Ponzi schemer’s conviction may put Manassas post office at risk


One side of Old Town Manassas’s post office building is plastered with No Trespassing signs from federal marshals. The other side of the building is still a working post office. (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST)
December 20, 2011

Old Town Manassas ’s small post office is a staple of the downtown. Since the 1930s, it has resided in a squat, red-brick building on Church Street, a handy location for shoppers and a place where downtown regulars run into old friends.

It hasn’t been targeted for downsizing by the U.S. Postal Service. But residents have a different — and far more unusual — reason to fear their post office’s demise: The building has been seized by federal marshals.

The building’s owner, Linda Sadr, 52, was convicted of orchestrating a Ponzi scheme in which she made promises to desperate homeowners to help pay their mortgage bills. When federal authorities seized her assets, the building, which counts the post office as its sole tenant, was among them.

The building will be sold or put up for auction, said Lynzey Donahue, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Marshals Service.

No matter who owns the building, Manassas residents want the post office — which drives customers to local businesses — to stay put.

“I think it’s vitally important,” said Mark Olsen, who has had a post office box there for 20 years. “It’s one piece to having a thriving Old Town.”

The city leases the space for about $8,700 a year, then subleases it to the post office, said Mike Moon, the city’s director of public works. Those leases should be honored even when the building changes hands, but city officials worry that a new owner could seek to undo those agreements. The deed also includes a guarantee that if the property is sold, the city has first dibs to buy it.

The city once owned the building but put it up for sale in 2006 for two reasons: There were costly repairs to make, and officials wanted the property on the tax rolls. “The choices were either we were going to have to spend a lot of money on the building or sell it,” City Manager Lawrence D. Hughes said.

When Sadr and one of her shell companies, Maximum Impact Financial Services, stepped in, it seemed a stroke of luck. Sadr paid the $657,000 price in cash and made needed improvements — putting in new floors and fixing an aging roof, among other work, officials said. She had also started to fix up the rooms behind the post office, which had been mostly vacant.

“It looked as though to me she was moving down the road to a very nice office space,” Mayor Harry J. “Hal” Parrish II (R) said of those initial improvements to the building. “It was upscale.”

Sadr made other promises. She once owned a fine arts store at Tysons II Galleria and wrote in her application to the city that she wanted to start a project in the building’s basement called “Underground Art.”

Sadr’s vision was grand: “From the proposed marble floors to the hanging Chandeliers, I need this building to be ‘hands down Stunning,’ ” the application states. “We are targeting the response of ‘Wow’!!! From the local . . . waiter who picks up his daily mail, to the invited dignitaries who have traveled the world.”

But “wow” isn’t the word that federal marshals and city officials who toured the building recently would have used.

Sadr converted office space into what appears to be living space, constructing a bathroom — including a toilet and shower — over a septic tank and putting up temporary walls, Moon said. Electrical wiring was done badly, and art and other “odd” artifacts are strewn everywhere, he said.

“There’s really some problems over there that need to be corrected,” Moon said.

Sadr pleaded guilty this year to mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering, according to court documents. She was sentenced in June to 22 years in prison and ordered to pay about $9.7 million owed to 136 individuals or couples, according to court documents.

Sadr’s crimes involved taking advantage of desperate homeowners by running a scheme called the “Mortgage Elimination Program.” Prosecutors said she promised to pay off mortgages by winning legal challenges against banks for purported illegal activities. Clients were asked to, among other things, hand over some advance mortgage payments. But in the end, many were bilked.

Kevin Brehm, Sadr’s attorney, said he is appealing the sentence. He declined to comment further.

Hughes said that if the post office is threatened, he will probably recommend that the city council buy the building back.

In 2006, some residents had told the council that they were concerned about putting the post office’s fate in the hands of a private owner, said E.E. “Chip” Rohr, a Manassas resident who grew up in the city.

“It obviously hasn’t worked out,” Rohr said. Now, he said, he just wants the city to keep its post office.

“A lot of people in this town that I grew up with, that’s where I see them,” Rohr said.

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