Seeno construction family made mark in Reno (2024)

Seeno construction family made mark in Reno (1)

Publish date: Feb. 12, 2012

CONCORD, CALIF. — Every wall, shelf and cabinet in Albert Seeno Jr.'s office holds memorabilia and photographs that tell the story of a family who arrived in the United States from Italy at the turn of the century and used muscle, smarts and tenacity to become one of the most successful real estate developers in Northern California.

"We are hands-on builders," said Seeno, 67, as he stood next to rolls of building plans and maps in an office that overlooks a mechanics shop, storage units and rows of heavy equipment used in their construction projects.

Starting with a grandfather named Gaetano who helped rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, the Seeno family has constructed homes and shopping centers throughout the Bay Area and five other states since the 1930s and later added hundreds of acres of property in Northern Nevada to their development plans.

"Seeno Homes: Building the American Dream since 1938" reads a stamp on a visitor badge at their Concord offices, where larger-than-life, black-and-white photographs of Seeno Homes founder Albert Seeno Sr. line the walls next to elaborate works of Oriental art and a glass case holding Gaetano's boat-building tools.

They started "in the days when you could build a house in the Bay Area for $39,000," Seeno said.

After growing a strong and fast friendship with Reno businessmen Bill Paganetti and Nat Carasali in the late 1970s, Albert Jr. and his brother Tom Seeno, now 72, became minority stockholders at the Peppermill Hotel Casino and then added five other Nevada casinos to their list of holdings — which added another dimension to their financial endeavors.

But their most recent Nevada partnership has exploded into a high-profile, high-stakes legal battle with Harvey Whittemore — one of Nevada's most powerful and well-known lobbyists, lawyers and political players — after they claimed in a lawsuit that Whittemore embezzled and misappropriated funds from their partnership company, Wingfield Nevada Group, which owns the Red Hawk Resort in Sparks, the Coyote Springs development near Las Vegas and other businesses.

Whittemore countered days later with his own lawsuit that painted the Seenos as a family of gangsters who used thugs and threats of violence to force him to sign over most of his assets.

Paganetti called Whittemore's allegations "beyond fiction." He said he has been in business with the Seenos for 33 years and has never had an argument or cross word with either brother.

"I have never met people who were more honest, who had more integrity or who I would rather have on my team than my two partners," Paganetti said during a rare interview, held in a Peppermill conference room. "These people are the salt of the Earth. These people are good businessmen. I could live 100 lifetimes and not have another partnership like this.

"I trust them with my life. They are dear, dear friends."

Troubles at the top

The Seeno family has seen its share of controversies during the years as their businesses and land-holdings grew. They've been criticized for allegedly manipulating local politicians in their East Bay communities and have been named in numerous construction-defect lawsuits. They also paid a multimillion-dollar judgment in the 1980s in a case filed by Sparks homeowners who said a Seeno subcontractor created dust storms while grading a nearby construction site.

But their building ethics were praised in 2001 when a Seeno construction crew unearthed ancient remains at a West Sacramento site. The Seeno construction foreman immediately stopped work and contacted a coroner and an archeologist from the University of California, Davis. The remains were found to be from a prehistoric American Indian. Seeno workers were credited for being respectful to the remains.

One of their most serious legal battles came in 2004 when the Nevada Gaming Control Board filed a 28-count complaint against Seeno Jr. for violating Nevada gaming licensee laws against committing crimes. Seeno had pleaded guilty in 2002 to violating the Endangered Species Act at a project in California where he drained ponds for a development and killed red-legged frogs. After his plea, Seeno paid fines and restitution topping $1 million and wrote an apology that was published in the local newspaper, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Maureen Bessette, who handled the case.

The Gaming Control Board also accused Seeno of violating gaming license rules by associating with convicted felons, including one who was a member of the Hells Angels, which they called "the largest, richest, most sophisticated and best organized and most feared outlaw motorcycle gang in the world."

Coincidentally, Whittemore's sister, Ellen Whittemore, wrote the Seeno's initial defense brief responding to the gaming commission complaint, and Las Vegas gaming lawyer Frank Schreck later took over the case. The issues were resolved and Seeno agreed to pay a $775,000 fine.

According to Schreck, the felon in question was Victor Bustos, a longtime friend of the family who took care of Albert Sr. when he was dying, and later the Albert Seeno Sr.'s wife. Bustos fell in with some bad characters in the late 1990s, Schreck said, and was arrested in 1997 on drug charges and was convicted in 1999 of selling methamphetamine.

"Victor had nothing in his background," Schreck said. "When he was arrested, he told the feds everything and when it came time for him to be sentenced, the prosecutor and the court agreed that he should receive the shortest mandatory sentence. He was cooperative and remorseful, and because of his good behavior, was let out to a halfway house and then got an early parole."

