Maryland solar contractor brings with him ten years of legal troubles
Though Rob Wallace Jr.’s forthcoming projects in the Virgin Islands present a new opportunity for the Power52 brand, he brings with him more than a decade of legal and financial trouble that appears to dog him still.
Between March 2010 and June 2020 — when Mr. Wallace won a nearly $5 million contract to build a solar grid on Anegada — he and various Power52 entities were hit with at least seven lawsuits, four of which alleged fraud.
Six named Mr. Wallace as a defendant, and four named Cherie Brooks, who finalised a divorce from Mr. Wallace last July. None named Ray Lewis, the third Power52 founder.
The plaintiffs include a family construction firm and a solar developer, an electrical company and a credit union.
The allegations, meanwhile, range from fraud to breach of contract, civil conspiracy to unjust enrichment.
So far, judges have usually sided with the couple’s accusers, at times accusing the pair of flouting court orders and delaying legal proceedings as their creditors tried to collect.
But in interviews, Mr. Wallace painted a different picture.
He denied most of the allegations, blaming the two biggest judgments against him — which stem from a solar plant similar to the one planned for Anegada — on an unexpected change in a local tax code.
As he prepares to lead the Anegada project, he said his outstanding debts should be settled soon. But legal claims against him continue.
THE TWO ALLEGED CAR-LOAN FRAUDS
In the fall of 2009, Rob Wallace and his then-wife Cherie Brooks were reeling in the midst of the global economic downturn, and their used-car business was facing a lawsuit from an auto auctioneer seeking more than $182,000 in damages.
As their cash assets dwindled and their debts mounted, they filed for Chapter Seven bankruptcy on Nov. 24, 2009 in Maryland.
Although the couple estimated the total value of their assets at nearly $600,000, they claimed to have only $20 cash on hand and $520 split between three bank accounts, with a yearly combined take-home income of less than $60,000 from Mr. Wallace’s job as an engineer and Ms. Brooks’ as a real estate agent, according to their bankruptcy filing.
The bulk of their assets was composed of their $450,000 home and four cars — three BMWs and a MercedesBenz — that were worth $144,000 altogether, their filing shows.
Meanwhile, the couple owed almost $3.2 million to dozens of creditors, ranging from banks to a fitness club to the Internal Revenue Service, according to the filing.
As the bankruptcy unfolded in court in Maryland, two firms filed claims in March 2010, alleging fraud and other misconduct as they attempted to have more than $297,000 excluded from the couple’s bankruptcy relief.
One was Manheim Remarketing Inc, the auto auctioneer that had taken the pair to court earlier that year.
In the bankruptcy case, Manheim’s lawyers alleged that the couple’s car dealership, Bith Group, had used a $200,000 line of credit to purchase 10 vehicles for resale in 2008.
But the pair did not repay the money as agreed and tried to avoid Manheim’s subsequent efforts to repossess their purchased vehicles, as well as other actions constituting fraud and larceny, the auctioneer alleged, ultimately seeking damages of nearly $120,000 during a protracted legal battle.
In a 2011 court filing, the couple asked the court to discharge the debt, emphatically denying Manheim’s claims.
Painting their small business as the victim of an unscrupulous corporate “giant” that had provided faulty vehicles, they alleged that Manheim had “falsified documents, co-horsed [sic] false testimony” and unfairly attempted to portray them as “criminal.”
But the judge ultimately sided with Manheim, issuing a default judgment in the firm’s favour for the amount sought, plus interest.
“Bith failed to make any payments against this purchase and ignored the demand that the ten vehicles (and others) be returned,” the judge wrote in an October 2013 opinion.
He also strongly criticised the couple for failing to respond to discovery requests, attempting to mislead the court, and taking “other action purposefully calculated to block the resolution of this case.”
Filing for bankruptcy also plunged the couple into a parallel legal battle with another lender called GBBR Credit Union, which was attempting to have nearly $95,000 excluded from their bankruptcy relief.
During the spring of 2008, GBBR alleged, the couple created a “shell” company and used “bogus” bills of sale to induce the credit union to issue them loans worth $127,470 for the purpose of purchasing two Mercedes Benzes.
In its March 2010 complaint, GBBR alleged that by intentionally withholding information and making false representations to induce the loans, and then misusing the loaned money, the couple had committed fraud, larceny and wilful and malicious injury against the bad credit loans union.
Mr. Wallace and Ms. Brooks again denied wrongdoing, representing themselves in a 2011 court filing as casualties of the 2008 recession trying to salvage their livelihood after their business tanked, all while being “bullied” by GBBR.
