John Sarkisian is an establishment darling. He is one of the purported economic experts interviewed regularly for the Union-Tribune’s “EconoMeter” feature. He is founder and vice chairman of Carlsbad’s Pro Performance Sports (doing business as SKLZ), a maker of sports training equipment. He was a founding investor in Semtek Innovative Solutions, which creates patented encryption technology, and BrightScope, which provides pension/retirement–related information. He is a longtime restaurateur and recently launched Encontro North Park.
He is a boardmember of San Diego Sport Innovators, an affiliate of the prestigious CONNECT, which fosters entrepreneurship in technology. Sarkisian is a frequent lecturer and panel participant on subjects such as technology and economic trends. In April, he gave a talk to San Diego’s Business Executives Council, which bills itself as “the premier membership organization serving San Diego’s business leaders.”
But one of Sarkisian’s greatest skills may be his technique for evading payment to a former partner who convinced both a superior-court jury and appellate court that Sarkisian defrauded him in real estate transactions. The Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, ruled last September that Sarkisian committed fraud and breach of fiduciary duty against his former partner.
Sarkisian owes that former partner, Rudy Medina, $1.6 million, ruled the appellate court, and the sum is now $2.1 million including interest, says Medina’s lawyer, Kenneth Fitzgerald. A shattered Medina is now in Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and the bankruptcy trustee, attorney Ronald Stadtmueller, is trying to collect that money. But Sarkisian and his lawyer, Miles Grant, are not talking to Stadtmueller, Fitzgerald, or me. I learned from Sarkisian’s sister, also a restaurateur, that Sarkisian recently changed his residence, but I don’t know if that was an evasion technique.
“Sarkisian and Grant showed up at a debtor’s exam and said, ‘We won’t tell you anything,’” says Stadtmueller. “We have hired process servers in this case. [They] are unable to find him. He is dodging service.”
The battle between Sarkisian and Medina started a decade ago. Initially, they were very close. They were partners in a real estate developer, Del Mar Heritage. As the appellate court explained, Medina did the day-to-day work but strategized regularly with Sarkisian. In 2006, as the appellate court noted, Medina, grieving his father’s death and suffering from a spinal injury, was in “a high degree of pain and was less effective at work. He began taking narcotics and other pain medications.” Medina’s doctor told Sarkisian that Medina “was being treated for extreme pain, and was moving toward surgery.”
In May of 2006, Sarkisian told Medina he wanted a “divorce” from their partnership. “Medina trusted Sarkisian, whom he described as his best friend and partner,” said the appellate court. But “unbeknownst to Medina… Sarkisian was having discussions with Willy Ayyad,” another Heritage investor and Sarkisian friend. Sarkisian told Ayyad he intended to buy out Medina.
Medina, no longer running Heritage and suffering from depression and severe anxiety, agreed to sell his interest in two Heritage projects — Fallbrook land and an apartment project called Poinsettia Ridge — to Willy Ayyad, according to the appellate court. Medina did not know that Sarkisian and Ayyad had put money in a Costa Rica deal via Heritage.
In February of 2007, Sarkisian and Medina signed off on the separation agreement. Medina believed the Fallbrook investment would be sold in three to five years and Poinsettia Ridge was a “forever hold” for partners.
In mid-2007, reacting to criticisms Medina made, Sarkisian sued his former partner for libel and slander. Medina came back with a suit charging Sarkisian with fraud and breach of fiduciary duty, among many things. Importantly, Medina charged that Sarkisian had misrepresented the transactions to induce Medina to sell at a lowball price and then immediately arranged juicy deals for Ayyad and himself.
Medina made a good case that Sarkisian was feeding him wrong information while scheming with Ayyad to sell the properties at a fat profit. Right after Medina sold his interests in the properties for a low sum, Sarkisian lined up a broker to sell the properties. Said the appellate court, “The jury reasonably concluded…that given Sarkisian’s undisclosed deal with Ayyad, Sarkisian’s quick action in contacting a broker shortly after the Medina deal was finalized, and the rapid progress toward a sale, Sarkisian planned to facilitate that sale before he convinced Medina to sell his interest.… Medina was left in the dark concerning the contemplated sale, convinced by his trusted, longtime business partner to sell his interest to Ayyad at a discount.”
How fat was the profit? An example: Medina got $400,000 for his interest in Poinsettia Ridge. Five weeks later, Sarkisian entered into an agreement to sell that project, and he netted cash of over $1 million. “Rather than a 50/50 split, it was a 72 percent to 28 percent split,” said the appellate court, taking figures provided by Fitzgerald. On the Fallbrook deal, Medina got a bit over $1 million while Sarkisian raked in $2.1 million — a 66/34 split. Ayyad’s annual rate of return: 1535 percent on Fallbrook and 331 percent on Poinsettia Ridge. Figuring what Medina got versus what he would have received had there been no fraud, the jury awarded Medina $1.59 million and the appellate court did not argue with the calculation.
In his brief to the court of appeal, Fitzgerald said that Sarkisian “duped his partner into selling his interests in two valuable projects at a deep discount. Knowing that Medina desperately needed cash, and knowing that Medina was impaired by prescription medications and post-operative pain, Sarkisian misled Medina into thinking that two valuable projects would never be sold, or would not be sold any time soon. In truth, Sarkisian secretly planned to sell them for full value right after the final separation.”
Said Fitzgerald in the brief, “A long-time real estate broker, Sarkisian pursued one of the oldest broker scams in the book: working for an undisclosed principal (Ayyad) to obtain and flip properties from his nominal client (Medina) for his own profit and benefit. This is a classic breach of fiduciary duty.”
What happened to the Costa Rica deal? “Sarkisian claimed that he lost all of his investment in Costa Rica, and that he had no money to settle with [Medina],” said Fitzgerald in response to my question. I wondered if Sarkisian is delaying payment because he plans to appeal to the state supreme court. Fitzgerald says no. “He is just refusing to satisfy the judgment.”