One of Dallas' most famous boats is on the auction block: Named the Whitmar, it's a sailboat belonging to Dallas contractor James Allen "Jim" Benge, and it's being auctioned off in a bankruptcy settlement, with bidding beginning on July 28.
Benge is a contractor who has been sued by at least two dozen subcontractors whom he hired, then did not pay after they did the work.
The boat has been Benge's passion project, as well as the subject of two fawning profiles by D magazine. He built it himself, with no expense spared — expenses perhaps easy for him to come by, after having stiffed so many electricians, flooring companies, drywall installers, steel fabricators, cement pourers, and HVAC firms.
While most of the lawsuits brought against him were from small operators unable to afford a legal grind, there was one lawsuit by Hertz Electric and its tenacious lawyer, Nathanial Martinez, of Palter Sims Martinez PLLC, who won a judgment against Benge and his then-company Benge General Contracting LLC in 2019.
That case went through endless rounds of appeals and delaying tactics by Benge (see timeline below), but Hertz Electric and Martinez finally prevailed.
Benge filed for bankruptcy and a trustee was appointed to oversee the auction of the boat, one of Benge's only assets.
The auction was originally scheduled to take place in April but Benge's attorney filed an objection with the absurd contention that the auction should not include the boat's keel or masts, because they were not attached to the boat and therefore were exempt. The court threw that out and at long last, the buck now stops here.
"This was a six-year saga, with lots of maneuvering by Benge and his attorneys to avoid turnover of the boat and, in our opinion, to stall collection efforts against his companies," Martinez says.
The auction listing on Rosen Systems, Inc. describes it as a 42-foot sailboat that is "70 percent completed," although boat people in the know put it at closer to 90 percent. "We usually do industrial auctions, so it's definitely one of the more unusual items we've had," says Michael Rosen, the company's president.
The interior finish-out is "mostly complete," including a galley, bathroom, and two bedrooms. Everything was fabricated from only the best materials: intricate inlaid wood, mirror-finish stainless steel, hot and cold running water, and a gimbal mount for the stove to keep it level if the boat hits a wave.
Mechanical equipment includes a 4-cylinder Westerbeke marine engine, and V-Drive transmission, and two masts.
The auction opens July 28 and closes on August 4. Before it closes, there's a viewing on August 2 at the East Dallas warehouse off Buckner Road, at 3324 Dilildo Rd. Suite J, where it's being stored. Viewing hours are 10 am-3 pm.
Finding an actual buyer for such a gargantuan, highly personal vessel seems unlikely. But the parties involved are intent on squeezing out as much as possible in order to get Benge's creditors some money and justice.
One way Benge has ducked his pursuers over the years is to jump from one hastily-formed LLC to the next. He's operated under a dozen different names — Milam Designs, Gunslinger, Benge Arcadia, BCG Surfaces, Rivermark, Lamar Design Inc., Benge General Contracting, BCG Plumbing which is still active, and Benge Texas are just a few — but in April, he told the court he didn't plan on doing any more business after July 1, 2022 and promised he was getting out of the construction industry altogether.
However, in February 2022, a new company called Mule Skinner Construction was formed. The principals listed are Grant Mitchell, former project manager for Benge Texas; and Pamela Hackley, Benge Texas' former business development manager.
Mule Skinner uses the same email address previously used by Benge Texas. Mule Skinner's phone number — 214-574-6848 — is the phone number used by Benge Texas.
Fort Worth's permitting website has applications to do foundation and structural work for both projects. The applicant is identified as "Jim Benge, MULESKINNER CONSTRUCTION."
Timeline of the legal action between Benge and Hertz Electric:
- March 29, 2016: Benge General Contracting, LLC ("Benge GC") files preemptive lawsuit against Hertz Electric, LLC and HTJ Global Electric, LLC (collectively, "Hertz") after Hertz demands payment for work it did for Benge as a subcontractor.
