Thirty-five struggling homeowners facing foreclosure wanted to believe that they had found the answer to saving their homes in Bucks and Montgomery counties, public officials said yesterday.
They were promised that if they allowed a straw purchaser to buy their home and get a new mortgage, they could stay and make partial mortgage payments, and, in a year, get their home back.
It didn't work that way.
They lost their homes, valued at $300,000 to $1.3 million. Straw purchasers ruined their own credit. The banks lost money. And U.S. Bankruptcy Court and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development dealt with phony claims.
Yesterday, five people accused of operating the $14.5 million mortgage-fraud scheme from fall 2004 to June 2007 were charged in a 15-count indictment, following a joint federal-state investigation, headed by the FBI.
The five defendants are expected to turn themselves in by next week. They include real-estate lawyer Jeffrey A. Bennett, 43, of Springfield, Montgomery County; and bankruptcy attorney Stephen G. Doherty, 43, of Doylestown.
The lawyers owned Bennett & Doherty LLC, Foreclosure Relief Services LLC, Fountainville Associates LLC, and did business as First County Abstract.
Also charged were mortgage brokers Edward C. McCusker, 45, of New Hope, Bucks County, and John Alford Bariana, Mullica Hill, N.J., owners of Axxium Mortgage, Inc.
McCusker's wife, Jacqueline McCusker, 45, of New Hope, owned J&J Realty Acquisition, Inc. with Bariana. Both allegedly posed as straw buyers.
Calling the defendants "sophisticated" and "seasoned," Janice C. Fedarcyk, special agent in charge of the Philadelphia FBI, said that what they did was "particularly despicable, targeting victims who were most vulnerable financially and most desperate for assistance."
After setting up phony bankruptcies and mortgages, the defendants took the equity left in the homes, funneled it through shell corporations, used some to pay the new mortgages and deposited the rest in their own bank accounts, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
"We take mortgage fraud seriously," said U.S. Attorney Michael Levy. "We remain committed to help ensure the integrity of the nation's financial institutions."
Such fraudulent mortgage activity could occur anywhere, including the inner city, Levy said.
"Then, you have a vacant house, that turns into a drug house, that turns into a crack house, and it's hard to bring the neighborhood back."
"We don't want to see the city go to hell," he added.
As a result, Levy said that the U.S. Attorney's Office created an advisory committee of housing advocates, such as Community Legal Services, to warn of imminent mortgage fraud and to help "identify patterns" in the area.
Pennsylvania Secretary of Banking Steven Kaplan said that if consumers are facing mortgage problems, they can call 1-800-PA-BANKS for advice to help them through the process.