Developer of an Annapolis luxury town home community faces mounting legal battles

A year after a private equity fund manager said he was ready “to go vertical” on a 48-unit, “luxury town home” community in Annapolis, construction remains delayed, and the developer is navigating multiple legal battles, including two breach-of-contract lawsuits and a since-dismissed defamation claim that has drawn national attention among rap music fans.

The latest suit, filed Aug. 17 in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, accuses Bethesda-based Bando Investment Group of failing to pay Reliable Contracting Co. more than $150,000 for pre-construction excavation work performed at an 18-acre proposed development called Athens Annapolis. Bulldozers first appeared on the site during the summer of 2022. Bando CEO Nelson Epega said he was “ready to go vertical” by August, but the site off Aris T. Allen Boulevard remains a muddy field bisected by two unfinished roadways.

Reliable performed much of that early excavation work. In addition to requesting payment, interest and attorney’s fees, the Gambrills-based contractor is asking a judge to place a permanent mechanic’s lien on all 48 lots, which will make the properties more difficult to sell and give the judge the option of awarding the entire development to Reliable, depending on how Bando responds.

“Bando owes Reliable Contracting the total of $153,000,” attorneys for Reliable write in their suit.

Although the concept of mechanic’s liens dates back more than 200 years, Maryland’s procedures for the court maneuver are unique, said Brian Jablon, a Severna Park construction attorney who has no connection to the parties involved. Unless the court finds fault with Reliable’s request for a mechanic’s lien, an initial hearing should be scheduled within 45 days. If a judge finds probable cause, a temporary lien will immediately be placed on the property and Bando’s lending banks will be notified, Jablon said. Bando will then have the option of purchasing a bond for the property, which is what most contractors hope the developer does.

If the contracting firm wins a permanent lien at trial, it would either receive a payout from the bond insurance or be awarded the property in question.

Requesting a mechanic’s lien also serves another purpose, Jablon said: Putting Reliable first in line among creditors, a move that could come in handy should Bando file for bankruptcy.

Bando is also due in Anne Arundel District Court Sept. 26 to face a claim of $4,800 from North Shore Engineering. Firm owner Carl Corse, the chair of the Annapolis Building Board of Appeals, sued Bando in June.

Corse says in court documents he completed pre-construction civil engineering services at Bando’s Prince George’s County property last fall and was never paid, despite submitting invoices in November and February.

On a conference call with Epega and the Capital Thursday, a man claiming to be Corse said he was paid “just now” and would be withdrawing the complaint.

A third Bando project, Le Ciel at Pikesville, is underway near the Baltimore Beltway. Listing prices for the three homes start at $3.3 million.

One contractor who has worked for Bando at all three sites said construction in Annapolis stopped in February and there’s little happening in Bowie. He spoke on condition of anonymity because his company has received an initial payment from Bando, but still has to bill the developer for additional work. The contractor described a bizarre job site at Athens Annapolis, where Epega would occasionally show up with camera crews and ask to film workers for social media, then be unreachable for days.

“We’d have questions, and he would never answer,” the contractor said. Epega eventually told him work at the Athens was on hold while he drew up plans for a retaining wall.

The contractor’s account corresponds with information in the Reliable lawsuit, which states that the firm stopped working at the Athens on Feb. 20.

Bando was also sued in March by Catonsville attorney Scott Morse after the company failed to pay $31,152 for a one-acre Marley Neck Road property purchased at a June 2022 tax sale. The complaint also named Anne Arundel County and the State of Maryland as defendants.

Morse moved to have the suit dropped in May after the property was “redeemed in full.” He declined to say who paid the bill.

In a brief phone interview last week, Epega said “the newspaper” was just going to have to “wait like everyone else” for any explanations about his development projects and hung up.

Epega called again a week later, after the Reliable Contracting lawsuit was filed, and defended his company as a responsible business partner that has hired “thousands of contractors.”

“We have a stellar reputation for paying on time,” Epega said. In the event a payment is missed due to what he called miscommunications, “We take care of it,” he said.

A defamation lawsuit and various social media posts, however, indicate that the aspiring developer is facing challenges in his personal and professional endeavors. A native of Nigeria who was educated in Great Britain, Epega launched Bando in 2019 “with the goal of becoming the most recognized development company,” according to court documents. His funding sources include The Million Marathon Fund, a “community” of investors that meets on the voice-based social media app Clubhouse and is now also active on Twitter Spaces. On Instagram, the fund promises “to provide investors with maximum return prospects while minimizing their downside exposure.”

Last week, the Millionaire Marathon Fund posted a “webinar” video on YouTube seeking additional investors, with the goal of raising $25 million this year. For a minimum contribution of $25,000, the fund predicts investors will break even in 4.33 years and eventually see a 29% internal rate of return.

“These are all projections, right? These aren’t promises. These aren’t guarantees.” says Don Yoakum, Bando Investment Group’s finance manager, during the webinar. “These are the type of returns that we think we can achieve over the next 10 years.” Yoakum notes that the homes still have to be completed and put on the market, but never mentions the unpaid contractors, lawsuits and pending mechanic’s lien.

