Former Nun Loses Lawsuit, Must Pay Nearly $1 Million in Restitution from Failed Casino Project
A Delaware judge ruled this week that a former nun and current casino developer Sandra Manno has to pay back nearly $1 million. Manno spent $970,123 by “living large” while she was supposed to be building the CanCan Casino in D’lberville, Mississippi.
Instead of using the casino money, which had been supplied by investors in the project, Sandra Manno used it to benefit her friends and family. That was decision on Wednesday by Judge Travis Laster, who ruled that Manno breached her duty of loyalty to CanCan.
CanCan Casino Project
The CanCan Casino project eventually became the Scarlet Pearl Casino Resort project, which is still under construction in South Mississippi. The land deal should eventually turn into a lucrative casino along the Gulf Coast. Sandra Manno might even contribute to the construction, but only in an indirect way by paying back her debt to the investors.
Judge Laster wrote in his 60-page civil ruling, “Manno had used the project to enrich herself, her family, and their friends through generous compensation, frequent cash withdrawals, and lavish living.”
The list of lavish expenses is both fascinating and a bit grotesque, but they show how a person can spend a million dollars in a relatively short period of time. One of the most extravagent expenses was the hiring of Lisa Marie Ponzio, who is a personal friend of Sandra Manno. Ms. Ponzio was hired to write a movie script about Manno’s live, while pitching her story as a possible reality TV show to television executives.
From Nun to Mogul
No doubt, Sandra Manno‘s life has been remarkable. She grew up in New Jersey, where she attended college. After postsecondary school, Manno became a Jesuit nun. That became a big part of her life story, especially when pitching ideas to potential investors.
The court documents show that “Manno often mentioned her time in the convent and her devotion to the faith.”
Later, Manno was hired by James Crosby, one of Atlantic City’s gaming pioneers and the chairman of Resorts International. She later worked for other undisclosed casinos in the Atlantic City area, or at least she claimed to have done so.
“Talent for Convincing Investors”
Judge Laster wrote in his opinion, “Sandra Manno has excelled at coming up with concepts for new casinos. She also has a talent for convincing early-stage investors to back her ideas. But she has failed at moving her ventures beyond the concept www.”
Laster added, “In addition to lacking the requisite management skills, Manno loves living large. It may be that some degree of flash and pizzazz is necessary to succeed in the casino business, but Manno’s ventures have misallocated their seed capital to expensive meals, luxury hotels, first-class travel, and premature marketing activities.”
The judge suggests that Sandra Manno did not simply mismanage funds with the CanCan Casino project, but has a long history of misallocating funds for the projects she’s involved in. A thorough review of her career reveals a certain pattern of mismanagement and profligacy.
History of Failed Projects
From 2002 to 2004, Manno worked alongside Joseph Py in trying to convince the Keetoowah Economic Development Authority to build a casino in Oklahoma. Eventually, David Flaum, one of her business partners at the time, sued her for mismanagement, self-dealing, and waste. This ended her pursuit of the Keetoowah casino project.
Later in 2004, Sandra Manno announced her plans to build a $250 milllion casino in East Biloxi called the Havana Casino. On behalf of Onnam Entertainment, Manno was named the Chief Executive Officer on developing the Havana complex, which was supposed to contain a hotel with 500 rooms and 35 suites, a 60,000 square ft casino, restaurants, a nightclub, a recording studio, a theater, and a wedding chapel. The casino had been designed by Francis Xavier Dumon, who designed the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City.
Investors in CanCan
Francis Xavier Dumon also designed Manno’s third gaming site, The CanCan Casino. The CanCan had a French theme and was set next to a French Market in the South Mississippi town of D’Iberville. The chief investors were George Toth, Robert Granieri, and Jane Street Group, a London-based securities-trading firm manager.
The Granieri Family, a father and son working as partners, invested $120 million in what became a $290 million project. They continue to bankroll the successor to the CanCan, the Scarlet Pearl Casino project, but they also joined the lawsuit against Sandra Manno.
Judge Laster wrote that the Granieris were lured into the project with promises of Manno’s ability to secure continued fund, but they soon learned they would be the funders of the project. Laster wrote, “They understood that financing was available, largely because CanCan could raise money using Gulf Opportunity Zone bonds (GO Zonebonds), a government-subsidized program to encourage redevelopment after Hurricane Katrina. Instead, Manno and her partner, Joseph Py, repeatedly asked for more capital.”
Several of the hirings were questionable, to say the least. Sandra Manno hired her sister at $5,000 a month, despite her sister seldom being in the office. The judge’s decision said, “Patty was only in CanCan’s office once or twice every six weeks, and she never generated any work product. She spent most of her time writing a children’s novel and visiting with her sister.”
Eventually, the Manno and her family were taking upwards of $70,000 a month from the investors.
Frankie the Fish
That was not the most unstable hiring, though. Instead, she hired a convicted felon who had to get permission from his parole officer each time he left the state of New Jersey. Despite that impediment, Frankie “The Fish” Barbera was hired as a consultant on the project for 2 months, a job which netted the Fish $6,000. Investors were told he was a real estate expert.
Laster wrote, “Manno’s most colorful hire was Frank Barbera, aka Frankie the Fish. He was a convicted felon who pleaded guilty after being arrested by the FBI in October 2008 for paying cash bribes to the president of the Atlantic City Council.”
Full List of Expenses
Sandra Manno eventually used her CanCan ATM card to withdraw over $285,000 over the course of her time on the project. She also spent $142,000 on meals alone, including over $100,000 on undocumented or poorly documented meals. She spent an additional $60,449 on airfare for herself and friends on trips with no business purpose, while spend over $40,000 on hotel rooms without proper documentation. She spent another $40,000 on a Skybox at the Superdome for 7 games during the 2010 New Orleans Saints season.
The full list of overcharges is pages long, but she seems to have often estimated paying 2x and 3x the amount she really charged for items, including birthday gifts for local clergymen. Eventually, she received over $721,000 in compensation.