The Bad Man of Nolensville Road 

Detailing the sleazy practices of an influential Hispanic business leader

Robert Chavez looks like a banker. He favors dark suits with power ties in solid colors, a matching handkerchief tucked smartly in his breast pocket. His hair is swept back above his tan face, a small, neatly trimmed mustache sitting like a crooked exclamation point above pursed lips. Chavezʼs conservative ensemble is accented by chunky gold rings on each hand, and he waves them gently as he speaks.

Chavez cuts a decent figure. At a cocktail party last summer, he commanded the undivided attention of a table full of Lambda Theta Alphas, a group of Latina sorority sisters from MTSU who had come to the event—a gathering of real estate brokers and bankers—to soak up the milieu of business professionals. Likely, Chavez did not disappoint.

A Mexican immigrant who came to Nashville in 1987, Chavez would, by the late ʼ90s, become one of the most visible and acclaimed entrepreneurs in the city. At one point, he owned four businesses, and he currently owns, or partially owns, at least two. In 2000, Chavez was named to Hispanic Business Magazineʼs top 10 U.S. entrepreneurs list. He was also one of Inc. magazineʼs “Inner City 100,” a list that includes some of Americaʼs fastest growing and most prosperous small businesses.

A 2002 Nashville Business Journal feature characterized Chavez as someone who “eyes his businesses as if they were works of art.” Expensive art. The article listed his companiesʼ revenue at $625,000 in 2001 with $816,000 in earnings projected for 2002. That was also the year that the Tennessee Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (THCC) named Chavez “Businessman of the Year.” In 2005, that organizationʼs board would make him their president.

Chavezʼs position as president of the chamber, which he still occupies, has given him an audience with the likes of Harold Ford Jr., current and past police chiefs, Metro Council members and the mayor, as well as executives from multinational corporations. Many consider him to be a shrewd businessman who also represents the interests of the Hispanic community.

Arthur Keith, general manager at the Opryland Hotel and resort facility, has worked with Chavez and the THCC on a number of occasions.

“Robertʼs been real helpful with us as far as some conferences that weʼve negotiated on or bid on at Orpyland,” Keith says.

“Heʼs been a very effective salesperson as far as making sure that we get exposure, and heʼs done a great job selling what weʼve done for the Hispanic community.”

But not everyone is as confident in the leadership and character of Robert Chavez as Keith and the girls of Lambda Theta Alpha. Some are even questioning his identity.

A lawsuit filed against Chavez in Davidson County Chancery Court in October reveals that his real name isnʼt Robert, but Ismael, and heʼs in default to the tune of $25,000 that he borrowed in 2002 and has yet to pay back. According to the lawsuit, he borrowed the money from the Woodbine Community Organization—a local nonprofit—to help two Hispanic women start a business. The women and their lawyer claim that Chavez then pocketed the money for himself and defaulted on the loan. Both Chavez and the two women are named in the suit.

In a separate scheme, someone who is intimately familiar with Chavezʼs business dealings claims—and separate public records support the assertion—that for years Chavez masterminded an operation to act as a housing agent for illegal immigrants, subletting apartments to them at above-market rates. According to Nashville Electric Service records, Chavez paid to keep the lights on at more than 90 different apartments in Nashville between 2000 and 2005. Some of these units were in three apartment complexes off Nolensville Road—Hickory Woods, The Highlands and Welch Bend Apartments—all of which are, or were at the time, owned by Freeman Webb, a Nashville mega company that is one of the top 50 owners and managers of apartment properties in the U.S. The company also confirms that Chavez rented the units.

Chavez has a history of criminal charges. In late May 2001, he was arrested for exhibiting bizarre behavior on Nolensville Road. In the same incident, he was also charged for driving without a license. Ultimately, the driving without a license charge was dismissed, but he was found guilty of disorderly conduct. It was not his first scrape with the law. In 1987, he was indicted for theft after purchasing $2,000 worth of stolen stereo equipment from an 18-year-old with a rap sheet that included an assault charge. Chavez admitted to the police that he bought the electronics, though the court did not find him guilty.

And then there is the THCC, which he has been running since June 2005. Former and current board members of the organization are convinced that Chavez is running the organization into the ground through poor leadership and excessive spending, all while lobbying for a $10,000-a-month salary for himself. They are now trying to remove him from the board.

“The chamber is his puppet,” says Vanessa Saenz, a prominent Hispanic attorney in Nashville. “If you donʼt do what Chavez says, youʼre out.”

“My impression,” says Mario Ramos, who was at one time the THCC vice president, “was [that] he was trying to take total control of the board.”

Chavez also may be leading the chamber to violation of state tax laws. He has been soliciting and accepting donations for the chamber without being registered with the appropriate state agencies, according to the Tennessee Secretary of Stateʼs office. The infractions could cost the chamber as much as $5,000 a piece.

Though some in the Hispanic community are willing to talk about Robert/Ismael Chavez, most are too worried about what they think he could do to them to go on the record.

“I canʼt have my name in this story,” says one former THCC board member. “He knows people, and he knows where I live.”

Araceli Lopez says that it was late 2002 when Chavez approached her with a proposition. He had acquired a restaurant on Nolensville Road, he said, and wanted her and her sister Beatriz to move out of the taco stand that theyʼd been operating and into the new location. It seemed like a good deal at the time, Araceli says. “I thought he could be trusted.”

She soon learned otherwise.

Shortly after moving into the new restaurant, which the Lopez sisters christened La Lupita, Chavez told them that heʼd had to take out a loan to buy the restaurant space and that he needed the sisters to help him sign for it and pay it off. They didnʼt think that they were in a position to say no, Araceli tells the Scene, speaking through a translator.

Chavez took the sisters to the Woodbine Community Center in South Nashville to sign the paperwork for a loan for which he had clearly already applied. At the time, Woodbine—which is one of Nashvilleʼs more dynamic community organizations—was involved in a federal micro-loan program to help small businesses get on their feet.

“We all signed the papers,” Araceli says. The loan agreement is included in the court documents filed by Woodbine in Davidson County Chancery Court, and it does indeed bear the signatures of the Lopez sisters and Ismael Chavez.

The property listed as collateral in the agreement belongs primarily to the Lopez sisters—including their mobile taco stand, refrigerators, freezer, salsa boats and other restaurant and dining room equipment such as framed pictures and ceiling fans.

Araceli claims that after signing the agreement, the loan officer produced a check for $25,000. “The loan officer put the check on the table, and Chavez picked it up,” she recalls. She says it was the last time she saw that check. Araceli and Beatriz say they never received a dime of the Woodbine loan money for which theyʼd put up significant collateral.

 “For four months after that,” Araceli says, “we didnʼt get paid.” She says that Chavez told her that to be a successful businesswoman she had to struggle at first. “He told me to feed my family from the food in the restaurant and to wash our clothes from the soap in the restaurant. He didnʼt even give us any of the loan money for payroll.”

She says that she had to borrow money from relatives to help pay bills and keep the business afloat. After just six months of this, Araceli gave Chavez $5,000 to let her and her sister out from under the business and get out of their lives forever. He accepted the money, but unfortunately the sisters were still on the hook for the Woodbine loan.

Araceli and Beatriz werenʼt making payments on the loan and, according to the Woodbine suit, neither was Chavez. By October 2005, the trio was officially in default and, shortly thereafter, Woodbine initiated legal action against them. Woodbineʼs attorneys let the case languish for a year before refiling in October 2006. Soon after, the Lopez sisters hired their own attorney.

Chavez, reached by phone, doesnʼt deny that he owes Woodbine money but says that the loan was “not for me.” He declines to offer further explanation about the loan or the lawsuit saying, “I canʼt discuss somebody elseʼs situation.”

But in Chavezʼs legal response to Woodbineʼs lawsuit, he admits that he took out a $25,000 loan with the Lopez sisters in December 2002. He denies that he failed to “make full and timely payments” under the loan agreement—claiming he made three payments on the loan—and says that his “investigation into the matter is ongoing” and that he “reserves the right to plead...other defenses...as further investigation and further discovery dictate.”

