A Naples homeowner who inflated her income to buy her house. A Naples man who hid a criminal conviction in his application to become a mortgage broker. And a group of Lee County men who repeatedly bribed a bank employee with $100 bills.
Those were the allegations outlined in indictments handed up against 10 people, who were among 14 indicted late Wednesday as part of a federal investigation called “The Mortgage Fraud Surge.”
“The whole idea of the Mortgage Fraud Surge is to send a message and help restore confidence in the real estate industry and, two, if you’re engaged in mortgage fraud, we’re going to find out and prosecute you,” said U.S. Attorney A. Brian Albritton, who oversees a 35-county district, including Collier and Lee, that makes up half the state’s population.
“Fort Myers is the hardest hit, although all areas of the district have been affected,” Albritton said of mortgage frauds.
The indictments handed up in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers are among dozens of indictments that have trickled down since September, when convicted former real estate agent Samir Cabrera was sentenced to 10 years in a federal penitentiary for fraud and money laundering involving two Fort Myers property flips. Some waived presentation of their case to a grand jury and were instead charged in an “information.”
The charges listed in Wednesday’s indictments ranged from frauds and swindles, to mail fraud, mortgage or credit application fraud, and wire fraud. The 14 indicted include:
• Wayne F. Rice, 55, formerly of Naples, a licensed mortgage broker who worked at Breeze Mortgage in Naples in 2006 after, authorities allege, submitted a bogus mortgage broker application hiding a conviction. He also is charged with providing false information on a loan application.
• Mauricio Higa, Alfredo Cassis and Said Cassis, who are accused of repeatedly bribing SunTrust bank employee Carlos Perez with $100 bills to add names of mortgage applicants to bank accounts in a case that also involves Gabriel Eguez, Juan Pablo Hurtado, Oscar Antelo, and Roger Alfredo Aguiler Paz. They also are accused of providing false information about down payments, income, addresses, and bogus payroll documents to mislead the bank.
• Debra Landberg, 43, of Naples, who is accused of helping Scott and Heather Fawcett of Naples fill out mortgage applications and verify inflated amounts in their bank accounts. As a result, they obtained $3.34 million in loans on six homes and were foreclosed on. Landberg also is charged with lying to the FBI when questioned about it.
Attempts to reach the defendants Thursday were unsuccessful. Some have left the area, others had unlisted numbers, and another had a disconnected phone.
On Thursday, a superseding indictment was handed up against Damarys L. Lorca, 38, of 1971 16th Ave. S.W., Golden Gate Estates, who is accused of over-inflating the sales price of a home in her mortgage application and lying about her salary and employer to get a mortgage.
Today, Ana A. Roque, 50, of Naples, who waived presentation of her case to a grand jury, will plead guilty to an information charging her with making false statements to a bank — overinflating her earnings by about $600,000 for 2004 to 2006 in comparison with what she wrote on her IRS tax returns.
The plea agreement says Roque, also known as Ana Pagani, obtained two loans totaling $4.35 million, including a $595,000 loan to buy investment property on Ortiz Avenue in Fort Myers. A $3.76 million loan was provided to La Mexicana of Palm Beach Boulevard LLC, which used $1.45 million to build a shopping center at 4235 Palm Beach Boulevard, Fort Myers.
Albritton said the U.S. Attorney’s Office is working with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the FBI, U.S. Postal Service, IRS, Secret Service and other agencies. Tips come in from all over, he said, adding that some cases are initiated through banks sending SARs, suspicious activity reports.
“Mortgage fraud is discovered almost always when there is a foreclosure,” Albritton said. “That’s when the deal is re-evaluated to see if it was a good deal.”
Brett Brown, president of the Naples Area Board of Realtors, said there were deals that certainly set off red flags during the housing boom in 2004 and 2005. He said he’s become aware of California companies making unrealistic guarantees of rental income and convincing buyers to pay more than homes were worth in a scheme to collect kickbacks at closing.
“Those are the deals you walk away from,” he said. “You don’t want to be a part of them.
Personally, he said, he was never approached by anyone involved in mortgage fraud. He said the looseness in the lending industry fueled many of the problems. Now, lending is much tighter.
Some of the agents who got involved in fraud had licenses but were not Realtors, who agree to follow a code of ethics, Brown pointed out. He said the fraud is troubling to those who follow and abide by the rules.
“I don’t think any professional would appreciate having a bad apple in their business,” Brown said.
Documents are scrutinized to look at homeowners’ promises, salaries, and other information. “You find not only do they not have the money today, they never had it,” he added.
Albritton has been meeting with real estate representatives to tell them about the investigation and to answer their questions. Last week, he spent an hour with nearly 200 Realtors and brokers in Fort Myers.
Mortgage Fraud Surge’s intent is to investigate and charge someone within 10 months. “That’s extremely fast,” he explained, adding: “There will be more indictments in the next couple of weeks.”
Albritton will make a formal announcement about the operation in November, although more indictments will follow.
Lawyers representing those involved say the investigation, which has involved Realtors, mortgage loan officers, title employees, homeowners and others involved in real estate, will extend to lawyers and law enforcement officers.