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Lenders sue over money to build Modesto 'lifestyle center'
[August 14, 2011]

Lenders sue over money to build Modesto 'lifestyle center'

Aug 14, 2011 (The Modesto Bee - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Plans for an urban village, including luxury condos and Modesto's first IMAX theater, may have stalled while the FBI and local authorities reportedly look into multimillion-dollar fraud allegations.

At risk is The Plaza at Dale, an ambitious "lifestyle center" planned for five years by Aruna Chopra and her development family across Dale Road from the Kaiser hospital.

Her dream includes a six-screen theater, bowling alley, Four Points by Sheraton hotel, restaurants and shops circling an open plaza with cascading fountains.

Her civil attorney, Andrew Mendlin, declined comment on a possible criminal probe. He blamed the lawsuits on "a title company mistake" and said the upscale project should "move forward in the very near future." City Hall, however, said no construction can occur until increasingly messy legal challenges get sorted out.

At the heart of the dispute is a document filed with the Stanislaus County recorder's office that essentially conceals Chopra's $6.4 million debt to the property's former owners. Without repaying them, she then used the land as collateral to secure $2.5 million in loans from another lender, according to lawsuits.

Both sets of lenders sued, saying neither knew about the other, claiming fraud and asking a judge to decide who should be repaid first.

Someone forged the sellers' signatures on the disputed document, called a partial reconveyance, said their Modesto attorney, James Kroll Jr. After Chopra and her companies were sued, another document bearing phony signatures was filed, meant to reverse the first, Kroll said.

"Someone apparently tried to cover their tracks by attempting to rescind the forged document with a forged document," Kroll said. "It's audacious." One of his clients produced a receipt showing she visited the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on the day she purportedly signed the pivotal document in Modesto, Kroll said. The paper was notarized by a Chopra employee, court papers say.

Kroll's clients notified the Sheriff's Department and have cooperated with a district attorney investigator and the FBI, he said.

Auto parts, service stations The FBI does not confirm or deny investigations as a matter of policy. District Attorney Birgit Fladager said in an e-mail, "We aren't in a position to make any statements." Chopra, 62, a Del Rio resident, came to the United States from India in 1974. Her family has developed or operated an auto parts store, service stations and several Gold's Gyms, and Anura Fitness Center opened recently near company headquarters in Summit Corporate Center north of Modesto.

By 2008, Chopra Development Enterprises, led by her son Sanjiv, had acquired 39 acres on Dale Road. City officials last year set up a Mello-Roos taxing district for the surrounding Kiernan Business Park East and made a deal to reimburse the Chopras $6.7 million for putting in streets and storm drains, and laying sewer lines.

The Chopras staged a groundbreaking ceremony in December. Plans submitted to the city envision 800 seats in a six-screen cinema, including an IMAX theater with enhanced image and sound.

Upscale features The Sheraton could have 116 rooms, and the bowling alley 18 lanes, according to plans that show more than 200,000 square feet of stores and boutiques, including a wine shop. "A swimming pool cascading off the (hotel) second story, waterfalling to a ground-level water feature with fountains," reads a description in a project application.

"Enjoy all of life's conveniences in one place," reads a Chopra Web page describing "two levels of colonnaded walkways with outdoor dining" at the central plaza.

Until lawsuits are resolved, Modesto could process a site plan but not building permits, said planning manager Patrick Kelly.

Mendlin refused to say how creditors' fraud claims should be satisfied by his explanation of a title company error. He has offered documentation to opponents, he said, showing that "a title officer indicated a mistake was made." "It's being corrected," Mendlin continued. "Aruna Chopra is committed to rectifying this problem and moving this project forward." Kroll tells a different story. "As far as we're concerned, this is a clear-cut case of forgery and fraud," he said. "It's up to them to come to the table and rectify it. And it's up to the FBI and the DA to prosecute the criminal action." Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or (209) 578-2390.

To see more of The Modesto Bee, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2011, The Modesto Bee, Calif. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit

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