Massachusetts Lawyer: He was scammed by Argentinean con artists

The Daily Record Newswire

BOSTON, MA -- Buying a winery and villa in Argentina: it sounded like the perfect exotic and glamorous investment opportunity for a retired lawyer and oncologist from Newton with a passion for wine.

Mark L. Ehrman, a world-traveler who speaks several languages, was introduced by his friend Mara D. Martin to her cousins and uncles back in La Plata, Argentina in early 2005, and soon was on his way to realizing a dream.

Martin, a self-styled investment advisor and business consultant, extolled the Maifredini family's business acumen and desire to help savvy Americans get in on the ground floor of what promised to be the next big South American viniculture hotspot. Before long, Ehrman and his family were making frequent trips to Argentina to meet and stay with the Maifredinis. In turn, Ehrman hosted Martin's cousin, Leandro Maifredini, at his Waban home, where Maifredini was introduced to friends and others who might invest in a fledgling wine-making business dubbed Vina Maipu.

Keeping in frequent contact by Skype, cell phone calls, e-mail and text messages even when thousands of miles apart, the two families became closer than business associates. Or so it appeared.

Ehrman now asserts that Martin and five members of the Maifredini clan ran an elaborate con game on him and his well-heeled friends for three years, scamming him out over $2.5 million and perhaps more, according to a civil suit filed in U.S. District Court in Boston late last month. The suit alleges the con amounts to a RICO operation.

Ehrman's attorney, Bruce W. Edmands, of Eckert, Seamans, Cherin & Mellott in Boston, declined to talk about the suit, saying he was "reluctant" to discuss a pending case. But the former state prosecutor acknowledged the legal challenges "are rather rigorous" under the RICO statute.

The arrangement seemed simple: Ehrman would bankroll the business, but in order to sidestep local restrictions on foreign buyers, the Maifredinis would set up a holding company so he could buy two villas to develop and acquire the wine business.

The Maifredinis agreed to take care of all the paperwork and oversee everything, including the winery's operation, to protect Ehrman's interests while he was out of the country. Leandro Maifredini and his cousin Juan Pablo also allegedly told Ehrman that, given Argentinean tax laws, he should allow them to temporarily hold the property titles in their names and grant them power of attorney.

According to Ehrman's complaint, "Martin falsely represented [the Maifredinis] as her team of advisors and consultants [who] had no personal or selfish financial or economic motive in Ehrman's potential business ventures as they owned and controlled substantial businesses and had ample funds of their own." In fact, "Martin's principal motivation was to exploit the relationship with Ehrman for the purposes of advancing the defendants' fraudulent scheme."

The complaint alleges that the family secretly assumed title to a villa Ehrman had paid for and thought he owned. They hired pals for no-work jobs at inflated salaries while running up a $173,000 tab taking luxury "marketing trips" to Hong Kong, and induced Ehrman to buy another property that turned out to need $1.5 million in repairs. Finally, they charged Ehrman $1 million for a failing winery business, $500,000 more than the seller's true asking price, and pocketed the rest.

The con finally began to unravel in early 2008 when winery workers who had been forbidden by the family from alerting Ehrman to the scam came forward and made sworn statements, and a trusted Ehrman associate from Newton was physically threatened by the Maifredini patriarch when the associate tried to recover a computer and BlackBerry Leandro Maifredini had taken from Ehrman.

According to Ehrman's attorney, the defendants have not yet been served with the complaint. Under the terms of the Hague Convention, the complaint must be translated and served in Argentina. A judge has not been assigned to the case.

Published: Wed, Nov 24, 2010