Family business - Page 2

The taxpayers bailed out Frank Lembi's S&L, but he emerged to build a huge real estate empire

Continental began posting major losses in the '90s as the company's capital sank, and in 1995 the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) took it over, fearing insolvency. Not long beforehand, just before Continental went public, Frank stepped down as chair, owing to a conflict of interest tied to Skyline's HomeOwners Finance Center. But Frank and Walter both remained major shareholders in the company.

It was a bad time for lenders, nonetheless, and Frank was apparently not happy. The feds had to file a restraining order against him after he allegedly threatened to plant security guards at Continental's 250 Montgomery St. doors to "physically prevent" the confiscation of its office furniture, according to court records.

In the end, according to an OTS official we contacted, the cost to taxpayers amounted to about $22 million. But it clearly didn't send the Lembis to the poorhouse: Since the Continental Savings collapse, Skyline Realty, along with CitiApartments, has grown to become a very lucrative focal point of the family's enterprises.

Skyline Properties alone generated approximately $36 million in sales during the 2004 fiscal year, according to the Directory of Corporate Affiliations. But the company has founded more than 100 corporations and limited liability companies, each owning individual Skyline properties, and making it difficult to ascertain Skyline's real annual revenue.

Its business model is not uncommon, but the complex web of affiliates has enabled the company to keep some legal liabilities aimed away from Skyline and Lembi and make sizable political contributions to various candidates and causes — nearly $40,000 since 1999 — all of it in small amounts stemming from several different entities. In one case, Skyline's affiliates donated $20,000 on a single day to help defeat a 2002 ballot initiative designed to increase utility rates and improve the Hetch Hetchy water system.

The company has declined to answer further questions for this series, but Skyline manager David Raynal stated in response to a list of e-mail questions in early March that the company's "plan is to restore apartment buildings to the highest standard." He wrote that Skyline supports the creation of special assessment districts that benefit those neighborhoods. "Every year we renovate many apartments, upgrade common areas, and improve neighborhoods."

Since we began publishing stories on Skyline, former employees have contacted us with tales about how the company conducts business. A onetime Skyline employee who requested anonymity said she was well aware of the company's buyout offers to rent-controlled tenants and added that the company was "pretty heavy-handed." She also said she was encouraged to enter tenants' units without prior notice.

"We were told we were making the community better, but we knew that was a bunch of bullshit," she said.

She added that Skyline had trouble retaining employees. High turnover rates are hardly uncommon in the real estate industry, but another former employee who also asked that his name not be revealed said Skyline's group of hotels had similar issues.

"[Frank Lembi] is not the friendliest man in the world," he said. "Salespeople would get frustrated and move on."

Dean Preston, an attorney for the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, said he's assisted at least 100 Skyline tenants with legal advice over the last five years.

"I deal with tenants, as well as landlords, all across the city," Preston said. "In my opinion, CitiApartments is the most abusive landlord that I deal with in my practice." *

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