U.S. Department of Justice

United States Attorney
Eastern District of California

May 21, 2010

California Developer to Plead Guilty in Builder Bailout Mortgage Fraud Scheme

Three Indicted in a Separate Sacramento Area Mortgage Fraud Scheme

Four More Indicted in a Shasta County Foreclosure Rescue Scheme

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced developments today in three separate mortgage fraud cases in the Eastern District of California.

Butte County: Anthony G. Symmes, 59, of Paradise, has agreed to plead guilty to an information, filed this morning, charging him with one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud in connection with a builder bailout scheme involving fraudulent sales of 62 houses, and with one count of money laundering. Symmes, who is an attorney, a CPA, a developer, and the largest home builder in the Chico area, has agreed to cooperate in the ongoing investigation of Garret G. Gililland and his associates. Gililland was previously indicted for mortgage fraud in this district, extradited from Spain, and is currently awaiting trial in federal custody. According to the plea agreement filed today, Symmes has already deposited $4 million into a U.S. Treasury account, which will be paid to the court for restitution.

The Symmes case was a joint investigation involving the FBI, Internal Revenue Service (IRS)-Criminal Investigation, and the Butte County District Attorney’s Office. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell Carlberg.

Sacramento County: Lawrence Davis, 26, and Joel Clark, 27, both formerly of Sacramento and currently living in Las Vegas, and Eric Mortenson, 28, of Sacramento, were indicted yesterday by a federal grand jury in Sacramento. That indictment was unsealed this morning after defendants Clark and Mortenson were arrested by FBI and IRS agents in Sacramento and Las Vegas. The indictment charges them with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and wire fraud in connection with an alleged property-flipping scheme operated in the Sacramento County area. This case is the product of an initial investigation by the California Department of Real Estate and is currently being investigated by the FBI. Assistant U.S. Attorney Laurel Loomis Rimon is prosecuting the case.

Shasta County: Jeremiah Andrew Martin, 32, of San Antonio, Darrin Arthur Johnston, 45, of Redding, Todd Allen Smith, 47, of Redding, and Cheryl Ann Hitomi Peterson, 47, of Redding, were indicted yesterday by a federal grand jury in Sacramento. The indictment was unsealed this morning when the defendants were arrested by FBI and IRS agents in Shasta County. The indictment returned yesterday charges all four defendants with conspiracy to commit mail fraud, mail fraud and money laundering in connection with an alleged fraudulent foreclosure rescue scheme. The case is being investigated by the FBI and IRS-Criminal Investigation, and is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Stegman.

Regarding the Symmes case, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said, “Greedy, crooked developers, appraisers, mortgage brokers, and others contributed significantly to the great mortgage meltdown of the past two years. Greed led this formerly well-respected Chico developer down a path to his downfall and the destruction of a number of neighborhoods populated by good folks who have found their homes devalued by the empty foreclosures on their block. Once we discovered the complex, fraudulent scheme hatched here we began an extensive investigation. When we found the tentacles of this corrupt organization stretched beyond Butte County, we reached out to our federal partners for help. We are most gratified with the assistance and cooperation that has lead to the justice we see this day.”

U.S. Attorney Wagner said “The various schemes reflected in the cases announced today illustrate the many varieties of mortgage fraud. These types of crimes have a broad impact on our communities, not only weakening financial institutions and devastating individual victims of the fraud schemes, but also driving down the value of many families’ primary asset, their home. Rooting out and prosecuting fraudsters in the mortgage and real estate industries is an extremely high priority for the U.S. Department of Justice. We are working on other mortgage fraud investigations here in the Eastern District of California, and there will be more to come.”

“IRS-Criminal Investigation takes mortgage fraud seriously. The impact of these types of crimes cannot be overstated. Fraud in the mortgage industry has played a major role in almost crippling this nation’s economy, and directly affecting our tax administration system,” said José M. Martínez, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, IRS-Criminal Investigation. “We will continue to utilize our financial investigative expertise to aggressively investigate criminal activities that adversely affect our financial system.”

Symmes Builder-Bailout Scheme

The prosecution of Anthony G. Symmes arises from the same investigation that resulted in the prosecution of Garret Griffith Gililland III. According to the plea agreement filed this morning, beginning in the Fall of 2006, as the real estate market cooled, Symmes found himself with a significant inventory of newly built homes not selling at their list price. Gililland, an unlicensed mortgage broker, approached Symmes and offered to take the homes off of Symmes’s hands, using a network of straw buyers. The two agreed that the prices on Symmes’s homes would be artificially inflated by approximately $40,000 to $60,000 above the list price.

According to court documents, Gililland, using fraudulent documents, would then qualify his straw buyers for 100 percent financing on the inflated value of the homes. Typically the day after the homes sold at the inflated values, Symmes would write a check to shell corporations controlled by Gililland and his associates for the inflated portion of the sales price ($40,000 to $60,000, depending on the house). Gililland then pocketed a portion of the money and used some of the money to pay off his straw buyers.

