It hasn’t been a good week for Robert (a.k.a. Ismael) Chavez, the suspended president of the Tennessee Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (THCC) who was the subject of a recent Scene investigation (“The Bad Man of Nolensville Road,” Feb. 15).
Members of the THCC’s board of directors confirm that Chavez’s 90-day suspension will become a permanent termination at their next board meeting. And in addition to the pending kiss-off, Chavez now has one fewer defender. Delain L. Deatherage, a Nashville attorney who was representing the Hispanic businessman in a loan default lawsuit tells the Scene that she has withdrawn as his counsel, which recent court filings also confirm. Citing attorney-client privilege, Deatherage declines to disclose why she has retired as Chavez’s attorney. She has represented him since at least last November, when she filed a rebuttal to a lawsuit brought by the Woodbine Community Center, which extended Chavez a $25,000 loan on which the organization says he defaulted. Chavez admits he signed for the loan but, in court documents, he says he’s not responsible for paying it back. The case is set to be heard in Davidson County Chancery Court this June.
Among the Scene’s other findings were that Chavez essentially operated as a housing agent for illegal immigrants, renting them apartments at above-market rates and profiting the excess. Sources also say Chavez was responsible for dismantling accountability within the statewide chamber—taking on the roles of treasurer and vice president while also serving as president, and leaving other members in the dark.
He was suspended from his position as president of the THCC shortly after the story was published. Meanwhile, an internal audit of the THCC is in the works, though vestiges of Chavez’s tenure as president remain.
Ralph Levy, for instance, remains the THCC’s legal counsel. Levy’s law firm is currently the registered agent of the La Paz health care clinics of which Chavez is part owner, according to the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office.
When asked whether representing one of Chavez’s business interests might conflict with the clean-up effort at the THCC, Levy scoffs. It “means merely that in the event that someone files a lawsuit, we’re the ones that receive the papers,” the attorney says of being the registered agent of La Paz.
This is not the first time that Chavez has used THCC counsel for his personal business. Nashville attorney Brad Sitton was the registered agent for Alpha Signs of Tennessee, Chavez’s oldest business, at the same time that he was the legal counsel to the THCC. Sitton declines to speak on the record, citing attorney-client privilege, but does confirm that he had written permission from Greg Rodriguez, who was then president of the chamber, to represent Alpha Signs.
Another investigation into the THCC will not have any such conflicts. The state Division of Chartable Solicitations and Gaming has opened an investigation into contributions made to the THCC under Chavez’s leadership. The chamber was not registered as a charitable organization with the state but was nevertheless accepting contributions, a violation of Tennessee’s Charitable Solicitations Act. Each donation made to the chamber could result in a $5,000 fine from the state, according to an agency spokesman.
Though Chavez has refused to speak to the Scene since the story was published, he did give several interviews to television news programs in Nashville shortly after his suspension from the THCC was made public.
Chavez told WTVF-Channel 5 that “nothing [in the article] has merit except the one truth that I did get arrested. Everything else is fabricated, a scheme to overthrow a president.” (Chavez was arrested in 2001 and found guilty of disorderly conduct.)
Chavez also told the station that he was the victim in all of this and that he couldn’t repay Woodbine on the $25,000 loan because he “didn’t have the funds.”
In an interview with WKRN-Channel 2, he addressed the claims of his running a subletting scheme to take advantage of undocumented immigrants: “I took the responsibility of having a place for them to live. I had a management fee, of course. How am I gonna offset the cost of operating?”
One property manager on Nolensville Road who would only speak on condition of anonymity says that Chavez once rented an apartment from her and then turned around and rented the apartment at a higher price to Hispanic immigrants. “Two couples lived there,” she says. “At first I thought they were his family.”
She didn’t think much of it until they brought her a money order for $665. “The rent was only $565, and when I asked them why they were bringing me $100 extra they said that that’s what Chavez told them to do. When he found out that they’d brought the check to me instead of him, he was furious.
“I would have let them stay and pay the market value for the apartment,” the manager says. “But [Chavez] came the very next day and moved them out.”She adds that Chavez originally wanted to rent 10 apartments from her at once but that she didn’t have the units available. When told that Chavez was worried about operating costs, the property manager was aghast. “Those people need help, God knows,” the manager tells the Scene, “but they don’t need someone from their own country screwing them.”
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