Nevertheless, the bankruptcy judge sided with GBBR, and he again excoriated the couple, accusing them of “acting in bad faith” by ignoring discovery requests, skipping hearings, and at one point exaggerating the amount of time required for Mr. Wallace to care for his sick mother.
In February 2014, the judge levied a $177,272.62 default judgment in favour of GBBR for the amount claimed on the two loans plus interest, attorney costs and other fees.
Recounting these two court battles to the Beacon this month, Mr. Wallace denied the lenders’ allegations, and he denied even owning a car dealership called Bith Group.
He admitted that he likely missed some court filings as the cases unfolded, but he explained that he was a cash-strapped father representing himself after losing his business and home.
“There’s probably things I should have responded to if I had a lawyer to help me, but, you know, when stuff hits the fan, man, sometimes you gotta pick and choose what’s important and what you can handle,” he said.
THE SOLAR FARM
In the fall of 2017, Rob Wallace was at work on the fifth section of a signature accomplishment of his father’s company: Nixon’s Farm, a 10-megawatt agglomeration of five solar plants built on rolling Maryland farmland.
But his work on this section of the project quickly descended into allegations of missed deadlines and legal claims.
“We hired Power52 to provide turnkey construction services on the [fifth phase of Nixon’s Farm], but the company did not complete the project as expected and failed to pay its subcontractors in a timely fashion for the work performed,” Keith Hevenor, the communication manager for the Boston-based Nexamp Capital LLC, told the Beacon in an email.
“Knowing how difficult business can be for smaller subcontractors, we paid certain subcontractors directly for the amounts owed by Power52 and attempted to resolve the matter directly with Power52.”
But those efforts were unsuccessful, according to Nexamp, which owns and operates more than 100 solar projects in the US and Canada.
“Unfortunately, Power52 offered no meaningful response through the legal process or to Nexamp’s repeated attempts to work out the situation with them,” Mr. Hevenor explained.
In November 2018, one of the subcontractors on the project, a North Carolina electrical company called MB Haynes Corporation, sued Mr. Wallace, Power52 Energy Solutions, and Nexamp subsidiary Terrapin Branch Solar LLC in the Circuit Court for Howard County, Maryland.
In its lawsuit, MB Haynes claimed that it completed the work outlined in its contracts with Mr. Wallace by March 2018, and as of that November was owed almost $160,000.
As that lawsuit played out in court, Terrapin piggybacked onto MB Haynes’ suit, filing a February 2019 crossclaim alleging that Mr. Wallace had committed fraud by signing contracts with MB Haynes without Terrapin’s knowledge or authorisation.
Mr. Wallace, Terrapin alleged, also violated other terms of his agreements with Nexamp, leaving MB Haynes and at least seven other companies underpaid, misusing the funds that Nexamp set aside to pay subcontractors, and letting construction run behind schedule.
In total, Terrapin alleged eight counts against Mr. Wallace, including fraud, breach of contract, and unjust enrichment.
In October 2019, a Maryland judge sided with MB Haynes and Terrapin, entering default judgments in favour of both plaintiffs and ordering Mr. Wallace to pay more than $900,000 to the two firms.
The following month, Mr. Wallace filed a handwritten motion asking the court for reconsideration, claiming that he had “not been able to defend himself due to personal and business financial hardship caused in part by this case.”
The next month, however, the judge denied the motion.
Explaining the lawsuit to the Beacon this month, Mr. Wallace denied that he misused funds, committed fraud or other wrongdoing, or missed construction deadlines.
He admitted that some contractors, including MB Haynes, haven’t been paid in full, but he blamed a change in the county’s tax code that he said added unforeseen costs, prompting Nexamp to withhold a final payment.
This, in turn, made it impossible for Mr. Wallace to pay the subcontractors, he said.
However, he added that he is expecting approval from the county for a special tax break: When it comes, he said, Nexamp will release the final payment, and he will be able to pay the subcontractors in full and clear his debts associated with the project.
THE JOINT LAWSUIT
Of eight companies that Terrapin’s lawyers claimed were underpaid by Rob Wallace by the summer of 2018, four of them banded together in June 2020 and filed a joint lawsuit against Mr. Wallace and Power52 Energy Solutions.
Bucceri Company LLC, Suncatch Energy LLC, Chesapeake Lawnscape LLC, and Avoca Engineering and Architecture LLC are claiming they are owed more than $284,000 stemming from their work on various Power52 projects, including Nixon’s Farm.
This month, Mr. Wallace cited the withheld payment from Nexamp as the reason he has been unable to pay some of the companies in this lawsuit, and he claimed that he owes them far less than the damages they are seeking.