Developer of an Annapolis luxury town home community faces mounting legal battles

In the video, Epega sits flanked by Yoakum and Moshe Landman, the fund’s investor relations manager. Landman is a recent Green Party candidate for a Maryland State Senate seat in Montgomery County. According to his LinkedIn profile, he has also worked as a used car salesman and precious metal buyer. Yoakum’s background includes financial newsletter writing and cryptocurrency consulting.

Epega can also be found on YouTube touting his new show, “The Millionaire Blueprint Podcast.” The first 27-minute episode, posted in July, features Epega driving a yellow Lamborghini and touring mansions with Massachusetts builder Cindy Stumpo. Epega calls “Mama Cindy” “one of the most successful … self-made entrepreneurs in America.” Together they smoke cigars, ogle custom white quartzite stairs and ponder drinking from the $3,000 bottles of whiskey stored in Stumpo’s walk-in tiger wood liquor cabinet.

“Mama, let’s talk about it,” Epega exclaims.

Stumpo did not return a call seeking comment.

YouTube and other online media platforms have also been used against Epega, particularly by social media personalities looking to capitalize on a defamation lawsuit that Epega filed last year against a woman with whom he had “a short-term consensual sexual relationship.” According to the complaint, Silver Spring resident Nadia Omar continued to contact Epega after he reconciled with his partner, with whom he has two young children. Omar then demanded $300,000 and said she “would get an abortion” once paid, the lawsuit states.

Epega’s attorneys also accused Omar of “attacking him through his Million Marathon Clubhouse show” and posting “false and malicious” messages about being pregnant with his baby.

Available analytics “show the immediate negative impact defendant’s post had on The Million Marathon on Clubhouse,” the lawsuit said, noting the fund’s account had 49,700 followers in April 2022, but the number of new followers had dropped steeply when Omar allegedly began making accusations about Epega in March. “Plaintiff and his associated businesses have suffered irreversible reputational harm as a result of defendant’s statements,” the lawsuit states.

Epega claims to have more than 2 million listeners on Clubhouse, and while it’s unclear how influential he is on the platform, the complaint against Omar attracted attention from Wack 100, a Los Angeles rap promoter and manager who has more than 430,000 followers on Instagram. The YouTube channel GoldGate House responded to Wack 100′s posts by airing three interviews with a woman who claimed to be Epega’s ex-girlfriend.

On Oct. 2, 2022, Epega’s lawyers moved to have the suit voluntarily dismissed after Omar failed to submit responses in court.

While Epega’s lawyers were attempting to gain responses from Omar, he made two major real estate purchases, in Annapolis and Bowie, both brokered by Michael Sponseller on behalf of the Hogan Companies, a limited liability corporation founded by Maryland’s former governor, Larry Hogan. Bando purchased the Annapolis property for $4 million, and began construction using permits issued to previous developers. Some of the permits for the project, then called Rocky Gorge, date back 15 years.

Twice last year, in July and in October, Annapolis City Council members nearly issued a stop-work order against Bando, arguing that a 2021 tornado and changes to state and local forest conservation, wastewater and traffic management laws gave the city a right to re-evaluate the permits. But Epega threatened to sue, and council members tabled the resolution.

Mayor Gavin Buckley brokered a meeting between council members and Epega, who he described as a young, Black developer open to working with the city.

From that sit-down meeting, Buckley emerged with a commitment from Epega to make several changes, including asking the State Highway Administration for a traffic light entrance to the Athens, offering the community access via Aris T. Allen instead of only from Yawl Road, a narrow roadway lined with parked cars from Oxford Landing, a neighboring town home community.

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But Bando never applied for the Aris T. Allen entrance, a spokesperson for the State Highway Administration said this week. In fact, the company has not sought to renew its temporary gravel access road on Route 665. The entrance is scheduled to be revoked Sept. 13.

Even if the entrance is closed and construction put on hold, Annapolis inspectors must visit the property once a week to check for sediment run-off and other possible violations. City code also requires additional inspections after significant rainstorms, Ward 7 Alderman Rob Savidge said.

According to the city’s permitting database, the site has been inspected more than 90 times since June 15, 2022, usually passing.

The city cannot charge developers for individual inspections. Burr Vogel, the city’s acting director of public works, said in a statement that “the costs of inspections are built into the process as part of our permit fees.”

As a municipality, Annapolis has been “put in a sticky situation,” Jablon said, one that could result in the city filing a lawsuit of its own if the city can prove run-off from the stalled construction site is harming surrounding areas.

Epega, for his part, seems intent on maintaining his online profile as a developer still moving forward.

“Delays fuel my ambition,” he wrote on Twitter Aug. 18. “Setbacks keep my dreams alive.”

Aerial artist rendering of Athens Annapolis, a 48-unit luxury townhome community that has stalled out in Annapolis. The Oxford Landing community is at upper left, while Aris T. Allen Blvd., is at bottom of rendering.