by Doug Brown
There's no greater reminder of the sanctity of marriage than millionaires spending years in the courts hammering out contentious divorce settlements and federal lawsuits alleging a former spouse ran complex schemes to screw the other out of millions of dollars from real estate deals.
Jennifer Simpson, then 27, married Canton-area businessman Gaetano "Guy" Cecchini, then 57, in a 1994 ceremony presided over by Canton mayor Richard Watkins. Cecchini was, and still is, extremely rich from buying up McDonald's franchises in Ohio in the late 1960s and soon acquiring a bunch of stock in the company. They had three kids together, but their marriage fell apart in 2007, not soon after Cecchini sold nine of his old McDonald's properties for $11.5 million and made a huge profit from an investment in a solar energy company. Cecchini is a big-time donor for Walsh University and is the namesake for its health and wellness center and its gym.
Like many divorce cases involving people with money, their lawyers battled in court for years before it was finalized. In 2012, among other divorce stipulations about what Simpson would get from her businessman ex-husband, an arbitrator ruled the 11 properties Cecchini owned were to be sold within a year — or they'd be auctioned off — with each getting a 50/50 split of the proceeds.
Simpson's lawsuit, filed Wednesday, says Cecchini "systematically manipulated the sale and auction process for those Properties" by allowing his business partners and associates to buy them up cheaply — therefore slashing the amount of money she got from the sale — and then selling them back to Cecchini.
The couple's vacation home in Boca Raton, Florida, was either supposed to be sold at a value of $2.15 million or sold at an auction after a year. Cecchini suggested they'd get more from an auction and Simpson agreed, according to the complaint. But last summer, that house was sold at auction for $1.52 million by a buyer who Simpson says was her ex-husband's agent through auctioneers she said were in on the scheme. Two weeks later, that buyer sold it back to Cecchini for $1.56 million.
In January, Simpson alleges a similar scheme was used on the house she was living in at that time in Massillon. Listed for $1.18 million, Simpson says Cecchini listed it for higher than what worth so potential buyers would avoid it and never publicly advertised its sale, causing it to go unsold for a year, therefore requiring it to be sold at auction. Last fall, it sold for $367,500 during an "invitation-only" auction. The buyer then evicted Simpson from living there, and quickly transferred the property back to Cecchini.
The same thing happened with a vacant commercial real estate lot Cecchini purchased in 2008: valued at more than a half-million dollars, it sold at auction for $62,200 and was then sold back to him. It happened again this summer at a commercial lot in Navarre, Ohio: appraised at $454,200 in 2012, it sold at auction last summer for $163,500. For the 326 acres of farmland Cecchini owned in Stark County, Simpson says one entity Cecchini ran bought it from another entity of his that controlled the land: he was the buyer and seller of it, with the transaction below market value.
Simpson's suit filed in Akron's federal court states claims against her ex-husband, the real estate agents involved in all of the transactions, and the people and companies who allegedly acted on Cecchini's behalf to screw her out of a larger cut of the proceeds. There's one count of violation of the RICO Act, five counts of fraudulent conveyance, five counts of civil conspiracy, and one count of unjust enrichment.
Read the full suit here:
For a better sense of their legal battles, check out this arbitration document from their divorce: