Tag Archives: money laundering

Greed, Power and Sex: Con-Artist with “Vatican” Connections Indicted for Scamming the Rich and Famous

Here’s a story about greed, power and sex that’s a mixture of The Da Vinci Code, Bonfire of the Vanities, Moliere’s Tartuffe and Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man

It is about a scam and a scammer.

We’ve written about scams and how to avoid them

We don’t like scammers, especially those who prey on the desperate and the vulnerable, such as people facing foreclosure. 

But sometimes a scammer is so outrageous, so inventive, so over-the-top, and his victims so well-heeled and incredulous, that we have to admit at least an ambivalent admiration.

One such scammer is Raffaello Follieri, one of the very few scammers we’ve seen who deserves the name con-artist.

Follieri’s story reads more like a novel than a crime report.

For months, Americans who were in-the-know knew Follieri as a suave and sophisticated Italian businessman, real estate mogul, socialite, philanthropist, and Vatican representative.

He was none of these, except Italian.

Using charm, good looks, unbelievable gall, and a network of gullible and greedy New York socialites, Washington insiders and Hollywood A-list connections, Follieri moved easily in exclusive circles of money, power, and glamor. He lived in a $40,000 a month Fifth Avenue apartment and travelled the world, going to parties, conferring with the Pope (he said), and receiving awards for his generosity. 

Among those who fell under Follieri’s spell was actress Anne Hathaway.

Another was billionaire entrepreneur Ron Burkle, Burkle’s investment business Yucaipa Companies LLC, as well as Burkle’s friend, former President Bill Clinton.

Then the scam collapsed.

According to the New York Times,  “Raffaello Follieri, from San Giovanni Rotondo on the spur of Italy’s boot, is alive and kicking in his $40,000-a-month duplex on Fifth Avenue. Age 29, he used empty claims of church ties to befriend Douglas Band, a top aide to Bill Clinton. Band then smoothed the way to Clinton’s moneyed entourage, including the California billionaire Ronald Burkle.”

“Mr. Follieri received an onstage thanks from Mr. Clinton after pledging $50 million to the Clinton Global Initiative. The money has not been paid.”

“Mr. Follieri’s business cachet — his link to the Catholic Church — was contrived, the government said. It consisted of an administrative employee at the Vatican whom he paid.”

“Mr. Follieri also hired a relative of a former Vatican official as well as his own father, claiming that his father had a special relationship with the Vatican. In an apparent effort to build ostensible ties to the church, Mr. Follieri also met with clergy and traveled with a monsignor.”

In another story, the Times further explains that “Attractive and charming, [Follieri] rapidly moved into the world of billionaires and political figures. His entree was helped when he met and befriended Douglas Band, a top aide to Bill Clinton who brought Mr. Follieri into contact with the former president and Mr. Burkle.”

“That relationship birthed the unhappy union of Burkle’s Yucaipa investment operation, of which Clinton is a senior adviser, and the Follieri Group in a venture to acquire Catholic Church property Follieri said he’d get on the cheap.”

“From mid-2005, Burkle plowed $55.6 million into this enterprise, only to conclude Follieri was devoting a chunk of it to good living. A suit filed by Yucaipa in Delaware in May contends Follieri has been ‘systematically misappropriating the assets’ to indulge in ‘massive charges for five-star lodging’, ‘dog care’ and ‘inappropriate jet travel’ for himself and ‘his actress girlfriend’.  That’s Anne Hathaway, of The Devil Wears Prada.”

Burkle’s lawsuit against Follieri was dismissed after Follieri agreed to pay back more than $1.3 million.

Then, last week, Follieri was arrested in New York and charged with 12 counts of fraud and money laundering.  He could get life in prison.

The charges against Follieri include:

  • Six counts of wire fraud and each count carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
  • Five counts of money laundering with each count  carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail.
  • One count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of 5 years behind bars.

According to the press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, “From June 2005 through June 2007, FOLLIERI ran a fraudulent real estate investment scheme, falsely claiming that he had close connections with the Vatican that enabled him to purchase Catholic Church properties in the United States at a substantial discount. FOLLIERI claimed that the Vatican formally appointed him to manage its financial affairs and that he met with the Pope in person when he visited Rome, Italy.”

