Creditors sifting through the tangled finances of the EPIC group of real estate operations have discovered yet another company that they say was being used by EPIC officers to divert at least $1 million in funds.
The newly found firm, EHL Management Co., has received rental payments from nearly 4,000 houses that thus far have not been included in the federal bankruptcy proceedings and Maryland conservatorship that have tied up the rest of EPIC's assets, according to documents filed yesterday in federal court in Alexandria. U.S. District Court Judge Claude Hilton ordered the rent money placed in an escrow account until its rightful owner can be determined.
Lawyers investigating EPIC also disclosed yesterday that hundreds of houses once owned by EPIC partnerships were transferred out of EPIC about the time its financial difficulties were made public in late August and early September.
These partnerships are controlled by EHL Management and have not filed for bankruptcy. EHL President Clayton McCuistion is also president of Community Savings & Loan, the parent of EPIC; other EPIC officers are reportedly on its board as well. McCuistion was unavailable yesterday to explain the transfer of millions of dollars of property out of EPIC.
Lawyers for Maryland and EPIC creditors said they learned of the existence of EHL Management only this week and have not yet been able to piece together its structure.
Judge Hilton's order freezing EHL Management's income should complete the takeover of all EPIC related assets and speed up discussions aimed at bailing out the companies, officials involved in the talks said. A committee of EPIC creditors headed by David O. Maxwell, chairman of the Federal National Mortgage Association, has reportedly devised a bailout plan. But a Fannie Mae spokeswoman said the plan would not be disclosed until next week.
Yesterday's disclosure of whole new layers of EPIC companies are the latest twist to the strange saga of Equity Programs Investment Corp., whose demise last month opened the latest chapter of the Maryland thrift crisis and sent shock waves through the country's mortgage markets.
Equity Programs, the centerpiece of the EPIC system, set up tax-sheltered investment partnerships that bought more than 20,000 houses around the country. Most of these partnerships were placed in bankruptcy early this month after they missed payments on more than $1 billion worth of mortgages and mortgage-backed securities. Shortly thereafter, the state of Maryland took over EPIC and Community.
Since then, the creditors and Maryland officials have been trying to piece together EPIC's labryinthine system of interconnected companies, believed to include more than 100 firms. Several of the EPIC affiliates performed services for EPIC partnerships and collected fees for EPIC's owners.
Officials hope to devise a plan that would avert massive losses at EPIC for the mortgage holders, mortgage insurance companies, investors, and 30,000 of Community's depositors. Those deposit funds have been frozen for more than three weeks since a Maryland judge placed Community in conservatorship.
A previous bailout plan developed by Dean Witter Reynolds, the Wall Street brokerage firm, collapsed just before the conservatorship was established.
Another plan developed by Ticor Mortgage Insurance Co., which has an estimated exposure at EPIC of more than $150 million, has met with a cool reception from EPIC's creditors.
Daniel Lewis, a lawyer representing Maryland in the proceedings, said state officials met yesterday with Fannie Mae officials over their new plan. He refused to disclose details of the meeting.
As those negotiations continue, Lewis and other lawyers involved in the case have been trying to gain control of the estimated $7 million a month in rental income that is supposed to be flowing from the 20,000 EPIC properties.
Until very recently, the creditors thought they had caught the leaking funds. But in a filing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court last week, EPIC Realty Services Inc., the company that collects the rents on EPIC's properties, revealed that only about 14,000 of the 20,000 houses believed owned by EPIC partnerships were actually in bankruptcy. Shortly thereafter, partnerships representing 618 more houses filed for bankruptcy and yesterday's disclosures accounted for most of the remainder.
According to an affadavit submitted by Larry J. Mathias, Equity Programs's president, nearly 4,000 of these houses are owned by 14 partnerships "in which EHL management or an entity other than EPIC is now general partner." Most of the others, he said, belong to partnerships in which EPIC is the co-general partner along with one of three other non-EPIC companies.
Mathias said that the rents from the EHL houses are usually collected by EPIC Realty Services and forwarded to EHL Management.
"This is a company that has come on the scene . . . without volunteering . . . and that is apparently getting the money," said Warren Dennis, the lawyer for First National Bank of Maryland, one of the trustees for the mortgage securities holders. "There is not only a stoppage of the flow of EPIC funds going forward. There is a diversion," he told Judge Hilton, urging the court to seize the funds.
Mark Touhey, a lawyer representing EHL Management and Clayton McCuistion, said that the company has agreed to turn the rents over to EHL Financial Corp., another EPIC-related company which lawyers said is under state control.
"These monies are specifically earmarked for the state of Maryland and the depositors of Community Savings & Loan," Touhey said. According to the document he submitted to the court, the action to shift the funds was taken on Thursday, the day before the hearing.
Touhey's argument was greeted with skepticism by lawyers for he trustees. "We don't know where [EHL] comes from or how long it has been in existence," said Robert Plotkin, a lawyer for the National Bank of Washington, the other trustee for the mortgage securities holders. "All we're saying is that it smells inappropriate and we want to shut off the flow until we find out what's going on."
Lewis said the state has auditors at EPIC examining records in search of information about EHL and other questions. "We're looking into the question of whether the transactions by which the partnerships were transferred were proper or improper," he said.