This lawsuit is ongoing, with a trial scheduled to begin July 28 in the Circuit Court for Howard County, Maryland.
THE ALLEGED HOUSE FRAUD
On May 14, 2019, Rob Wallace’s wife Cherie Brooks filed for divorce.
The 14-month proceeding that followed as they negotiated a settlement led to another lawsuit against the couple, alleging that Mr. Wallace fraudulently transferred part ownership of a house to Ms. Brooks in order to swindle one of his creditors.
On Jan. 31, 2020, Terrapin Branch Solar sued the pair as part of its efforts to collect on an October 2019 court award of more than $220,000 stemming from the Nixon’s Farm solar project. In the lawsuit, Terrapin alleged that Mr. Wallace attempted to defraud the company in December 2019 when he “executed and delivered a deed” making his then-wife a joint owner of the home at no cost.
Terrapin alleged that the house transfer constituted fraudulent conveyance, as well as common-law civil conspiracy and unjust enrichment, in part because the couple “conspired” to commit “unlawful and fraudulent acts with ill will and/or intent to defraud.”
Terrapin’s lawyers petitioned the court to require Mr. Wallace to make all “fraudulently transferred assets” immediately available to the firm; order Ms. Brooks to desist from using any of the assets transferred to her by Mr. Wallace; and enter a judgment in the firm’s favour of at least $220,464.52, among other actions.
On Nov. 12, 2020, a Maryland judge entered an order of default against Mr. Wallace and Ms. Brooks.
Terrapin then asked the court for a related default judgment.
Ms. Brooks, however, responded on Jan. 6, claiming that she never received a copy of Terrapin’s complaint; that when she learned of it Mr. Wallace failed to get legal counsel as he said he would; and that she initiated the transfer of the house after being advised to do so by her divorce attorney “in an effort to protect the marital asset and so that me and my four children will not be out on the street.”
She also requested a hearing, which a judge scheduled for Feb. 11.
But on the day of the hearing, the judge granted Terrapin’s motion for a default judgment, according to the docket of the case on the court’s website.
Speaking to the Beacon this month, Mr. Wallace also denied fraudulently transferring the house, claiming that the transfer was part of their divorce settlement.
THE LAWSUIT AGAINST POWER52 FOUNDATION
About two months after Rob Wallace and Ray Lewis visited the Virgin Islands to announce a new solar training programme in January 2020, the nonprofit organisation they founded with Cherie Brooks in Maryland was sued in Baltimore County Circuit Court for more than $430,000.
The March 27, 2020 lawsuit — which names only Ms. Brooks and the Power52 Foundation as respondents— alleged that the organisation broke a May 2019 contract with an architecture firm hired to renovate its office space.
Obrecht Realty Services Chairman Tom Obrecht told the Beacon that he initially was impressed by the foundation, but his feelings changed when Power52 paid his company barely a quarter of what it owed after the renovations were complete.
Now, he said, he regrets winning the contract in the first place.
“Unfortunately, we were successful,” Mr. Obrecht said. “I don’t have any good things to say.”
In its May 2019 contract, Power52 Foundation agreed to pay Obrecht $612,905 to refurbish space it was renting in the third floor of Lightbridge Health, a medical building in Randallstown, Maryland, according to the lawsuit.
Claiming it finished the project in late January 2020, Obrecht sued in March 2020 seeking $434,163 and a mechanic’s lien.
That August, Power52 Foundation terminated its lease in the building, and then used the termination agreement to argue against the lien.
But on Oct. 7, after a trial the day before, a judge issued a judgment in Obrecht’s favour for $434,163, plus interest of more than $24,000.
The court also established a mechanics lien for $434,163, giving Obrecht the right to sell the Power52Foundation’s leasehold interests in the project if it did not pay up within the next month.
Power52 Foundation challenged the judgment, denying wrongdoing and asking the court to dismiss the lien and schedule a new trial.
But a judge denied those requests in December.
As of Feb. 16, however, Obrecht had not received any more compensation, according to Bryan Eberle, the firm’s former legal counsel and current president of construction.
Though Power52 offered a settlement, the terms did not meet Obrecht’s expectations, the lawyer said.
“We are still pursuing all of our legal rights under the judgment for trying to get payment,” he added.
Mr. Wallace told the Beacon that he had no involvement in the lawsuit, which Mr. Eberle corroborated, saying that Mr. Wallace never appeared alongside Ms. Brooks at court hearings.
However, Mr. Eberle claimed that Mr. Wallace initially helped negotiate the contract between the firm and the non-profit organisation.
Attempts to interview Ms. Brooks and Mr. Lewis about the lawsuits were not successful.