House of ill finance 

When the American dream turns out to be an illusion

Carlotta Anthony told almost everyone about James Cornelius and his promise to help her buy a house. And everyone who listened told someone else. Within two years, Cornelius' promise became a reality not just for Anthony but for her cousin, her in-laws and her in-laws' in-laws, too. In all, six people bought homes through Cornelius, either directly or indirectly because of Anthony's urging.

"I thought he was on the up and up," she says.

When it came time for Anthony's friends and relatives to sign their loan agreements, it was either too soon or too late for Anthony to warn them about the downside of Cornelius' promise. It would take two more years for the half-dozen homebuyers to corroborate their mortgage horror stories.

The stories all started with a deal that sounded sweet. For a few thousand dollars, Cornelius would begin hunting houses, according to the buyers. He'd show them ranches or split-levels or bungalows in suburban subdivisions -- a home so nice they thought it never could be theirs. And he'd help them buy that piece of paradise.

The women who hired Cornelius -- from a young wife to a working grandmother -- now say they had something in common that should have warned them of the trouble to come: an eagerness to buy and a lack of means to do so.

Earlier this year, Anthony got a foreclosure notice in the mail. And bankruptcies and foreclosures, like Cornelius' name, began to spread.

Cornelius, who is neither a licensed real estate agent nor mortgage broker, has not been charged with any crime. But Atlanta Legal Aid attorney Bill Brennan, a predatory lending expert who's investigating the cases of Anthony and three fellow homebuyers, says he's seen major errors in the women's loan applications -- errors that lead him to believe the loans were approved based on false information.

He also says falsified loan applications are on the rise nationwide. From Cleveland, Ohio, to Greenville, S.C., from mobile homes to multimillion-dollar estates, brokers are arranging record numbers of false loans -- duping banks and lenders into believing unfit buyers are qualified.

Brennan points out that two of the women's applications have something odd in common: Light of the World Christian Academy is listed as a place of employment. In one file, a W-2 from Light of the World is attached.

But neither of the women ever worked at the school. They say they have no idea how the false information got into the loan applications.

In another of the applications Brennan obtained, the income at the borrower's real job is exaggerated. And in all the cases, the misrepresentations gave lenders the impression the buyers could afford their payments. They couldn't. And loans were approved that never should have been.

The owner of Official Mortgage & Investments Inc., the licensed brokerage firm where Cornelius sent the women, says he didn't know any information was false when he processed the applications.

"I try to pride myself on running a clean shop," Official Mortgage owner John Stricklin Jr. says. "If there was anything fraudulent submitted it was unbeknownst to me."

Cornelius did not return numerous phone calls; his attorney, Samuel Rael, called Creative Loafing back on Cornelius' behalf; he said he'd find answers to CL's questions. After Rael's first call, however, he failed to return numerous phone calls and e-mails. His secretary later said he had to fly to New York on an "urgent legal matter" and would return in a few weeks. He did not respond to subsequent voicemails.

Brennan says he intends to report Cornelius to the Georgia Real Estate Commission once he wraps up his investigation.

It is illegal for an unlicensed real estate agent or broker to accept payments for helping somebody find a home, according to Ric Wilson, spokesman at the commission.

"You have to have a real estate license to procure prospects, either tenants or borrowers," Wilson says. When the commission finds somebody's been operating without a license, it asks the person to sign an order saying he or she will stop.

"And then if they fail to stop," Wilson says, "we can file a case with the district attorney or the solicitor's office."

Mortgage fraud allegations such as Brennan's have become all too common in Georgia, where fraud cases have swamped the U.S. Attorney's Office over the past year. The Atlanta office has indicted 31 defendants in U.S. District Court on mortgage fraud charges since March. One official calls the breadth of the fraud -- which has touched 30 towns and cities in the metro area -- "an epidemic."

If you add up the alleged damage in the indictments, the defendants duped lenders into approving $94.5 million in fraudulent loans on 250 homes. So far, 25 of the defendants have pleaded guilty.

All the indictments describe how brokers, pseudo-brokers or scam artists falsified loan applications.

Nationwide, the FBI estimates that mortgage fraud has increased by 25 percent in the past year alone -- and that up to 15 percent of loan applications contain false information.

