Carlos Siderman invented the concept of hazard disclosure in real estate in the late 1970s, and his downtown L.A. firm, Property I.D., remains the industry leader, providing disclosure reports in 30 states. He came up with the idea when he got to the United States after fleeing Argentina in 1976. When he got interested in real estate here, he expected American transactions would be perfect and include hazard disclosures. When he learned they didn’t, he saw an opportunity. His idealized vision of the United States came due to the contrast with life in Argentina. His father had been kidnapped by leftist guerrillas and when the right-wing dictatorship came to power, the militia didn’t look kindly on his well-to-do Jewish family. His father was kidnapped again and tortured, and Carlos was forced to flee as death squads were closing in on him. His family’s eventual lawsuit against the Argentine government was the first to be successfully prosecuted against a foreign government on U.S. soil. He recently sat down with the Business Journal to discuss how he came up with the concept for hazard disclosure, his nightmarish experiences in Argentina and his stable of champion racing horses.
Question: How’d you get involved in natural hazard disclosures?
Answer: My father owned a large construction and development company in Argentina and anytime we acquired large parcels, always we needed to know more about the property – the uses, limitations and all the unknowns, flood zones and earthquake risks. When I put my first foot in the United States in 1976, I would spend my weekends looking at property transactions.
Did the Argentines do hazard disclosures?
No. But I thought everything in the United States was perfect and correct, and I wanted to learn how to do property transactions here. I was looking for disclosures and good faith, but I couldn’t find it in the transactions.
How’d you decide what needed to be included?
I used the typical issues of complaints and lawsuits for information that was not given and anything related to proximity to areas that are not desirable. It fascinated me, the discoveries. The challenge was how to make a profit out of that because no one was doing it.
How’d people react to your reports at first?
I told sellers this is the proper way to do it, but they said, “I’ve never been sued before so why should I do this?” So instead of just selling a product, I also made it a teaching product.
Your father, Jose bought a ranch and founded a construction company.
We had 600 employees in construction and ranching. At the time, it was doing wood processing and some soy production; very few animals.
Why was he kidnapped in 1974?
As a well-to-do man, he was kidnapped by the left guerillas for ransom. I had to negotiate for his life, at 23 years old.
Did you pay the ransom?
It was paid. I was able bring him back.
What was that like?
It still today shakes me every time I think about the process we had to go through. I was taking care of my mother also in a complete crisis and negotiating with extortionist left guerrillas.
What happened next?
Two years later, a coup d’état by the military junta – at the time the extreme right – came and my father was kidnapped by the military in 1976. They also took over all our assets and property, which is much more than any ransom.
What happened to your father?
They had him for weeks. He was tortured. The request for payment came from a corrupt judge in Argentina who was asking for a kickback to decide in our favor.
How’d your father escape?
He was freed and told he had 24 hours to leave Argentina. So we got him out of Tucuman – to Buenos Aires – and then to Florida, where my sister was an American citizen.
What happened to you?
I stayed in Argentina to take care of the company and ranch. But I sent my wife and children on a train out of the city of Tucuman to Buenos Aires and then to Los Angeles, where a family friend lived.
A friend called and said, “I was at lunch with a group of military people who had your father and they said it was a mistake to let him free and they can only make sure he won’t speak by getting you: They are coming to get you tonight.”
What’d you do?
I go to my apartment and picked up my passport, no clothes or anything else, and jumped in my car and drove all night to go see my children and wife in Buenos Aires. The neighbors said right after I was there, the military had broken into the house so I probably missed them by 30 minutes.
What happened to the ranch?
They wanted to take everything, all the wealth, the machines and everything in the place. I was trying to sell property or negotiate solutions to liquidate it all, but it was going nowhere, so I came by the later part of 1976 to Los Angeles.
Did any of you suffer from the trauma?
My father always thought they were coming to get him. He couldn’t sleep at night. One of the traumas of my dad is he would look into every newspaper trying to read about the militaries and concentration camps in Argentina but no paper would say a word about it. It’s recognized today that the government had a complete seal from people of the press.
How’d he feel about that?
It was his Don Quixote task to communicate what he experienced in Argentina. So dad spoke at many universities, locally and outside Los Angeles. He gave specific data to Amnesty International about what he saw.
Argentine officials unsuccessfully tried to extradite him from Los Angeles on bogus charges. Later, he was arrested during a visit to Italy, but successfully fought extradition and returned to the United States, then sued the Argentine government.
It was an extraordinary case. It took from 1981 to 1996, when we got a settlement to the case. It was highly contested by Argentina, but it was fascinating. It’s cited in an incredible amount of cases against countries and corporations on a regular basis and remains one with more precedent than any other cases.
What was the settlement?
It was sealed with the court; we cannot disclose. It was a multimillion number but it will never be enough for the sacrifices my father had to go through.
Where’s your father today?
He passed away in 2002. I miss him a lot. Just thinking about him makes things different for me. You have challenges in all aspects of life and just closing my eyes, I can talk to him and see with clarity what would be the answer to it. He’s still here with me.
Did you get your property back?
During the junta, they championed the opportunity to buy property at depressed prices – property that belonged to us – but somehow along the way the people who bought our property became accomplices to the theft. It’s taking a long time to untangle it.
Do you think you’ll ever get it back?
Oh, yes. I’m sure about it. If not, I would not do it.
Would you move back?
No. This is home. I’m not going back.
My sense of gratitude is here because nothing would have happened in any other place but the United States, which still offers today a system of justice that is absolutely not matched by another place in the world.
Have you been back?
Yes. The memories come back anytime I’m there of the family and my father, and the good and bad times. It’s a mixed feeling, but I need to keep doing it. We are still fighting Argentina.
How did all of this affect you?
It gave me a sense of justice because of so much injustice I have had to deal with. I see justice in everything and cannot accept injustice in any way shape or form, not against animals, people or the environment.
You started a Fulbright scholarship in conjunction with Southwestern Law School to recruit promising young Argentine lawyers to learn about human rights in the United States.
Justice is still a big challenge. No matter what I achieve, I never feel like it’s done. The scholarship brings together brilliant minds of attorneys in Argentina already involved with human rights. They get a more global view of human rights and it allows them to move the position of the country in a more distinctive way to prevent more human rights abuses.
What have graduates done?
A graduate has been selected by the United Nations for a human rights post in Switzerland. Another went back to Argentina to become the chief of operations of immigration for all of Argentina.
Will you expand it beyond Argentina?
This has to grow to other countries. Many do not observe human rights as the United States does. It’d be a dream to have something like this in, as an example, Egypt.
This is all very heavy. Do you ever get to relax?
I compete in endurance horseback racing in the Association of Endurance Ride Conference in different terrains for long distances. I do 25- to 30-mile rides pretty successful. Most of the races, I’m in the top 10. You compete in speed and they are closely monitoring the health of the horse. You have to be able to win a race with a horse in best conditions, which is my goal in all races, so I have to train my horse a lot.
How often do you go?
I ride every week in my ranch in north Malibu. I have 10 horses that are American Saddlebreds, the breed used in the Civil War. They are very courageous, strong and brave. Their movement is beautiful. They are like a dream.
How long does it take to race 30 miles on horseback?
Typically, it can take close to four hours. My best time was in Coso Junction in the north side of Los Angeles County and the temperature was 37 degrees and that’s why my horse was flying. We did that in three hours, 20 minutes. But the races are in places that there’s no way to see them if you don’t walk or take a horse. It’s a lot of fun.
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