)

 
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