But FBI figures show only what fraud the agency is able to catch, not how rampant it truly is or where it's concentrated. Statistics on mortgage fraud, either in Georgia or the nation, are hard to pin down. Some in the mortgage industry say banks and lenders want to keep a lid on numbers that show how badly they've been wounded.

The Virginia-based Mortgage Asset Research Institute, which claims to be amassing the nation's most comprehensive figures on mortgage fraud, says its numbers represent but a skeleton of the fraud's body. But fraud is on the rise -- in part because the real estate industry is being propped up by plummeting interest rates, says MARI executive director James Croft.

"When you've got a lot of mortgage activity like we've got right now because of low interest rates, the system gets stretched," Croft says. "And people will cut corners and make up documents and do things they shouldn't be doing just to get the business pushed through the pipeline."

MARI counsels the mortgage industry on ways to track and prevent fraud. Its clients include most major banks and lenders. Croft points out that in a current survey of MARI clients a certain city's name keeps cropping up.

"Atlanta is being mentioned as a hot spot by virtually everybody that has responded," he says.

Predatory lending expert Brennan agrees with Croft that no agency -- his own Legal Aid included -- can gauge the extent to which falsified loan applications has affected Georgia and other states.

But in his investigation into the files of Anthony and others, Brennan says he's glimpsed a microcosm of how a scam can spread. "I've never had a pattern like this sitting in front of me," he says. "I've turned over a stone and found maggots."

Cornelius' promise to Anthony took the shape of a three-bedroom ranch on Great Oaks Drive in Decatur, Anthony says. On Easter 1998, a few weeks after Anthony and her husband moved in, Cornelius showed up to congratulate them.

"Everyone, this is James," Anthony recalls saying to her house filled with family and friends.

Cornelius circled the room and paused at Anthony's cousin, Barbara Ann Darrisaw. They had met a few weeks before, and Cornelius had infected her with his confidence. He made it seem easy, she recalls. When she hesitated over his offer, he said, "Why wait?"

A week after Easter he drove Darrisaw and her daughter from their Stone Mountain apartment on a tour of several houses, including a $104,000 home on Charleston Terrace in south DeKalb. It was powder blue and almost new, tucked in the far reaches of a tidy, treeless subdivision. "He told us that's going to be our house," Darrisaw says.

And so it would be -- even though Darrisaw, when she pooled her income with her 20-year-old son's, came up with less than $30,000 a year, before taxes.

Darrisaw claims to have told Cornelius about her and her son's income; she says he wasn't fazed by the modest sum. She says she trusted Cornelius' math when it came to figuring out what she could afford. "When he'd get to something I didn't understand, he'd say, 'Don't worry about it,'" Darrisaw recalls. "'I'll explain everything to you once you get into the house.'"

At the closing, Darrisaw says she signed where Cornelius told her to sign and didn't look at the paperwork closely enough to notice anything amiss. By Thanksgiving, the 50-year-old woman owned her first home.

Within a year, Darrisaw was struggling to make the $800 monthly payments on her little blue house. The payments would not have been so hard to make had she been earning the wages actually recorded on her loan application. The application says her household income tops $42,000. She and her son actually earned $28,000, working in a warehouse at Imaging Technology.

After introducing Cornelius to Darrisaw, Anthony recommended him to her son Antonio Bryant and his new wife, Latrice. Latrice Bryant, eager to move out of her two-bedroom Atlanta apartment and into a home more suited to a family, paged Cornelius at the number Anthony gave her. She says Cornelius backed his gold Lexus into her apartment's driveway the following Saturday, in the summer of 1998.

"I don't work for free," she recalls him saying. Nine months later, Bryant says she and her husband had saved the $2,000 fee Cornelius requested and a $3,500 down payment on a four-bedroom, three-bath house in Lithonia. Latrice Bryant says she followed Cornelius' advice and got the loan in her name, because her husband had credit problems.

Like Darrisaw, Bryant claims she didn't know when she signed her loan application that it contained major falsifications. She says she didn't read every line "in our eagerness to buy, in the mirage of paperwork."