“In reality, FOLLIERI’s connections consisted of an administrative employee at the Vatican who was paid by FOLLIERI; FOLLIERI’s hiring of a relative of a former Vatican official; meetings with clergy, FOLLIERI’s travels with monsignors; and a reporter for a news publication in Italy. None of these connections entitled FOLLIERI to purchase Church real estate at below-market rates.”

“Based on his fraudulent representations about his ties to the Vatican, FOLLIERI was able to access and misappropriate hundreds of thousands of dollars in investor money to live a luxurious lifestyle, including expensive restaurants and clothes;dog walking services; an opulent apartment in Manhattan that leased for approximately $37,000 per month, overlooked Rockefeller Center, and had views of Central Park; medical expenses for his girlfriend at the time and his parents,including a “house call” by FOLLIERI’s physician which cost privately chartered airplanes to various locations around the world.”

“In addition, FOLLIERI stole money from an investor by falsely claiming, among other things, that FOLLIERI needed money for an office in Italy that did not exist, and claimed that he spent over $800,000 for “engineering reports” relating to real estate that did not reflect engineering work and were almost worthless. FOLLIERI caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraudulently obtained proceeds to be wired to a bank account in Monaco that he controlled in order to hide and conceal the source and control of the funds. From late 2006 through early 2007,FOLLIERI’s scheme started to unravel, and FOLLIERI’s principal investor cut its ties to FOLLIERI and fired him.”

The Times reports that “Judge Henry B. Pitman set bail at $21 million, to be secured by $16 million in cash and property and guaranteed by five financially responsible persons. Mr. Follieri had to surrender all travel documents and was ordered confined to his home in Manhattan with the exception of legal, religious and medical needs. Any trips must be made with an electronic-monitoring device.”

And Anne Hathaway has gotten smart and is no longer taking his phone calls.

 

Disgraced Ex-Governor Eliot Spitzer Starting Real Estate ‘Vulture’ Fund

Do you want to profit from the housing crisis and the mortgage meltdown?

Disgraced ex-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer might have just the opportunity you’ve been looking for.

Spitzer is putting together a real estate “vulture fund” to buy and flip distressed property, envisioning projects valued between $100 million and $500 million.

According to the New York Sun, “Eliot Spitzer, in his first big business venture since he was shamed out of office by a prostitution scandal, is shopping around a plan to start a vulture fund that would scoop up distressed real estate assets around the country, revamp them, and flip the properties for a profit. Late last month, the former governor of New York gathered a group of high-level Washington, D.C.-based labor union officials in a conference room at the headquarters of his father’s real estate business in Manhattan and pitched them his idea for starting such a fund, a source said.”

Eliot Spitzer’s father is multi-millionaire Manhattan real estate developer Bernard Spitzer, known for building one of New York City’s largest real estate firms (one of his properties is The Corinthian, a spectacular 55-story, 1.1 million square foot apartment building), as well as for bank-rolling his son’s political career.  The ex-Governor has been working with his father’s firm since resigning last March.

The Sun stated that “In the half-hour meeting, Mr. Spitzer told the officials that he was determined to take his ailing father’s real estate company to ‘the next level’, the source said. Mr. Spitzer said he would lay out his business plan in greater detail at a later date, and would ask the labor officials to consider investing pension fund money under their control.”

“Mr. Spitzer is moving aggressively to occupy a niche created by the credit crunch, the subprime mortgage crisis, a surge in foreclosures, and a declining real estate market. He is looking to mine for riches in projects that banks are no longer willing to finance.”

Spitzer apparently believes that the prostitution scandal that cost him the Governor’s office (and a fast-track to even higher political office) was really a blessing in disguise:

“During the meeting, Mr. Spitzer expressed relief that he was no longer burdened with the frustrations of being governor, according to the source. And, in contrast to his repentant resignation speech that he delivered beside his tearful wife, Silda Wall, he took a more relaxed view of his indiscretions. He has told friends and associates that he is consoled by passersby who stop him on the city sidewalks and tell him that sex is ‘no big deal’ and that the disclosure that he frequented prostitutes was distorted out of proportion, the source said. Europeans, the former governor has noted, have been especially supportive of him and perplexed by the fallout from the scandal.”

Spitzer’s real estate dreams may have to be put on hold, however, as federal law enforcement authorities might force him to make other plans.

The New York Post reports that ” The noose appears to be tightening around sex-crazed ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer.”

