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PREVIOUS COVERAGE | River Meadows project at center of fraud charges

MANATEE — Andre Panet-Raymond thought investing with Mark Brivik was a safe bet.

After all, he had known the Brivik family — Mark, his wife Marie and their two sons — for several years. Mark Brivik had all the trappings of a successful developer: A $1.7 million Longboat Key mansion that hosted a fund-raiser for U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan’s 2006 campaign, membership in the exclusive Longboat Key Club and a 39-foot Sea Ray yacht. And the real-estate market was booming at the time.

So Panet-Raymond agreed in 2005 to invest $500,000 in River Meadows, a residential subdivision that Mark Brivik proposed to develop between the upper Manatee River and Mill Creek Road.

“It made a lot of sense,” Panet-Raymond said Tuesday. “I was a passive investor and he was the expert. I was just looking to make a good return.”

So were six other investors, who collectively sank another $3.67 million into the project but never saw it get off the ground.

The investors now say they were defrauded, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement agrees.

FDLE agents arrested Mark Brivik, 55, at his home in a gated community in Orlando on Monday morning. Two hours later, they arrested Marie Brivik at her place of employment in downtown Sarasota.

Mark Brivik, 55, faces 23 charges of organized scheme to defraud, fraudulent transactions/omission of fact, sale of unregistered security and sale of security by unregistered issuer. Marie Brivik is charged with one court each of organized scheme to defraud, fraudulent transactions/omission of fact, sale of unregistered security and sale of security by unregistered issuer.

Mark Brivik remained in the Sarasota County Jail on $230,000 bond Tuesday, while Marie Brivik was released on $20,000 bond, according to jail records. It was not immediately clear if either had an attorney, and messages left at a Sarasota phone number listed for “’M. Brivik” were not immediately returned.

The couple’s arraignment is set for Aug. 13. FDLE spokesman Mike Morrison declined to comment on the case, but said the investigation is “active and ongoing.”

One of the River Meadows investors, Ron Carr, hinted that more charges could be filed. “It’s really just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

According to an arrest affidavit prepared by FDLE, the Briviks recruited the seven River Meadows investors in late 2005. Mark Brivik told them the project would be built on three parcels, one of which was already owned by a corporation under his control. He asked the investors to invest in the second parcel, telling them he also had an option to buy the third property.

There was never any such option, FDLE said.

He also misrepresented the second parcel’s value and later “refused contact and subsequently abandoned the investors” when they began asking questions about the development’s lack of progress, the affidavit said.

Nor did Mark Brivik, who was an attorney in his native South Africa, tell investors that authorities there had issued a warrant for his arrest on charges he stole from his law firm’s trust account in 1993, the affidavit said. The accusation led to his disbarment and relocation to the United States.

But on a website that he set up to counter news stories about him, Mark Brivik contends he’s no longer wanted by South African authorities. He posted a 2009 letter, purportedly by the National Prosecuting Authority of South Africa, that said the agency had “declined to prosecute” the case.

The letter’s authenticity could not be immediately verified Tuesday.

The River Meadows investors would not have invested with Mark Brivik had they known of the South African case, FDLE said.

The criminal charges stem from a civil suit the investors filed in Sarasota County Circuit Court over their losses, accusing Mark Brivik and a Sarasota law firm of misconduct. The case remains open.

It’s not the first time that a business partner has accused Mark Brivik of fraud, court records show.

In a 2003 suit filed in Manatee County Circuit Court, William R. Benekos said he and Mark Brivik initially purchased the River Meadows site. But the suit contended Mark Brivik later took out 11 loans totaling more than $4.3 million on the property without telling him and used the money for his personal use.

Mark Brivik denied the allegations, and Benekos later dropped the suit, court records show.

Court records also show the Briviks filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2008, claiming they had $16.2 million in liabilities but only $2.7 million in assets. But a judge refused to discharge the case earlier this year after the trustee accused the couple of hiding assets, withholding financial information and not disclosing Mark Brivik’s involvement with several corporate entities.

Mark Brivik could face a maximum prison sentence of 340 years if convicted on all charges, while he wife faces a possible 70-year prison sentence, according to state law.

Panet-Raymond said he finds little solace in the potentially lengthy prison terms.

“It doesn’t help me get my money back, but what goes around comes around,” he said. “Brivik played me like a fiddle, and it looks like justice is finally being served. At least I hope it is.”

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.