A falsified income of $42,000 recorded on Bryant's application qualified her for the mortgage. Based on her actual $21,000 salary, the mortgage lender likely would have turned her down for the $108,000 loan.

Last year, Darrisaw, after falling six months behind in payments, filed for bankruptcy. And a few months ago, Bryant, who could no longer scrape together her mortgage payments, got her first foreclosure notice.

Pride prevented the women from confiding in each other right away. It was Bryant who first sought help, after she saw a flier advertising a free seminar for homeowners who might have problem loans.

The seminar hosts took one look at Bryant's loan application and sent her to Legal Aid. She met with Brennan, and he urged her to send her relatives to him.

In Darrisaw's application, Brennan noticed that she was described as a supervisor at Light of the World school -- which she was not. There was no mention of her real job at Imaging Technology.

Brennan found that Bryant's application did list her real job, as an administrative assistant at SouthTrust Bank. But it also listed her as working a second job, as an accountant at Light of the World school earning $26,000 a year. Attached to the application are pay stubs and W-2s from Light of the World confirming she worked there. She didn't.

Anthony, the first to buy a home with Cornelius' help, says the application for her loan also mentioned Light of the World. The original application, which was in her late husband's name and which Brennan hasn't been able to obtain, stated Donald Anthony was a bus driver at Light of the World, according to Anthony. But Donald Anthony was retired and collecting Social Security at the time. He died last year.

Although all three women insist they didn't put anything about Light of the World on their applications, Carlotta Anthony acknowledges one family connection to the school: Her ex-sister-in-law, Marilyn Bryant, is the school's director. Marilyn Bryant says none of the applicants ever worked at the school and that she has no idea where the W-2 for Latrice Bryant came from.

"I assure you that no one in my accounting department has that name and no one here makes that kind of money per year," Marilyn Bryant says.

Although Cornelius was the one who found the borrowers, it was Official Mortgage & Investments that submitted the completed applications to the lender.

Official Mortgage owner Stricklin says he doesn't recall who gave him documents indicating that some of his clients worked at Light of the World school. But he says the documents looked good, so he included them in the applications.

As for details of the women's files, Stricklin says he recalls none -- and that he no longer has copies of the files. At the times the loans were made, Georgia law required that brokers only keep files for three years. Stricklin says he threw the files away. (The law has since been changed to five years.)

Stricklin does recall meeting Cornelius, at a real estate attorney's office seven years ago. He says Cornelius presented himself as neither a broker nor a real estate agent but someone who "works with builders and subdivisions."

Stricklin says Cornelius then sent him about eight clients -- but that he never paid Cornelius a dime. It's illegal for brokerage firms to hire unlicensed brokers, Stricklin points out.

"I wish Official Mortgage didn't have anything to do with it," Stricklin says of the loans. "I just wish somebody would have called me, because I would have nipped this in the bud."

In almost all the mortgage fraud indictments handed up in federal court over the past six months -- none of which mention Cornelius or Official Mortgage -- fake W-2s and false jobs were part of the loan file. Some W-2s and tax returns were purchased from a licensed accountant, who was indicted. More often, brokers themselves fabricated the documents.

The scam reaped hefty fees for brokers who targeted innocent homebuyers. But real buyers were not always a prerequisite. In the loans under federal investigation, the scam hinged on something as simple as a broker changing a number on an application or as complex as building a make-believe borrower from the bottom up.

And within the 275-page stack of indictments, the name of one brokerage firm crops up most often, with the most egregious allegations: Gold Coast Mortgage Group Inc.

Gold Coast is one of the few state-licensed brokerage firms named in any of the indictments -- most were bogus "shell" companies. Yet the Gold Coast scam artists went to greater lengths than any defendants to beat the system.

The stolen identity cases arising from the now-defunct Gold Coast firm show the scam at its most deceptive, blurring the ability to determine who is real and who is imagined, who is victim and who is perpetrator. And because the roots of the scam extended deep into many neighborhoods, behind facades that didn't give a clue from the curbside, the fraud traveled far before it was noticed.

