A Camden County criminal investigator's romance with a mortgage broker has cost her her job and could send her to prison for obtaining a fraudulent loan, officials said.
Asha Ritchards, 31, of Sicklerville, appeared yesterday in U.S. District Court in Camden, where she tearfully pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and admitted she lied on loan applications for a house her then-boyfriend used as a rental property.
"She fell in love with this guy. He's a smooth-talking, handsome guy," defense attorney Leonard S. Baker said. "She didn't get a nickel out of it."
Ritchards last week resigned her job with the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, where she was assigned to the grand jury unit. She was hired in 2000.
Ritchards and her boyfriend are referred to in a federal criminal document as coconspirators, but he is identified only as "P.C." because he has not been charged.
Under a plea agreement, Ritchards will cooperate with the investigation and will not be prosecuted for mortgage fraud or money-laundering, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Richardson said yesterday.
She faces up to 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine, but because of her cooperation is likely to receive far less, officials said.
Richardson said he could not comment on whether Ritchards' boyfriend, accused of using "angel" investors to obtain properties fraudulently, would be charged. Baker said it appeared that prosecutors were pursuing the man as the mastermind of a larger conspiracy.
Ritchards had no criminal history when she entered into a lengthy romantic relationship with the Atlantic County broker, who handled a legitimate loan application for her Sicklerville home, Richardson said.
In 2007, Ritchards agreed to buy another Sicklerville property that her boyfriend rented to friends, Richardson said.
On the mortgage application handled by her boyfriend, Ritchards indicated she would move into the new property and put her other house up for rent. She listed her salary as $106,800 when she actually earned between $60,000 and $70,000 as a county investigator, authorities said.
Ritchards' boyfriend put $20,000 into Ritchards' bank account to inflate her balance, authorities said.
On Oct. 30, 2006, Ritchards purchased the property on Twisting Lane for $405,000 and obtained a mortgage for $384,750. She returned some of the money to her boyfriend. Prosecutors said P.C. instructed her to wire $10,000 to a car dealership so he could buy a Bentley.
Richardson said that although Ritchards' boyfriend made mortgage and tax payments on the investment property, Ritchards listed those expenses as deductions on tax documents and split her federal refunds - $6,000 in 2006 and $8,000 in 2007 - with him.
The Prosecutor's Office said that Ritchards' criminal activity had no impact on her investigations for the county.
"It's thoroughly disturbing to learn a law enforcement officer engaged in illegal activity. The day-to-day operation of this office depends on the public's trust in the investigators and prosecutors who took an oath to uphold the law," authorities said in a statement yesterday.
"Ms. Ritchards' actions undermine that trust. We're pleased she has decided to take responsibility and accept the consequences of her actions."
Sentencing is set for March 26 before U.S. District Judge Noel Hill.