Jan. 05--With Tony Stewart's down-to-the-wire victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway's Ford 400 in November, longtime NASCAR team owner Gene Haas finally found himself at the pinnacle of his sport.
But a Miami-Dade lawsuit over a real estate deal gone awry could put a significant dent in Haas' Sprint Cup championship spoils.
Haas -- a California businessman -- made the winning bid on two multimillion-dollar Golden Beach mansions at a public auction just days before NASCAR's season-ending race in Homestead.
Yet the sellers of the homes, brothers Robert and Steven Fox, say Haas -- through a proxy -- reneged on the deal, and in turn forfeited the $1 million deposit that auction rules mandated be paid up front.
"He simply refused to sign the contracts," said attorney Eric Isicoff, who is representing the Foxes in the suit.
"In my 30 years in this business, this is the first time this has ever happened," added auctioneer (and Pompano Beach Mayor) Lamar Fisher, who handled the sale.
Calls to Haas' attorneys, both in Fort Lauderdale and in California, were not returned Wednesday. A spokesman for Haas' primary business, the machine-tools company Haas Automation, declined comment.
The breach of contract lawsuit is a bizarre finale to a uniquely Florida story that drew interest both locally and around the country. The Fox brothers, unable to sell their posh oceanfront homes through a real estate broker, ultimately choose to put them up for auction -- a rarity with non-distressed properties. Auction rules mandated that all participants place a refundable deposit in escrow in advance -- $500,000 per home that they had interest in buying.
Then on Nov. 10, more than a dozen bidders from near and far packed Robert Fox's living room, hoping to nab a beach palace at a discount.
Haas -- through Lake Worth developer Albert Wadsworth, who was granted power of attorney -- outlasted all others, but didn't want just one. Instead, he agreed to buy them both for a whopping $12.4 million.
But when it came time to sign the papers, Wadsworth balked -- presumably on orders from Haas, 59, a NASCAR fixture since 2002.
"We were just sitting back and relaxing, waiting for things to finish up," said Steven Fox. "But then Lamar walked into the room, white-face, and told us what happened. It was utter shock."
While uncommon, such a scenario had been envisioned by the auction house. That's why Fisher put a default clause in its general terms and conditions of sale: Should the buyer fail to make good on a winning bid, the Foxes were entitled to the non-refundable deposits as liquidated damages. Or in Haas' case, $1 million.
But it's not as simple as just pocketing the cash. Newman Guarantee Title Insurance Agency, where the deposits were placed in escrow, cannot release the funds until a declaration is made that they belong to the plaintiffs. Haas refuses to play along. Thus, the lawsuit, which lists Fisher Auction and Newman as defendants, but purely for procedural reasons.
Haas, who served time in federal prison after pleading guilty to tax fraud in late 2007, is the suit's true target.
As for Steven and Robert Fox's homes, they were ultimately sold to other auction participants, although for roughly $1 million less than Haas had originally bid.
"I honestly feel that with 15 people bidding, we had gotten fair market value," Steven Fox said. "Obviously, the only disappointment came from of the bidder failing to complete the transaction."
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