Twelve of the 14 Gold Coast defendants have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from loans made over the past four years. Their actions, as alleged in the indictments, border on the comical:

In November 2001, defendant Curtis Prysock picked up a homeless man named Al Jacobs "from the streets of downtown Atlanta," the indictment states. Prysock took Jacobs to West End Mall, to have pictures taken for what would become a false driver's license. He then brought Jacobs to Gold Coast's office in Stone Mountain, where he, broker Kay Polote and others began to reinvent the homeless man as a wealthy minister named Clarence McGinty.

Defendant Wayne Milton allegedly teamed up with the Gold Coast group by stealing the Social Security number of McGinty, his father-in-law. Jacobs got a driver's license and Social Security card in McGinty's name. And Milton, pretending to be a bishop of "Greater Grace" church, signed a fake verification of employment form stating that "McGinty" was his head minister -- and earned $100,000 a year.

"We've never heard of him," Herb Skeens, spokesman of the Conyers-based Greater Grace Ministries, says of Milton. "We've never even had a bishop at Greater Grace Church. It's not a position that we recognize."

Prysock then bought "McGinty" fake W-2s and pay stubs from another co-defendant, Curtis Johnson. And in the next three months, Jacobs, posing as McGinty, qualified for a $269,000 mortgage on a Stone Mountain home, a $160,000 mortgage on an Atlanta home and a $38,000 Mercedes CLK 320 convertible. In the company of "Bishop" Milton, the homeless man attended the closings, a task for which Gold Coast paid him $900. He, too, was indicted.

Several of the brokers and other defendants split the broker's fees on the homes, which sat empty. Dalva Ray Orange, part owner of Gold Coast, allegedly drove the Mercedes. He also arranged 12 other fraudulent loans since 1998, signing applications, pocketing fees and even posing as a borrower himself in six of the loans -- crimes for which he was indicted on charges of fraud and money laundering. Orange pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing.

Gold Coast broker Polote also pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing, for earning $621,000 in broker's fees on 80 fraudulent loans and using six stolen Social Security numbers to invent qualified borrowers.

In addition to Polote and Orange, seven other defendants in the Gold Coast ring will soon be sentenced in federal court. Two more have not yet pleaded. And another three -- all of them former Citizens Trust Bank employees -- have been sentenced to up to five months in jail and ordered bo pay $58,000 in restitution for signing false bank documents for Gold Coast's imaginary borrowers.

Neither the Gold Coast indictments nor the others (see sidebar: P. 39) identify by name any of the people whose Social Security numbers were stolen, except for McGinty and a woman named Joyce Jones. They could not be reached.

When asked whether the identity theft victims suffered major credit problems as a result of the scams, U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Patrick Crosby said yes. He would not elaborate.

U.S. Attorney's Offices in other states are noticing a similar spike in the falsified loan application scam and have netted indictments in federal court.

In Cleveland, Ohio, 83 people were indicted in August in "the nation's largest mortgage-fraud investigation," according to The Plain Dealer. Appraisers and loan officers, as well as outsiders paid by them, worked out of two unrelated agencies to generate more than 60 fraudulent loan applications, undercover FBI agents found. A similar investigation was carried out in Greenville, S.C., where mortgage broker Jeffrey Greene pleaded guilty this summer to falsifying more than 100 loan applications for mobile homes.

Jim Sugarman, an attorney with the American Association of Retired People, says his Washington, D.C., office sees a steady flow of fraudulent mortgage applications. "We probably get about 10 people a month coming in with problem loans, and almost all of them have falsified incomes," Sugarman says.

Typically, Sugarman gets the mortgage lender to rework the loan, lowering the homeowner's payments and sparing the home from foreclosure. He says he seldom goes after brokers because they have little legal responsibility to the homeowner.

"I don't think the law as it stands is able to punish the people the way that they need to be punished," Sugarman says.

Georgia is more fortunate. With a new predatory lending statute considered one of the strongest consumer protection laws in the nation, it will become more difficult for brokers to get away with false loan applications. That's because the law makes it harder for lenders to approve them.

Prior to the new law, which went into effect Oct. 1, lawyers suing over fraudulent loans often had to fall back on a statute that says it's illegal to loan with the intent to foreclose. According to Brennan, it's extremely difficult to pin intent on lenders.

