HOLMES BEACH -- A Manatee County real estate agent accused of bilking vacation renters and home buyers is now facing a federal investigation.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the U.S. Department of Justice are investigating Michael Carleton after more the 60 complaints were filed against him, said Sgt. Brian Hall, a detective with the Holmes Beach Police Department. The police department turned over the case to the federal authorities on May 1.
"This is a straightforward mail fraud case," said Alexandra Papageorge, a federal postal inspector based in Tampa handling the case.
At the same time, Carleton faces a $41,500 lawsuit for a deal in which Carleton is accused of taking the escrow money on a deposit for a home he never planned to sell.
The State of Florida revoked Carleton's Realtor's license March 7 after investigating a three-count complaint related to a $10,000 escrow deposit paid to Carleton in 2012 for a property at 106 55th St., Holmes Beach. His license is suspended for a year, and could be renewed next March under a one-year probationary period.
Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation's real estate division accused Carleton of failing to place the escrow deposit with his registered employer, Coast Line Realtors, and of placing it instead into an account belonging to Coast Line Accommodations, his beach property rental agency and another Carleton-controlled company.
The alleged scam would usually involve renters placing a deposit on a property, many of them at 134 50th St., and the day before vacationers were scheduled to arrive, they were told that the property wasn't available because of damages and that a refund check would be in the mail, according to police reports.
No criminal charges have been filed by any law enforcement agency -- local, state or federal -- but if Carleton is charged, it will be through the federal system now, Hall said. The maximum penalty for mail fraud is up to 20 years in prison, in addition to fines.
Papageorge is still working through the documents and complaints Holmes Beach provided, sifting through bank records to identify victims, who are from several states and Canada, she said.
"There's still a lot of that groundwork to lay out," Papageorge said.
Another component in the postal case is that Coast Line stated the business operated from a City of Anna Maria post office box, but the city does not issue business licenses, Anna Maria's City Clerk Anna Baird has told the Herald.
The effects of these sour deals are still being felt today. But two couples who spoke to the Herald said they were able to get a refund from Carleton, in part, because they were alerted by a story the Herald ran about mounting complaints against Carleton.
Keith Shaw of Lancaster, Ohio, and his fiancee Angela Ryan were able to get a $1,900 refund for a trip on March 29, when they received a message that the property was suddenly unavailable.
Shaw said the process of getting a refund became painful. He sent copies of the articles about Carleton to Carleton's wife and friends on Facebook until they said they would issue a refund if the couple would stop bothering them. Initially Carleton told the couple that he planned to file bankruptcy and couldn't pay them back, Shaw said.
Judith and Stephen Laughead run Anna Maria Island accommodations and had fired Carleton, who had worked as their rental agent. They say Carleton owes them nearly $12,000.
One man is not waiting for federal investigators to do their work and has filed a lawsuit against Carleton in Manatee County Circuit Court.
Daniel Spitzer of New Jersey is seeking to recoup $41,500 in an escrow scheme that follows the script of the numerous other complaints lodged against Carleton, and is accusing Carleton of embezzlement, theft and breach of contract, according to court documents.
Daniel Spitzer of New Jersey filed the suit April 22. The lawsuit states that Spitzer attempted to buy a home at 4412 2nd Ave., in Holmes Beach for $415,000 and was told to place 10 percent in escrow for Carleton's company Coast Line Realtors.
Spitzer wrote a check Dec. 9, 2011, to Coast Line for $15,000 then wrote another check on March 2, 2012, for $26,500, according to the complaint. Carleton deposited the checks at his bank, and while Spitzer was willing to close on the short sale, Carleton declined to close the deal and did not refund the money, according to the complaint. A court date has not yet been set.
Carleton did not respond to phone calls seeking comment for this report.
Most of the cases and current complaints appear to be remnants of prior deals, and Carleton does not appear to be actively doing similar deals, Hall said.
These types of cases are hard to prevent from happening, Hall said.
"This guy, I don't want to give him credit and say he was legitimate because he was at one time, but he's been around for a few years and has been doing legitimate deals," Hall said.
If possible, Hall encouraged that these deals should be done through a credit card instead of a check.
"It's a lot easier getting money back from a credit card company than going through banks when you have someone like this," Hall said.
Hall encourages vacation renters and home buyers to call the Chamber of Commerce, the Manatee County Realtors Association and other organizations to make sure they are dealing with a reputable real estate agent.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.