According to The Post, “The federal case against him is so strong that prosecutors had no interest in striking cooperation agreements with the ringleader of Spitzer’s hooker-supplier, Emperors Club VIP, and his second in command, sources told The Post‘s Murray Weiss. Prosecutors have records of Spitzer’s transactions, phone records and taped conversations with Emperors Club, and are confident they need little more to nail him on charges that could include violating prostitution laws and money laundering, sources said. Probers are also said to be looking into whether he used campaign funds to pay for his pleasures.”

“The case against Spitzer includes the cooperation of curvy call girl Ashley ‘Kristen’ Dupre and a second hooker. Her old boss, Mark Brener, 62, will plead guilty Thursday without the sweetheart deal he was hoping for – he’ll have to serve up to 30 months in the slammer on money-laundering and prostitution-conspiracy charges.”

In addition, Temeka Lewis, who worked for Brener at the Emperor’s Club, pled guilty in a cooperation agreement that requires her to testify about Spitzer’s involvement with the prostitution ring and his alleged attempts to conceal payments for sex.

We think that a “vulture fund” meeting with Eliot Spitzer where he pitches cashing in on the foreclosure crisis doesn’t help improve the image of labor unions or union leaders.

We also think that anyone considering investing in Spitzer’s real estate project should think about whether the fund could do without the presence of the ex-Governor for several years while he stays at the Gray Bar Hotel.

 

Mortgage Fraud Scammers Plead Guilty in US Foreclosure Capitol

Stockton, California, has been hit harder by the subprime mortgage crisis than any other US city. 

With a population of just over 280,000, Stockton had 22,000 foreclosure filings in 2007 (1 in 27 households), the highest foreclosure rate of any city in America. 

And as home prices continue to fall, the foreclosure crisis in Stockton is getting worse.

Stockton was an agricultural community, the seat of San Joaquin County, the fifth largest agricultural county in the United States and one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.  In the past decade, however, Stockton experienced a population boom due to thousands of people settling in the area to escape the higher cost of living in San Francisco and Sacramento. 

Although the median income for a household in Stockton was only $35,453, the per capita income for the city was only $15,405, and 18.9% of families and 23.9% of the population were below the poverty line, subprime loans made houses in Stockton available to thousands who had very little income.

Home construction boomed, house prices soared, and subprime loans kept expanding the bubble further and further. House flippers, speculators and subprime lenders made millions.   

Then, in 2007, the bubble burst.

Few people were more active in profiting from the booming subprime housing market than a young immigrant from Pakistan named Iftikhar Ahmad. 

Between 2003 and 2005, Ahmad made millions of dollars buying and selling more than 100 homes and other properties in the Stockton area.  His company, I & R Investment Properties, LLC, was thriving.  Ahmad deposited at least $8.6 million from escrow closings and was able to send at least $484,000 back home to his native Pakistan.

Ahmad purchased a home at 327 N. Pilgrim Street in Stockton in 1997 for $22,000, then sold and repurchased the same property twice before ultimately selling it a third time in 2005 for $236,000. A house at 2228 E. Stadium Drive in Stockton was bought by Ahmad for $99,000; just 18 months later, he sold the house for $330,000.  In another series of transactions, a house bought and resold several times by Ahmad appreciated in value more than tenfold over an eight-year period.

It sounds like Iftikhar Ahmad was a very smart real estate investor.

The trouble was that Ahmad’s real estate empire was built on fraud.

On October 25, 2007, Ahmad was indicted on federal charges of mail fraud and money laundering, and on April 28, 2008, he pled guilty in federal court to mortgage fraud. 

Ahmad admitted that from July 2003 through October 2005, he participated in a scheme to defraud Long Beach Mortgage, a wholesale lender, in connection with the sale of 10 residential real properties. Between July 2003 and January 2005, Ahmad, through I & R Investment Properties, fraudulently sold 10 residential real properties, obtaining in excess of $1.5 million in loan proceeds.

In each of these transactions, the purchaser financed the property with money borrowed from Long Beach Mortgage.  The scheme involved the use of straw purchasers who lent their name and credit to real estate transactions in which they in fact had no interest. The scheme also involved false statements on loan documents, including those that related to income and occupation, and undisclosed payments by Ahmad of the down payment on behalf of the purchasers.

