Etan Mark, of Mark Migdal & Hayden in Miami. Courtesy photo

A group of South Florida investors filed a case against gas station operators MNV Energy LLC, MNV-K LLC and affiliated defendants, seeking damages in a case alleging a Ponzi-like fraud scheme and breach of contract.

Aventura-based MNV Energy owns and operates 35 to 45 Chevron, Shell, BP and Mobil-branded gas stations throughout Florida and Georgia.

Miami attorney Etan Mark of Mark Migdal & Hayden represents nine plaintiffs who collectively invested $2.3 million in two gas stations in Miami and Vero Beach. His clients are five businesses—Miami-based CCMN LLC, Gabriel Serfaty Revocable Trust, Godie LLC, VBCW LLC and Delaware company Kokos Energy LLC along with individuals Karon Cohen Beraun, Alexander Bruckstein, Ruben Alberto Schmilovich and Marcelo Cohen.

The complaint filed June 22 in Miami-Dade Circuit Court alleges MNV CEO Sergio Delmico led the two service stations into “financial ruin.”

The group now seeks damages for irreparable harm, accusing MNV and its principals of mismanaging the gas stations, “squeezing them dry” and defaulting on leases.

The defense attorney, Miami lawyer Paul Aiello of Bennett Aiello Attorneys at Law, was unavailable for comment Friday. He represents MNV Energy and principals Delmico, Wellington Siqueira Vilela and Ricardo Botos da Silva Neves.

The complaint includes copies of the management agreement, bank statements and bounced checks, as well as reports of inspections of the gas stations conducted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, demonstrating a number of minor violations.

The dispute began in April when MNV Energy allegedly stopped making monthly payments to the investors.

“Pursuant to the agreement between the parties, MNV and those entities were to pay my client a monthly 1 percent distribution. They have failed to do that,” Mark said.

Initially, the complaint said MNV claimed there were insufficient funds to make the payments. At the same time, the lawsuit claimed, the company continued to acquire other gas stations and reel in new investors.

“It seems that old investor money was being used to pay the new investors,” Mark said. “In the meantime, these investors were not getting paid and were being told that the check is in the mail.”

Suspicious of wrongdoing, Mark gained access to the company’s bank statement and discovered what he describes as “strange transactions.”

“There’s money moving in and out of these bank accounts that is not consistent with what you would expect these businesses to operate. They’re literally cleaning out bank accounts, hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonds,” said Mark.

One bank statement from Oct. 31, 2017, depicts withdrawals of nearly $170,000, leaving MNV’s account at zero. Another from Nov. 30 tells a similar story, with more than $151,000 taken the account, also reducing its funds to zero.

“The house of cards is collapsing,” Mark claimed.

Having filed an emergency motion for an injunction in an attempt to freeze bank accounts and documents, the plaintiffs await a hearing scheduled for Tuesday.

“I’m very concerned about these folks absconding with documents, assets and transferring money out of the accounts into shell entities,” Mark said. ”We could be looking at (a) nine-digit fraud.”

Still early in the litigation process, the plaintiffs allude to an alleged fraud that could potentially affect 200 investors.

“For me, the biggest red flag for a Ponzi scheme is when, at the beginning of the relationship, you’re getting paid your returns, everything looks great and the returns are pretty high,” Mark said. “Then, all of a sudden, there’s an inexplicable stop while there appears to be a continued growth of enterprise on other fronts. That’s similar to what we had here.”

Read the complaint: