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FBI investigating local mortgage fraud

MANATEE — Federal authorities are investigating several suspected cases of mortgage fraud in Manatee and Sarasota counties as part of a larger statewide crackdown, the Bradenton Herald has learned.

Those investigations are zeroing in on organized groups and industry insiders suspected of defrauding mortgage lenders out of tens of millions of dollars during the housing boom. The cases, part of a crackdown that began in March, could result in criminal charges against more than 100 people locally and throughout Florida later this year.

“They’re looking for the big guys, the organized groups, and I think we’re going to see a lot of people going to jail,” said Melody Shimmell, vice president of risk management and fraud for Century Bank, who has referred some local cases to the FBI for investigation.

The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa confirmed the investigations Thursday but declined to discuss specifics other than to say they’re part of a concerted “surge” to combat the growing problem.

“We have investigations going on throughout the (middle) district (of Florida), from Naples to Jacksonville and everywhere in between,” U.S. Attorney A. Brian Albritton said. “We’re trying to do as many cases as we can, and I expect it to be over 100 defendants.”

Albritton said authorities hope to file charges against most of the defendants by November. In some cases, prosecutors have already begun negotiating potential plea deals, he said.

The effort already has netted its first convictions: Three people recently received prison sentences of 46 months to 22 years for a $30 million mortgage fraud scheme in Cape Coral that was investigated by the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI.

“We are definitely focusing on the bigger, organized groups,” said FBI Special Agent Dave Couvertier, spokesman for the agency’s Tampa field office.

That includes a Sarasota-based ring, led by Neil Mohammad Husani, that defrauded seven banks out of $83 million on several land sales in Manatee and Sarasota counties. While Husani remains a fugitive, two accomplices pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 3 1/2 years to five years in prison while a third awaits sentencing after being convicted by a federal jury.

That case isn’t part of the “surge,” but authorities said they aren’t overlooking those at the lowest rung of the mortgage fraud ladder.

Albritton said the first part of the three-phase anti-fraud strategy is targeting those who obtained multiple mortgages through fraudulent means, such as inflating their income on loan applications.

Later phases will focus on industry professionals, such as mortgage brokers, loan officers and title agents, and lenders who looked the other way or actively participated, he said.

To accelerate those cases, Albritton is requiring his more than 100 prosecutors to handle mortgage fraud cases in addition to their regular caseloads. The FBI also has redeployed agents to focus on mortgage fraud, Couvertier said.

Other agencies involved in the crackdown include the IRS, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and several state and local law-enforcement agencies.

The crackdown comes as the housing crash exposes a soaring number of mortgage fraud cases, especially in Florida.

The FBI’s annual mortgage fraud report said the number of suspected cases nationally increased a third to 63,713 in fiscal 2008, up from 46,717 the previous year.

The agency’s Tampa office received more than 2,600 reports in fiscal 2008, 800 more than the previous year and triple the number in 2006, Couvertier said.

And the problem is getting worse: The FBI said it has received nearly 41,000 reports nationwide in the first half of fiscal 2009, and now has more than 2,400 investigations underway.

Shimmell said she’s glad to see federal authorities tackling mortgage fraud after years of largely ignoring the problem, but said the damage already has been done.

“Mortgage fraud has literally brought this country to its knees and it’s not over yet,” she said. “It’s like closing the barn door after the horses escape.”

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.