More surprising than Chavezʼs denial is the cross-complaint that he filed against the Lopez sisters. In it, he says that if Woodbineʼs allegations regarding the $25,000 loan are proven true in court, then the Lopez sisters should be held “completely responsible for the balance of the (loan), attorneyʼs fees and costs of collection.” In addition, Chavezʼs cross-complaint says that he wants the Lopez sisters to pay his attorneyʼs fees and expenses that heʼs incurred because of Woodbineʼs legal action.

Meanwhile, the Lopez sisters have opened another restaurant called El Manjar, further down Nolensville Road, and they say they own it free and clear with no debt. When Chavez found out about El Manjar, he was irate, Araceli says. “He came in here and asked, ʻWhat about our friendship?ʼ ”

“I donʼt want it,” she recalls telling him. “Your friendship cost me tears of money.”

According to Hispanic business owners and some current and former board members of the THCC, this is not Chavezʼs first involvement with loans to the Hispanic community. One business owner who doesnʼt want to be identified because he says Chavez has threatened members of his family with deportation claims that Chavez would loan “$5,000 to anyone, even if he didnʼt like you, and then expect you to pay him back in like a month.

Thatʼs just not possible.” Incidentally, others who know Chavez say that threat of deportation is one of his stock intimidation tactics.

The Highlands apartment complex looks like a nice enough place to live. Its long, white brick buildings sit atop a small hill at the end of a leafy private drive off of Nolensville Pike. Thereʼs a gated pool and plenty of parking and, unlike some other nearby residences, these look sturdy, quiet and clean. A sign by the front door of the complexʼs management office reads, “Paque su rento aqui” (Pay your rent here).

According to Nashville Electric Service records and the company that owns the Highlands, Chavez paid rent and electricity bills for five apartments there between 2000 and 2005. During this time, he was also renting 30 units at the Hickory Woods apartment complex, just down Nolensville Road, as well as 22 units over on Whispering Oaks Place, also in South Nashville. In all, NES records list Chavez on the electric bills at more than 95 apartments over five years.

So who was actually living in these apartments?

According to someone who is intimately familiar with Robert/Ismael Chavezʼs business dealings—and wishes to be identified only as “Pat” because of fear “of what Chavez could do to me”—Chavez was acting as a housing agent for illegal immigrants, subletting these units to them at above-market value. Others in the Hispanic business community, including members of the THCC board, echo Patʼs statements.

The source says that Chavez approached the owners of these apartment complexes and told them that he would personally sign leases on blocks of units for which he would pay no deposit or application fee. In addition, Pat says that Chavez wanted the apartments at below-market value.

“If the apartment would normally rent for $570,” Pat says, “they would rent it to him for $500.”

Chavez would then turn around and rent the apartments to illegal immigrants who did not have Social Security numbers. Unfortunately for them, Chavez didnʼt pass on the savings that he received from the apartment owners. In fact, he usually raised the price of the rental unit well above what the managers at Highlands were charging.

“The $70 he would get on discount he would add it onto the rent, plus another $50,” says Pat.

This meant that an illegal immigrant would be paying $620 to Chavez for an apartment that would cost a U.S. citizen only $570. He also asked that the immigrants pay “around $100” in deposits and security. “He always kept the deposits,” Pat says. “The deposits were for Chavez.”

A spokesman for Freeman Webb—the company that owned many of the apartments that Chavez was subletting—says that the company does rent blocks of apartments to individuals or organizations that then sublet the units to people who might not otherwise qualify for a lease.

The spokesman cites a program currently underway in which Freemen Webb rents apartments “in bulk” to a prison ministry that turns around and rents to newly released convicts who often donʼt have the credit to get a lease outright from the company.

Asked about the subletting scam, Chavez doesnʼt deny that he rented apartments at above-market value to illegal immigrants and fellow Hispanics, but neither does he offer any explanation.

“Whatever you feel you should write, then so be it,” Chavez says during one telephone interview. When the Scene tried to reach Chavez again to respond in more detail, he hung up.

Though itʼs hard to imagine why someone like Chavez would take advantage of the very people he should be using his position as the president of Tennesseeʼs largest Hispanic chamber of commerce to help, it is easy to imagine how he could do so. In addition to his leadership of the chamber, he also controls some highly visible businesses in Nashvilleʼs immigrant community.

Until recently, he was the proprietor of Casa de Cambio, a check cashing store in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. Such stores are the only option for many immigrants who do not have the money or documentation to open a bank account.

Chavez also is currently part owner of La Paz, a walk-in health care facility in South Nashville. La Paz employs bilingual nurses instead of doctors and does not accept insurance, instead charging a flat fee, usually below $50.

But the position that has undoubtedly given Chavez the greatest visibility in the Hispanic community is his job as the president of the THCC.

Tennessee has a plethora of Hispanic chambersʼ of commerce. “There are four in Middle Tennessee” alone, says John Lamb, a Nashville attorney and editor of the Hispanic Nashville Notebook (hispanicnashville.com), a site that specializes in immigration news and events in Tennessee. There is at least one more in East Tennessee, and some Hispanic business owners have talked about starting a fifth for Nashville and the ring counties.

Lamb says that the number of chambers is not as unusual as it may seem. “They track the non-Hispanic chamber of commerce in participation,” he says. “Thereʼs a Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and a Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.” The Hispanic chambers have just followed the same pattern, Lamb says.

Even so, the THCC is the stateʼs most expansive and is probably the most well known. It was started in 1997 by Greg Rodriguez, a man described by those who knew him as extremely passionate about the chamber and its role in helping Tennesseeʼs burgeoning Hispanic community, particularly in Nashville.

Mario Ramos, who was on the chamberʼs board of directors while Rodriguez was president and who later served as the vice president under Chavez, describes Rodriguez as “the key person who really set the chamber up.... He was very inclusive by nature. He would talk to you and incorporate your suggestions.”

Ed Rufo, who has served on the board under both presidents, describes Rodriguez as “all heart.... I got involved in the chamber because I wanted to help him out. He was doing it from the heart.”

In June 2005, Rodriguez, 54, had a heart attack and died. Chavez was then the vice president and assumed leadership of the chamber after a vote by the board.

After Chavezʼs ascension, board members immediately noticed a change in the way the chamber did business. Unlike the inclusive Rodriguez, Chavez played his cards close to the vest.

Mario Ramos says that he noticed the change immediately. “I was...the vice president, and I really didnʼt know what was going on. I thought, ʻIf Iʼm going to be the vice president of an organization, I need a lot more information....ʼ When I asked Robert Chavez for this information he said, ʻYou donʼt need to know this, Iʼm in charge.ʼ ”

Ramos resigned shortly thereafter. “Heʼs very combative,” Ramos says of Chavez. “And very aggressive. Iʼve always looked at the chamber as something thatʼs supposed to be the opposite.”

Attorney Vanessa Saenz says that she learned “years ago” that Chavez was a control freak operating the THCC as a self-interested autocrat. “What he wants is puppets in there,” she says when asked about the chamberʼs board.

Both current and former THCC board members echo this sentiment. They say that Chavez eliminated the positions of vice president, secretary and treasurer and until very recently took these responsibilities on himself in direct violation of the chamberʼs bylaws. They say that as a result of this action, basic mechanisms of the chamber, such as quarterly financial statements, ceased to function.

One former board member claims that, although he is still a member, he hasnʼt paid dues in months and has yet to receive an invoice. He does not want his name used because he fears retaliation from Chavez.

Another of Chavezʼs failures as the leader of the THCC is the chamberʼs noncompliance with one of the most basic aspects of nonprofit regulation in Tennessee. Organizations that solicit donations from the public or businesses must register as charitable organizations with the Tennessee Department of State, says Todd Kelley, who directs the state agency that polices charities. Organizations that fail to register are subject to fines of up to $5,000 per donation. According to Kelley, the THCC, categorized by the IRS as a 501(c)6 organization, has not registered with the state, meaning that all donations accepted by the chamber may be in violation of the tax code.

This includes the $1,000 check that Wal-Mart gave the THCC last year. According to a company spokesman, Wal-Mart was under the impression that the chamber had been properly registered with the appropriate agencies. Wrong.

When asked to comment on the direction of the THCC, Chavez says that though he is the president, he canʼt speak for the chamber.

After becoming president of the THCC in summer 2005, Chavez lost no time in trying to ensure that he was compensated for his work there. Less than a month after Greg Rodriguez died, Chavez drafted a proposed employment contract. The Scene has obtained multiple copies of this document, which stipulates that Chavez would receive $120,000 a year to be paid in $10,000-a-month increments. It also includes a $450 per month vehicle allowance and payment of dues at the Nashville City Club. The proposed contract originally stated that he would be given “an amount not less than Twenty Five Thousand Dollars...to be used for employment of an assistant chosen at Mr. Chavezʼs sole discretion.” In all copies of the employment document obtained by the Scene, the words “Twenty Five Thousand” were crossed out and replaced by the words “Forty Thousand” hand-written and initialed with letters that appear to be RC.

It also bears the authorizing signature of Ed Rufo, who was then the chairman of the THCC board. Though Rufo declines comment on THCC business, citing a confidentiality agreement, he says that when he signed off on the proposed contract it was with the understanding that Chavez would be raising enough money, through donations and sponsorships, to cover such rich remuneration.

When asked about the document in his first interview with the Scene, Chavez says, “You know what? That would be nice too, if I would [receive such a salary], but unfortunately there is not such a salary that could be paid in any way.”

He then accuses this reporter of being “on somebodyʼs, like, you know, payroll...because you know what? This is right up the alley of some people I know.”

Current THCC board members say that Chavez has not brought in nearly enough money to fund the salary his dream contract stipulates. As a result, the board has continually scuttled any vote on the proposal, though it may not have to do so for much longer.

According to an internal THCC board email—penned last week by Ricardo Santiago, who chairs the oldest and most active THCC committee—the board defied Chavez in early January and “reinstituted our Vice-presidency (sic), Treasurer and Secretary.” The memo also states that the board has called for an internal audit and an annual external audit “to keep our finances clean and our affairs transparent.”

The memo goes on to call for the election of a new president to be held “as soon as possible” and states that “past presidents should be excluded from running (in) this election.” Seeing as how the only other person ever to hold the office of THCC president is dead, it would seem that this exclusionary rule is aimed directly at Chavez.

For the THCCʼs reputation among Hispanics, however, it may be too late.

Chavez has staunchly defended the likes of Carmen Ceja, who won the THCC Hispanic Businesswoman of the Year award in 2003. Ceja is a self-described notario, which, in Latin American countries, is a combination lawyer/judge who can help with everything from buying a house to suing your neighbor. There is no equivalent in this country, but Ceja tells non-English speaking immigrants that she can handle immigration paperwork that she is not legally licensed to touch. Often the result is that innocent immigrants get deported because Ceja misfiled important and time-sensitive documents.

In May 2005, the IRS raided Cejaʼs business, and she also has been investigated by the Justice Department. Sheʼs currently being sued by one of her former clients. (See “Lost in Translation,” May 4, 2006.)

In 2005, when the Tennessee Bar Association pushed legislation that would crack down on notarios and others who practice law without a license, Chavez said lawyers were just being greedy. “Now that the notarios have a market or a customer base, [lawyers are] trying to get some of that customer base,” Chavez told The Nashville Business Journal.

Chavez has also made a name for himself on the national level. In 2003, he was elected to represent District Six of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce board of directors, according to Dallin Lykins, spokesman for the U.S. chamber. There are only 24 member representatives in all, so being elected is no small feat. His tenure as representative didnʼt last long.

Alex Chavez, a Florida businessman who is not related to Robert/Ismael but served alongside him on the U.S. HCC board, says that his colleagueʼs attitude was “always a little cavalier. Some of his ideas were really frowned upon. I could use stronger language,” Alex Chavez says, “but Iʼm not going to.”

In 2005, at the U.S. HCC convention, Robert Chavez was voted out of the chamberʼs leadership group, according to Lykins. He has been off of the U.S. HCC board since then, though his biography on the Tennessee Hispanic Chamber of Commerce website still lists him as the District Six representative.

“He brought a lot of enmity to the board,” Alex Chavez says. “He just was not doing the job. Members felt that they werenʼt being represented. You could say that he lost the trust of his constituents.”

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