U.S. attorney accuses 27 in South Florida of mortgage fraud

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald


Published August 4, 2011

U.S. Attorney Wilfredo Ferrer announced charges in four separate cases against South Floridians accused of participating in various mortgage fraud schemes.

Four separate indictments were unsealed Tuesday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami accusing 27 people in various mortgage fraud schemes against banks and South Florida homeowners.

The charges range from mail fraud to insurance fraud to arson, and highlight the problems that South Florida faces as the nation’s top market for mortgage loan fraud, U.S. Attorney Wilfredo Ferrer said.

“We keep leading the nation in mortgage fraud, and that is something we are working to stem,” he said. “The perpetrators of this fraud have infiltrated every level of the mortgage industry.”

The schemes unveiled Tuesday resulted in more than $30 million in bad loans, Ferrer said.

Two of the cases involve typical mortgage fraud schemes, with straw buyers using falsified loan applications to buy homes at inflated prices while the fraud orchestrators pocketed large portions of the bank loans.

According to the first unsealed indictment, businessman Luis A. Oramas, loan processor Mariela Hernandez, closing agent Elayne Gutierrez, all of Miami-Dade County, and real estate agent Keskea Hernandez-Frei, of Broward County, recruited 13 straw buyers to orchestrate a $20 million fraud on mortgage lenders.

From January 2006 to March 2008, the group purchased 22 properties in Miami-Dade using bogus loan documents and taking out multiple loans on some properties. Straw buyers allegedly received kickback payments of $30,000 to $100,000 for the use of their credit information.

The second unsealed indictment describes a similar scheme, allegedly carried out in Palm Beach County by mortgage professionals Ghaith Al Nahar, of Lake Worth, Michelle Austin-Wilks, of Boca Raton and Romy Defay, of West Palm Beach. That case involves more than $9.2 million in bank loans for homes bought by straw buyers, the indictment states.

“Criminals are always looking for new ways to exploit vulnerabilities and devising new methods to defraud,” said John V. Gillies, special agent with the FBI’s Miami office.

A third indictment describes several crimes on a single property, including mail fraud, arson and insurance fraud. According to the indictment: Gerardo Wilhelm, a Miami real estate agent, bought a Doral townhouse in 2006 using falsified employment information. When he could not keep up with the payments and the bank began to foreclose in 2007, he allegedly conspired with two others to burn down the home and collect $180,000 in insurance coverage.

In 2009, Wilhelm engaged in a fraudulent short sale of the property, selling it to a friend for $77,000, despite the fact that he owed $300,000 on the mortgage. A year after the sale, the buyer transferred the property to a company controlled by Wilhelm. That company, whose vice president is Wilhelm’s mother, sold the townhome in March for $240,000. Lenders lost as much as $500,000 due to the various frauds, according to the indictment.

A fourth case charges Miami attorney David Donet Sr. with misappropriating more than $1 million in client funds during the closing process of real estate transactions. Instead of using the proceeds of a client’s refinance to pay off the existing mortgage, Donet allegedly kept the money for personal use, leaving homeowners susceptible to foreclosure.

Of the 27 defendants charged, 25 are in custody. If convicted, the defendants could each face 20 years in prison. Here are the names of the straw buyers charged in these cases: Ana Taveras, Joaquin Gomez, Manuel Valdes, Yudith Padilla, Ivan Padilla, Martha Fernandez, Maribel Diarth, Carlos Sanchez, Ivett Lorenzo, Guillermo Rivero, Napoleon Cadalzo, Hisamara Esponda, Rafael Bonne, Lucien Laguerre, Jeffery Gilbert and Philip Jay Newman.

“If someone is willing to pay money for the use of your name or your credit information, that should send a clear signal to you that it could be, and most likely is, a fraud,” Ferrer said.

In the arson case, Juan J. Flores and Alejandro Figueredo are charged with conspiracy to commit arson.

Florida has led the nation in mortgage fraud for the past five years, with South Florida ranking as the most active metropolitan area in the state last year, according to research by the LexisNexis Mortgage Asset Research Institute.

The Mortgage Fraud Task Force, a multi-agency group launched in 2007 to root out mortgage criminals, said it has prosecuted more than 600 scam artists in the last four years.