NAPLES — A Naples Realtor has been linked to an $11 million multi-state mortgage scam.
Margaret Giresi has pleaded guilty to her role in the scheme, which involved the purchase of at least 50 properties in California, Florida, Kentucky and Vermont.
Many of those properties were homes in gated, golf communities off Davis Boulevard in Collier County, including Cedar Hammock and Glen Eagle.
The scam led a federal grand jury to indict Benjamin Osmanson, 30, of California and Texas, and his co-defendant Jillian Protzman, 27, of Vermont, in October 2008.
“I think the scheme is notable for its magnitude and the breadth of the states involved,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugenia Cowles, who works in Vermont.
Reached by phone earlier this week, Giresi said she’d have to speak to her attorney before talking to a reporter. Her Vermont attorney, John Mabie, had no comment.
Giresi wasn’t part of the original indictment. But she pleaded guilty to conspiracy on Sept. 14 in Vermont. On the same day, Osmanson pleaded guilty to three counts of conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering.
On Aug. 17, Protzman pleaded guilty to conspiracy and money laundering.
Giresi’s sentencing is scheduled for January 2010.
Two mortgage brokers involved in the scheme, Mike Otis and Chris Whitfield, also pleaded guilty earlier this year in Kentucky.
According to the indictment, from as early as January 2006 through at least April 2007, Osmanson and Protzman recruited friends, family members and acquaintances to “invest” in real estate. They submitted fraudulent loans and documents in the names of at least 10 investors and obtained more than $26 million in loans to support the purchases.
The mortgages were 100 percent financed and later failed.
Multiple lenders were sought out in the scam and loans were closed in a short amount of time, to preserve the appearance of the investor’s good credit, according to the indictment.
Osmanson and Protzman also were accused of enriching themselves with rebates, fees and commissions on the fraudulent purchases.
During his plea hearing on Sept. 19, Osmanson admitted his scheme resulted in more than $11 million in losses to mortgage lenders after the properties involved went into foreclosure, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Vermont, which prosecuted the case.
“None of the investors have been charged,” prosecutor Cowles said.
The FBI and the Internal Revenue Service investigated the case.
According to charges filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Vermont, Giresi was approached by Osmanson and Protzman about buying properties in the names of investors in early 2006.
Between March 2006 and January 2007, Giresi and others helped the indicted couple purchase more than 40 properties in the Naples area for investors and to obtain “rebates” from the loans.
Giresi was accused of conspiring with others to defraud mortgage lenders.
According to court documents, she sent a fax containing an addendum to a sales contract for the purchase of a home at 851 Marblehead Way in Naples in July 2006 from her office at Kastle Realty in Naples to Highgate Manor in Vermont, an elegant bed and breakfast once operated and owned by Osmanson and Protzman.
The document didn’t disclose the agreement for the seller — an entity controlled by Giresi and others — to pay $21,000 to Osmanson and Protzman following the sale of the property. It appears the fee was disclosed by Osmanson in the final contract with the lender.
According to court documents, Osmanson typically listed the rebates in mortgage documents as a finder’s fee or relocation fee.
In a deposition, James Formica, a special agent with the IRS’ Criminal Investigation Division, detailed some of the fraudulent transactions. They include homes at 688 Provincetown Drive, 1311 Barnstable Court, 5726 Lago Villaggio Way and 4123 72nd Ave. N.E.
Investigators found that Kastle Realty earned commissions on sales linked to Osmanson and Protzman. On the sale of 688 Provincetown Drive, Kastle earned $16,050 in commissions. The house was purchased for $535,000 on Nov. 14, 2006, in the name of one of Osmanson’s “investors.”
At one time, John Giresi, Margaret’s son, was part of the Kastle team. He died on Oct. 1, 2008 — before the indictments came down. He was 50.
Collier County property records show that many of the sales tied to the scheme in the Naples area were made to a Michael Redmond, whose name was frequently used as an “investor.”
No charges were ever brought against John Giresi, who won a “Top Salesman” award in 2003 from the Collier County Builders Association. He held listings for homes tied to the scheme.
The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s Web site shows Margaret Giresi’s broker/sales associate license expired in March. No public complaints have been filed against her.
She still maintains her own real estate Web site, which says she specializes in golf course communities in Naples.
A few months ago, she joined an Independent Brokers Realty office off 12th Avenue South in Naples. The broker, Dave Gallus, said he was unaware of the charges or her guilty plea until a few days ago.
Gallus said he only found out Thursday that Giresi was in trouble.
“I don’t know what the story is or what the deal is,” he said. “We are kind of in the discovery process right now.”
He said Giresi’s dealings with Osmanson and Protzman happened when she owned and operated Kastle Realty, which is no longer in business.
Last week, Gallus said Giresi told him she was retiring Oct. 15 and moving to New Jersey.
“She won’t be with the company anymore. That’s for sure,” Gallus said.
Ron Barakett, a Realtor at Sun Realty in Naples, said he noticed that something wasn’t right when he saw several homes selling for unusually high prices in Cedar Hammock back in 2006. The market already had softened and the Kastle team was selling homes for what appeared to be higher than market value to the same two buyers.
“I knew there was some smelly fish,” Barakett said.
He said the FBI contacted him and other Realtors active at Cedar Hammock to ask questions as part of its investigation.
As a result of the scheme, Cedar Hammock has seen many foreclosures. Other buyers not involved in the scam paid inflated prices for their homes based on the amount of the fraudulent sales prices, which included rebates of as much as $50,000 — or maybe more.
“It hurt the banks,” Barakett said. “It hurt other sellers — the innocent sellers. It hurt Realtors who get tarnished by that kind of activity. It hurt everybody.”