- May 20, 2016: Hertz files its answer and counterclaims to Benge GC for breach of contract and failure to pay.
- October 25, 2017: Court allows Hertz to add James Benge individually as a counter-defendant to Hertz’s counterclaims on the theory that James Benge is the alter-ego of Benge GC and that he is using Benge GC to perpetuate a fraud against Hertz.
- August 26, 2019: Trial finally commences. Lasts 5 days. Jury returns verdict in favor of Hertz and awards attorneys' fees. Judge dismisses all of Benge's claims for lack of evidence.
- October 17, 2019: Final Judgment entered against Benge GC and Jim Benge.
- November 11, 2019: Benge tries to seek a new trial, Court denies request.
- December 2, 2019: Benge GC and Benge appeal the entire judgment and award.
- February 3, 2020: Benge GC and Benge do not put up a bond to suspend collection efforts (which is called a supersedeas bond), so Hertz files a motion to turn over the boat. Motion on boat turnover is set for hearing on 2/25/20.
- February 24, 2020 (1 day before the boat turnover hearing): Benge GC and James Benge both file bankruptcy. Benge GC files a Chapter 7 proceeding and James Benge files a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The effect of the filings means the collection efforts in the trial court are suspended (stayed) and Hertz cannot move forward with getting the Court to turn over the boat.
- August 10, 2020: The bankruptcy court closes the Benge GC bankruptcy case.
Before December 2020, Hertz discovers through depositions and documents produced in the bankruptcy case that Benge GC’s assets (including all goodwill) were transferred to a new company, BengeTexas, Inc.
BengeTexas, Inc. used all the same operating assets as its predecessor Benge GC, same address, same location, and sent construction bids from Benge GC email addresses. Benge even opened a bank account in the name of BengeTexas, Inc. "dba Benge General Contracting" to be able to deposit checks made out to Benge GC in the BengeTexas, Inc. bank account.
Hertz believes this to be a fraudulent transfer by Benge GC and Jim Benge to avoid paying creditors.
- December 7, 2020: Hertz files a new lawsuit against BengeTexas, Inc. claiming that BengeTexas, Inc. conspired with Benge GC and Jim Benge and received Benge GC and Jim Benge assets by fraud. The lawsuit is filed in Dallas County District Court and is assigned the same judge as the original lawsuit (DC-20-179820).
- June 4, 2021: The bankruptcy court dismisses the Jim Benge individual bankruptcy case. Benge agrees to this.
- June 14, 2021: Hertz seeks to reopen the original trial court case to resume collection efforts, but court does not set the hearing.
- September 8, 2021: The court of appeals affirms the original judgment of the trial court, but reverses the award of attorneys' fees. The remaining judgment, including fraud against Jim Benge remains.
- February 1, 2022: Hertz is now finally able to resume collection efforts and Hertz files a notice to reset the hearing on the turnover of the boat to February 25, 2022.
- February 2, 2022: Unrelated to the Hertz case, a bank that provided BengeTexas, Inc. with financing and a line of credit wins a summary judgment against Jim Benge and BengeTexas, Inc. in the amount of almost $1 million. The case is Origin Bank vs. BengeTexas, Inc. The same company later seeks to put BengeTexas, Inc. into receivership.
- February 24, 2022: (1 day before the NEW boat turnover hearing – and two years to the date) Jim Benge refiles for bankruptcy, this time seeking Chapter 7 bankruptcy. This has the same effect as all bankruptcy filings – it suspends/stays collection efforts.
- June 15, 2022: Origin Bank successfully gets the court to put BengeTexas, Inc. into receivership. Origin Bank seeks to have Benge turn over the company and its assets.
- June 22, 2022: BengeTexas, Inc. files for bankruptcy, suspending Hertz's second fraudulent transfer lawsuit against it as well as Origin Bank's proceedings.
- July 2022: The Court finally approves the trustee's motion to sell the boat to satisfy creditors.