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Feds sue developer Premier over raid on retirement accounts

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Executives of defunct Indianapolis developer Premier Properties USA Inc. are negotiating to settle a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Labor that claims the company raided employee retirement accounts in a last-ditch bid to save itself in early 2008.

The government has accused founder Christopher P. White, general counsel Bruce E. Smith and vice president Judy K. Schnettgoecke of misappropriating about $46,000 of employee contributions to a 401(k) plan between Jan. 1, 2008 and March 18, 2008.

The case, filed in June in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, alleges Premier and its top executives violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, in failing to "discharge their duties with respect to the plan solely in the interest of the participants and beneficiaries."

U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis has asked the court to order the Premier executives to repay the misappropriated funds and pay for an independent firm to wind down the plan. The department also is asking for the court to ban each of the defendants from serving as fiduciaries to any ERISA-covered plan in the future.

None of the defendants has filed a response to the case, citing ongoing settlement discussions. The court on Oct. 15 issued a stay in the case so the parties can proceed with settlement talks.

Premier, which developed dozens of projects, including Plainfield's Metropolis mall, imploded at the peak of the credit crunch two years ago, leaving its high-flying founder with little to show for years of successful development.

White took on daring projects with little margin for error, often in unproven retail markets like Plainfield. He also developed ambitious projects in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Nevada. But when credit markets tightened, his luck ran out.

Premier filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April 2008. A month later, a judge converted the case to Chapter 7 and ordered the company liquidated.

Last year, White was sentenced to one year on home detention and three years of probation in connection with a $500,000 bad check he wrote as he tried to save the company.

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