Altogether, from 2006 through 2008, Symmes sold Gililland and Gililland’s associates 62 houses at artificially inflated prices. These fraudulent purchases were financed by mortgage lenders in the total amount of approximately $21 million. Symmes wrote checks back to Gililland and his associates totaling approximately $2.5 million. These price rebates from Symmes were concealed from the lenders. To date, dozens of Symmes’s homes have been foreclosed or short-sold. Losses realized to date total almost $5 million and are expected to climb. Due to the volume of the artificially inflated prices on homes in Chico, Symmes and Gililland were able to create artificially high comparable sales that appraisers relied upon, affecting the overall new-home market in the Chico area.

Symmes is expected to appear in U.S. District Court in Sacramento in the near future to enter his plea pursuant to the plea agreement. As part of that agreement, Symmes has already paid $4 million, which will be used to make restitution to victims, and has agreed to cooperate in the ongoing investigation.

Symmes faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, for the mail fraud charge, 10 years in prison for the money laundering charge, a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release.

Sacramento Area Property-Flipping Scheme

The indictment filed yesterday in the Davis case alleges that Davis, a realtor, and Mortenson, a loan officer with All State Home Loans, worked as a team assisting clients in buying houses and obtaining mortgage loans through a real estate sales office in Sacramento. Joel Clark was Davis’s associate who assisted in running paperwork and showing homes to prospective buyers. Davis and Mortenson marketed a “rebate” program and encouraged buyers to buy multiple properties in a very short period of time, even within a single month, promising them “cash-back” on their purchases for repairs, upgrades, and to cover the mortgage payments they could not otherwise afford. Buyers were told that they had the opportunity to become real estate “investors” and to generate rental income and “flip” properties for substantial profits. Davis and Mortenson themselves gained large commissions from each transaction, and Joel Clark received some of the cash-back payments.

The indictment charges that the transactions involved false and fraudulent loan applications submitted by Davis and Mortenson on behalf of the buyers. First, Davis would offer the seller a purchase price on behalf of his client that was substantially more than the list price of the property, thereby misleading the lender as to the market value of the property. Then, Davis would include a term in the sales contract that required the seller to pay thousands of dollars back to the buyer, or to a third party, generally after the close of escrow and without notice to the lender. The “cash-back” to the buyers exceeded the limits set by lenders for buyer credits.

Additionally, the indictment alleges that Mortenson would submit loan applications that were full of false information and forged and fraudulent supporting documents. Loan applications were submitted that had entirely false occupations and monthly incomes, as well as falsely inflated bank account balances, leading the banks to believe that the borrowers were more qualified for the loans than they truly were. Mortenson also submitted fraudulent and forged forms verifying material matters, such as employment, rental history, and bank balances. By causing the buyers to buy so many properties in such a short period of time, earlier property purchases did not show up on property reports, leaving the lenders unaware of the buyers’ other loan commitments. In all, the charges in the indictment include more than $6 million worth of fraudulently obtained loans. All of the properties were foreclosed, resulting in a loss to the financial institutions of more than $2.6 million.

Mortenson is expected to make an initial appearance at 2:00 P.M. PT. today before a U.S. Magistrate Judge in Sacramento. Defendants Davis and Clark will make their initial appearances before a U.S. Magistrate Judge in Las Vegas.

If convicted of the charges, the defendants face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release.

The charges in the indictment are only allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Shasta County Foreclosure Rescue Scheme

The indictment filed yesterday in the Martin case charges that Martin, Johnston, Smith and Peterson, operating through several entities in the Redding area that purported to offer foreclosure relief and credit repair services, targeted homeowners in financial distress and facing foreclosure. Martin, Johnston and Smith allegedly marketed a “foreclosure recovery” program in which homeowners were persuaded to sign over the deeds to their homes, based on the defendants’ false representations that the homeowners could lease them back for a low rent, that the defendants would help them repair their credit, and that the homeowners could buy the homes back after two years. After obtaining title to the homes, Martin, Johnston and Smith are alleged to have extracted equity from them by inflating their values and obtaining additional loans, keeping the rent payments rather than making payments to lenders, and then allowing the homes to be lost in foreclosure. Peterson, an escrow officer and notary, is alleged to have used her office and her notary status to lend the appearance of legitimacy to the scheme. Many homeowners lost their homes in the course of the fraud, and lenders suffered losses in excess of $1 million.

Johnson, Smith and Peterson were arrested this morning in Shasta County are expected to make an initial appearance at 2:00 p.m. today before a U.S. Magistrate Judge in Sacramento.

The maximum penalty for conspiracy to commit mail fraud affecting a financial institution and for mail fraud affecting a financial institution is 30 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The maximum penalty for conspiracy to launder funds is 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine or twice the amount of the criminally derived property.

The charges in the indictment are only allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

This law enforcement action is part of the work being done by President Barack Obama’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force. President Obama established the interagency Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force to wage an aggressive, coordinated and proactive effort to investigate and prosecute financial crimes. The task force includes representatives from a broad range of federal agencies, regulatory authorities, inspectors general, and state and local law enforcement who, working together, bring to bear a powerful array of criminal and civil enforcement resources. The task force is working to improve efforts across the federal executive branch, and with state and local partners, to investigate and prosecute significant financial crimes, ensure just and effective punishment for those who perpetrate financial crimes, combat discrimination in the lending and financial markets, and recover proceeds for victims of financial crimes. One component of the FFETF is the national Mortgage Fraud Working Group, co-chaired by U.S. Attorney Wagner. For more information on the task force, visit www.StopFraud.gov.

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