Many of the mortgages came from subprime lenders and in some cases the buyers used stolen identities. 

And in many of the real estate transactions, the buyers defaulted within a year.

In addition to Ahmad, three other defendants in the scheme have also pled guilty.

John Ngo, 27, of San Ramon, California, a former Senior Loan Coordinator for Long Beach Mortgage, pled guilty to perjury for falsely stating in testimony before the grand jury that he had not received money from a mortgage broker who referred borrowers to Long Beach Mortgage, including borrowers involved in transactions with Ahmad, when in fact he had received more than $100,000 from the mortgage broker.

Manpreet Singh, 24, of Stockton, California, entered a guilty plea to mail fraud for acting as a straw purchaser and borrower in connection with two properties that she purchased from I & R Investments in late 2004 and early 2005. She further admitted that Ahmad paid her in excess of $22,300 for her participation in the scheme.  The properties went into foreclosure within months of the purchase.

Jose Serrano, 44, of Stockton, California, pled guilty to a single count of mail fraud. As part of his plea, Serrano admitted that Ahmad had paid Serrano to recruit straw purchasers, and that Ahmad and Serrano caused several other purchasers to be paid for participating in the scheme.

The case against Iftikhar Ahmad and his co-conspirators was brought by US Attorney McGregor W. Scott, who also indicted mortgage fraud scammer Charles Head

Scott said: “This prosecution begins to bring into focus the ways that fraud occurred in the subprime lending market in the Stockton area in the 2003 to 2005 time frame. False representations were made in loan documents; down payments were secretly made by the seller on behalf of borrowers; buyers and recruiters were paid to participate in the scheme; and a loan coordinator working for a wholesale subprime lender was paid by a mortgage broker handling the transactions. The investigation continues.”

Singh’s sentencing date is set for June 9, 2008.  Sentencing for Ahmad, Ngo, and Serrano is set for July 14, 2008.

 

 

Mortgage Fraud Reports Up 50% in 2007

The latest report from the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) covering the period from March 2006 to March 2007 shows a 50 percent increase in suspicious activity reports (SARs) indicating possible mortgage fraud.

The previous study had examined a statistical sample of SARs reporting mortgage fraud filed between April 1996 and March 2006.

FinCEN’s analysis of the most recently studied time period indicates a 50 percent increase in the number of SARs intercepting suspected fraud prior to funding a mortgage.

FinCEN also noted a 44 percent increase in SARs reporting mortgage fraud in 2006.

Analysis of the more recent data indicates that many identified trends continued and certain suspicious activities showed marked increases.

For example, reports of identity theft in conjunction with mortgage fraud SARs increased 96 percent from the previous study. In 2006, there were 37,313 mortgage fraud SARs filed. The final total for mortgage fraud SARs filed in 2007 was 52,868, an increase of 42 percent.

Mortgage loan fraud was the third most prevalent type of suspicious activity reported, after Bank Secrecy Act/structuring/money laundering and check fraud.

According to FinCEN, this tremendous increase in SARs relating to possible mortgage fraud does not necessarily mean that mortgage fraud has increased, but rather “indicates growing vigilance and awareness in the financial community.”

“FinCEN’s analysis indicates that the financial community is becoming increasingly adept at spotting and reporting suspicious activities that may indicate mortgage fraud,” said FinCEN Director James H. Freis, Jr. “This exemplifies how compliance with Bank Secrecy Act regulations is consistent with a financial institution’s commercial concerns.”

The purpose of the Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) is to report known or suspected violations of law or suspicious activity observed by financial institutions subject to the regulations of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA).

FinCEN requires a SAR report to be filed by a financial institution when the financial institution suspects insider abuse by an employee, violations of law aggregating over $5,000 or more where a subject can be identified, violations of law aggregating over $25,000 or more regardless of a potential subject, transactions aggregating $5,000 or more that involve potential money laundering or violations of the Bank Secrecy Act, computer intrusion, or when a financial institution knows that a customer is operating as an unlicensed money services business.

There has been a tremendous increase in the number of SARs in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and banks have been extremely diligent in filing such reports.

Incidentally, it was through the use of SARs that former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s liasons with prostitutes were exposed. Spitzer was snared when the FBI intitiated a money laundering investigation based on SARs that his bank filed due to Spitzer’s suspicious financial transactions.