The new law has replaced the "intent to foreclose" provision with one that makes it illegal, in certain circumstances, to approve a mortgage for someone who is unable to make the payments. A borrower's inability to pay is much easier to prove, Brennan says.

But the success of the law depends on the ferocity of the Department of Banking and Finance in enforcing it. The department was formed nine years ago to regulate and license brokers and lenders -- partly in response to an increase in abusive loans. The department renews licenses yearly and is supposed to conduct a random inspection of brokers' and lenders' files every two years.

Yet the department has been criticized for failing to crack down on mortgage fraud and other forms of predatory lending. With just two fraud inspectors to scour the entire state, it's not hard to see why the department has fallen behind.

"The most I can tell you is examiners are constantly going out to licensees to examine," says department spokeswoman Leslie Lechtel. "With the staff we have, we can't examine everyone every year, so it's on a rotating basis."

Only half of the 2,115 brokers and lenders due for inspections in 1999 and 2000 received one, according to a 2001 report by state auditors. Nearly a fourth had never been inspected at all.

Those numbers raise concern among predatory lending experts who wonder whether the department can handle the task of enforcing the new law.

"We've got a strong bill in place, but it's not enough," says Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, author of the legislation. "The Department of Banking and Finance does not have the experience and in the past has not had the inclination to be consumer-oriented."

There's yet another, unavoidable hang-up with the new law. It applies only to loans made after Oct. 1. So there is still limited help for the thousands of homeowners who already fell victim to abusive loans -- among them Anthony, Darrisaw and Bryant.

Under the law, Bryant's loan clearly would be problematic -- regardless of fraud.

The new law makes it illegal for a lender to grant a loan to a borrower who can't afford the payments -- so long as the loan is what's called a "high-cost" one, with a percentage rate above 13.5 percent. (The "high-cost" distinction was made to appease brokers and real estate lobbyists, who fought the legislation.) The law says mortgage payments mustn't exceed half the borrower's monthly income.

Bryant, who had a salary of about $1,400 per month at the time she bought her house, got a loan with payments of $1,200. (Although her husband contributed to the mortgage payments, his name and income are not included on the loan application.) Bryant's interest rate is 13.85 percent.

Decades ago, no bank or lender would have dreamed of making such a loan -- simply based on the math. And banks, to ensure they weren't being defrauded, would have diligently verified the buyer's income to be sure it was correct. It takes only a phone call to the borrower, his or her employer and the IRS to verify the numbers.

Today, it will take a tough law to force banks and lenders to loan money responsibly, Brennan says. He blames the explosion of mortgage fraud on a decade-old trend of selling and reselling bundles of mortgages.

The bundles are sold as security to lenders, banks, pension funds and insurance companies. It allows one mortgage lender to reap immediate profits from the sale of the bundle, while another lender counts on the long-term payoff.

It's an attorney's nightmare.

Because the bundles can be sold repeatedly, the burden of responsibility for the loan shifts from a broker to a lender to another bank or lender -- one that had nothing to do with approving the original, possibly fraudulent loan. As a result, individual mortgages matter less than the success of the bundle as a whole. If one loan in the bundle should go bad, there are plenty to make up for it.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has seen too many Federal Housing Administration loans hurt by the sale of mortgage bundles. So HUD is recommending that the FHA -- as well as lenders not under HUD's purview -- protect borrowers by checking loan applications more thoroughly.

Inspecting each loan "would cripple the ability of fraudulent lenders to pawn predatory loans off on others in the mortgage industry," according to a Sept. 26 letter to all FHA branches from HUD assistant secretary John C. Weicher.

"If predatory loans cannot be sold, they are unlikely to be made," the letter says, "and all borrowers ... will be protected."

In the cases of Anthony, Bryant and Darrisaw, Brennan found that Official Mortgage got lending company Creve Coeur Mortgage Associates to loan the money for the homes. Creve Coeur then sold the mortgages to the Associates, which happens to be one nation's biggest predatory lenders. The Associates was bought out by mortgage lender CitiFinancial.

Creve Coeur has not been accused of any wrongdoing in the cases of Anthony, Bryant and Darrisaw.

By the time Brennan requested the women's files earlier this year, they were the property of CitiFinancial. Anthony's home was weeks away from being foreclosed and sold on the courthouse steps. Darrisaw's and Bryant's weren't far behind.

