Two men linked to a Denver commercial real estate firm have told a federal court they relayed kickbacks to Amazon employees that helped the firm secure development deals in Virginia.
Kyle Ramstetter, a former executive with Northstar Commercial Partners, and Christian Kirschner, who acted as a sort of outside consultant for the company, each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud on Wednesday in Virginia.
An attorney for Kirschner declined to comment. An attorney for Ramstetter didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The pleas were first reported by the newsletter Court Watch.
The men are the first to plead guilty in connection with bribery claims that Amazon made in a civil lawsuit the company filed against Northstar back in April 2020.
Northstar is led and owned by Brian Watson, who was the Republican nominee for Colorado state treasurer in 2018.
It’s been a question for years whether criminal charges would be filed in connection with Amazon’s claims, because the FBI was known to have done an investigation. Watson told business associates in an April 2, 2020 email that agents had served a search warrant at his Cherry Hills Village mansion earlier that day and asked questions about Northstar’s Amazon deals.
Amazon filed the civil lawsuit against Northstar, Watson and other parties later that month.
Watson has not been charged with wrongdoing, although documents filed in connection with the Ramstetter and Kirschner pleas specifically refer to him “knowingly” being part of the scheme.
In an interview with BusinessDen, Watson attorney Stan Garnett noted that a trial that will resolve Amazon’s lawsuit is set to begin May 1 in a federal courthouse outside Washington, D.C.
“We anticipate winning that trial and Brian will be found non-liable to the plaintiffs in that case,” said Garnett, of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.
According to a statement entered into court, Kirschner was a longtime friend of Watson’s who began working nominally as a consultant for Northstar in 2016, getting paid $4,000 a month to try to send business to the firm, plus more if specific deals materialized.
Kirschner introduced Watson to his brother, Casey Kirschner, who lived in Minnesota and worked in real estate for Amazon.
Christian Kirschner said in his statement that his brother knew he would receive a cut of the fee paid to Christian Kirschner if Northstar landed deals with Amazon.
Casey Kirschner later requested that Carl Nelson, his boss at Amazon, be cut into the deal as well, according to Christian Kirschner.
Northstar ultimately developed nine data center buildings in northern Virginia for Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing subsidiary. Amazon agreed to pay $415 million to lease them, according to court documents.
Watson and Northstar paid $5.1 million in referral fees to an entity called Villanova Trust, for which Christian Kirschner was the trustee, according to court documents. That entity was established with the help of Rod Atherton, an Arvada attorney.
Christian Kirschner said in his statement he personally received only $1.7 million of the money paid to the trust. He said the trust was set up to obscure the fact that some of the money was then passed on, via another trust and various shell companies, to Casey Kirschner and Nelson as an unlawful kickback.
Ramstetter began working at Northstar in late 2017 as a project manager and was later promoted to director of development, according to court documents.
In Ramstetter’s statement to the court, he said he knew that the payments to the trust were disguised kickback payments and that he helped facilitate the scheme.
Ramstetter also acknowledged doing another real estate deal on the side with Amazon. In 2019, he and fellow Northstar executive Will Camenson, acting as an LLC, bought 89 acres in northern Virginia for $98 million and resold it to Amazon the same day for $116 million.
According to Ramstetter, Nelson threatened to “blow up” the deal unless Ramstetter and Camenson paid him a cut of the profits, and the pair ultimately paid $1 million to Nelson and Casey Kirschner. Amazon had terminated Nelson by that time, although not because of the scheme. Ramstetter later also paid Watson $5 million.
Ramstetter also said that he was paid a total of $150,000 by Casey Kirschner and Nelson to provide “inside information” about Northstar’s Amazon deals and keep the men updated on the status of the kickback payments.
Amazon has said it first learned of the scheme when a former Northstar employee emailed Jeff Bezos in December 2019.
Watson’s attorney Garnett said that the specific series of events that Ramstetter and Kirschner laid out in connection with their pleas is “not inconsistent with what Brian has said all along.” He said that Brian’s payments to the trust “were totally legal and appropriate.”
“Brian denies any involvement in a kickback scheme,” Garnett said.
More pleas may be coming. Camenson has a plea agreement hearing set for March 29, although online court records don’t include any information about the nature of the case.
Online court records also show a criminal case involving the same prosecutors against Jason Fogle. The nature of that case is also not clear, but Fogle worked in real estate for Amazon Web Services, according to previous media coverage. An attorney for Fogle didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ramstetter and Kirschner pleaded guilty as part of a plea agreement that doesn’t detail any specific sentence. The men have a sentencing hearing scheduled for early September.
Watson has also been charged civilly with securities fraud by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for projects unrelated to the Amazon deals.