Initially, the Gaming Control Board prohibited the Seenos from allowing Bustos on any of their casino properties, but the board has since lifted that restriction and he now has permission to be on those premises, Schreck said.

As a Nevada gaming licensee, Albert Seeno said he is continually under the scrutiny of regulators who are charged with ensuring all license holders comply with Nevada gaming law by avoiding all activities that discredit the state. Gaming officials have access to and can take control of all records, including phone and travel, at any time, he said. Seeno said he has complied and cooperated with all regulators and regulations

"I'm not aware of any disciplinary actions involving the Seenos," said Mark Lipparelli, chairman of the Gaming Control Board.

The Seeno offices also were raided in 2010 by federal officials, but no charges were filed as part of that investigation, Seeno said. His lawyer, Kent Robison, said the investigation was the result of an investigation into a Bay Area local official, and federal authorities were collecting documents from everyone who had made political donations to that official. The Seenos were not accused of wrongdoing in that case, he said.

And in the end, the Whittemore case will be resolved by a judge, Seeno said.

"In our opinion, all of these issues will be decided by the judicial system," Seeno said. "We are a nation of laws, and it will all be decided by the facts."

Building an empire

Albert and Tom Seeno worked under their father for decades until taking over the California homebuilding empire when Albert Sr. retired in the 1970s.

Seeno Homes expanded into Northern Nevada in the early 1980s, Albert Seeno said, when they acquired hundreds of acres near McCarran Boulevard and Mae Anne Avenue from a man who claimed he won the land in a poker game. They soon added homes and shopping centers.

Paganetti said he was "pouring coffee at a coffee shop" in 1978 or 1979 when he met Albert Seeno through a mutual friend. He and Carasali had about eight Peppermill restaurants in the Bay Area, and he used to visit Concord regularly. On his next trip he connected with Albert, he said.

"And we had chemistry right away," Paganetti said.

They decided to go in together on a restaurant in Denver, and then set their sights on a motel owned by the Hill family along South Virginia Street, Paganetti said. He and Seeno designed a coffee shop to serve the motel units and locals and later bought up a few more acres and built more rooms so they could add slot machines. They were one of the first to offer video poker and soon had 86 slots and four table games, he said.

Once their first casino, the Peppermill, was up and running, they bought and remodeled Western Village in Sparks, added the Rainbow in Henderson and two more properties in Wendover, he said.

But in 1995, while on a trip to Napa with his wife, Paganetti said he made a discovery that would change the way they operated the Peppermill and their other casino properties forever. He visited Cache Creek, an Indian casino in Brooks, Calif., and was stunned by all that it offered. It had golf, fine dining, entertainment and a spa, as well as slots, he said.

"I'm in there and thinking holy s--t, and the wheels are turning. I'd never seen anything like this," Paganetti said. "Where else is there a true destination resort? If we don't turn ours into a destination resort, Reno is going to die."

He said he presented his ideas to the Seenos and they decided together to reinvest into the community.

"We had to overcome Reno's reputation as second-tier," he said.

They invested more than $400 million into the Peppermill property — construction handled by Seeno Homes, including adding the Tuscan facades, pools and restaurants, he said. And soon began making similar changes to their other resorts, including spending $25 million on a top-rated concert hall at Wendover, he said.

Today, the partnership of four oversees more than 5,000 employees at six casino properties, Paganetti said, while he holds majority stock ownership of the Peppermill.

"We've invested well over $1 billion in this state," Paganetti said. "We've created jobs, people have retired, and we've done this through mutual trust, honesty and integrity. I have that trust in the Seenos – unequivocally."

Albert Seeno added: "We have a very successful operation in Nevada. We want Reno to do well as a market. Not just our property, but up the street and down the street. We want everyone to do well."

Part of their success, Seeno said, is their commitment to their employees.

"They are our greatest asset," he said. "We treat them how we would want to be treated."

When the economy turned sour and other companies were reducing staff, Seeno said they sent a letter to all Seeno Homes employees saying they would not be holding layoffs, reducing salaries or cutting benefits. Instead, they operated conservatively and treaded water until things turned around.

"It was an emotional time," Seeno said. "People came in in tears. They were so grateful. We did the opposite of everybody else."

The rise and fall of Wingfield

Paganetti said he was the one who introduced the Seenos to Harvey Whittemore — a meeting that happened during one of Paganetti's family events.

"I vouched for him at the time," Paganetti said of Whittemore. "But I didn't know what I know now. Harvey has a little different moral compass than the rest of us."

Tom Seeno was first to join Whittemore in the Wingfield Nevada Group in 2005, buying in for $30 million. Albert soon followed with a matching investment, he said.

It seemed like a natural fit, Albert Seeno said. The Wingfield group was developing 1,000 homes in Northern Nevada and 159,600 at the Coyote Springs site in Southern Nevada. They had secured highly coveted water rights.

"Where you have water in the desert, you have life," he said. "That interested me and prompted me to join the group."

But soon after buying in, Seeno said he began asking questions about the operation. Not getting answers to his liking, he launched an investigation that included reviews of 1,000 file boxes, he said.

"It was clear these businesses were not being run properly," he said.

In addition to allegedly using Wingfield funds to purchase property and other goods, Seeno said, Whittemore spent obnoxious amounts of money on events, banquets and parties.

"So, when I throw a party, we cook up some ribs and maybe spend $40 or $50, and that includes the barbecue beans," Seeno said. "But this guy was spending $40,000 or $50,000 on parties. They had the best champagne. I don't know if they were bathing in it or what. A human being just doesn't need that kind of extravagance

Federal and state violations that led to fines or investigations of the Seeno brothers:

In 2002, Albert Seeno Jr.'s West Coast Homebuilders company was fined $1 million after pleading guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act by killing red-legged frogs in a San Marco subdivision project in Pittsburg, Calif.

In 2004, the Seeno brothers were investigated by Gaming Control Board for associating with outlaw bikers and convicted felons. Regulators levied a $775,000 fine against Albert D. Seeno Jr., and fined his son, Albert D. Seeno III, $25,000.

In 2008, the Albert Seeno Construction Company and California reached $3 million settlement with the California Attorney General's office after the California Department of Fish and Game discovered permit violations during grading at a subdivision project in Antioch.

In 2010, agents with the FBI, Secret Service and the IRS raided the Concord, Calif., offices of the Albert D. Seeno Construction Company and Discovery Homes. Federal officials declined to comment on the investigation, but Seeno lawyers said they were investigating a corrupt politician, and since the Seenos had made donations to the politician, federal officials were collecting documents.

Casino licenses

The Seenos hold gaming licenses in six gambling establishments:

Peppermill Resort Spa Casino in Reno

Western Village in Sparks

The Rainbow Club in Henderson

The Peppermill Wendover Hotel Casino

Montego Bay Resort Casino in Wendover

Rainbow Casino Hotel in West Wendover

Seeno construction family made mark in Reno (2024)


Who is the Seeno family? ›

The Seeno business empire started with Albert D. Seeno Sr., who in 1938 began to build single-family houses. The construction business was passed to Seeno Jr. and his brother, Thomas Seeno, in the 1970s.

How much is the Seeno family worth? ›

The Seeno family collectively owns companies worth more than $4 billion, and have a net worth of up to $2 billion, according to Whittemore.

Who is the owner of Seeno Homes? ›

Seeno is the father of Albert D. Seeno, III (“Seeno III”). Seeno III is the owner of Defendant companies Discovery Builders, Discovery Realty, and Seeno Homes, all of which are California corporations with their principal places of business in Contra Costa County.

What are they building off Highway 4 in Concord? ›

CONCORD, CA (July 20, 2023) — Construction on a private warehouse and museum to showcase a billionaire land developer's massive collection of antiquities, art and taxidermy is moving along off Highway 4 near Concord.

Who is Tom Seeno? ›

Seeno is the elder brother of Albert Seeno Jr., head of the Concord-based development company that has been fined numerous times for running afoul of environmental laws.

Who is Albert Seeno Jr.? ›

In an initial complaint filed in August, Albert Seeno Jr., patriarch of the Concord-based building empire known collectively as the Seeno Cos., accused his son, Albert Seeno III, of mishandling funds and pushing his father and other family members out of their companies.

What are they building on the 10 freeway? ›

The SB Express Lanes on I-10 will be located in San Bernardino County between the Los Angeles/San Bernardino County line and I-15. The Express Lanes will include two tolled lanes in each direction in the median of the freeway, and anyone can choose to use them for a fee once they open in Summer 2024.

What is being built in Bay Point? ›

PUBLISHED: May 31, 2022 at 11:18 a.m. | UPDATED: May 31, 2022 at 5:04 p.m. BAY POINTA 384-unit affordable housing development with retail space and a public library is on track to be built in unincorporated Bay Point near the BART station there.

What is being built on Highway 29 in Concord? ›

Red Bull says it is opening a new manufacturing facility in Concord, with planned construction of a two million sq. ft. production hub at the site of a former Phillip Morris plant on Highway 29. Red Bull and Rauch North America are partners on the project, which includes 800,000 sq.

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