Brennan has since worked out a deal with CitiFinancial to put the foreclosures on hold pending the outcome of his investigation into the alleged frauds.

He also has discovered a fourth falsified application, this one belonging to Bryant's sister-in-law, who hired Cornelius at Bryant's urging. When she fell behind in payments on the loan, she sold the house to spare a foreclosure.

Anthony, who toppled the first domino in the Cornelius row of loans, says she never guessed in the beginning that the loans would bear so much misery.

"I wish I never started it," she says. "But I just didn't know."

Brokers and lenders bothered by new predatory lending law

A Georgia law that went into effect Oct. 1 to protect consumers from abusive home loans has devastated brokers and lenders with its "draconian prohibitions and restrictions."

At least that's how a lawsuit filed Oct. 16 in Fulton County Superior Court describes the weeks-old Georgia Fair Lending Act.

The lawsuit characterizes the act as a brutish, discriminatory attempt to run well-meaning brokers and lenders out of the state. It calls for the act's immediate suspension, falling back on the argument that the law is vague and violates brokers' and lenders' constitutional rights -- including free speech.

Ironic, then, how mortgage-lending experts across the country have hailed the Georgia law as one of the strongest defenses any state has adopted against predatory lenders.

The law makes it illegal, for example, for brokers and lenders to approve loans to borrowers who can't afford the payments. And it outlaws many practices that have hurt low-income borrowers -- including surprise "balloon payments" (which can total thousands of dollars), unnecessary credit insurance and high-stakes refinancing.

The lawsuit -- filed by brokers, lenders and borrowers who claim to have been burned by the law -- alleges that the legislation was conceived and enacted merely "to address anecdotal reports of the practices of some lenders that are perceived to be unscrupulous."

The evidence of unscrupulous lenders, however, is far from anecdotal.

The lawsuit was filed less than a month after mortgage lender Household International Inc. -- which had vehemently denied allegations of predatory lending -- changed its tune and agreed with the Federal Trade Commission to pay duped borrowers $484 million. That's the highest settlement in FTC history -- beating out a record set weeks earlier by fellow predatory lender Citigroup Inc., which agreed to bay borrowers $215 million.

Portions of both settlements are to be awarded to borrowers in Georgia, a pay-off that might have been avoided had the state's Fair Lending Act been in place earlier -- and had the lenders obliged by it.

You didn't fall victim to mortgage fraud -- your identity did

Alleged scam artists caught in a recent rash of mortgage fraud indictments have picked up a new tool for duping banks and lenders into believing false loans were legit: identity theft.

In many of the fraud cases investigated by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Atlanta, stolen identities became a sinister subplot. In one case, defendants paraded a homeless man into closings, pretended he was a wealthy minister and pocketed a small fortune in broker's fees. They pulled off the charade by stealing an acquaintance's name and Social Security number and passing them on to the man. (See cover story.)

In other identity theft cases investigated and indicted by the U.S. Attorney's Office:

  • Michael Edwards, a former real estate broker and owner of Edwards Financial Services, allegedly stole two people's identities and got three mortgages in their names. He inflated the three homes' prices by about 100 percent and, through a fake holding company, pocketed $448,000 in excess sales, according to the indictment. Edwards, who pleaded guilty to fraud, was sentenced to four years in prison - and ordered to pay $890,000 in restitution.

  • Richard Huff and five co-defendants stole five people's Social Security numbers and went on a home-buying spree, according to court documents. The defendants went so far as to create false verifications of employment and W-2s for the stolen identities, according to the indictment. The indictment also alleges that Huff stalled a foreclosure on one of the homes by filing for bankruptcy -- in the name of the person whose identity he stole. The defendants pleaded guilty to fraud and awaits sentencing.

  • Sandra T. Jackson allegedly applied for six home loans pretending to be Joyce Jones, a real woman living in Hannibal, Mo. Jackson also allegedly provided six borrowers with false Social Security numbers and used her daughter as a stand-in for a "borrower" whose identity she stole. Jackson, who allegedly pocketed proceeds from the loans through a "shell" company, pleaded guilty to fraud and received a four-year prison sentence.

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