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Lord Ponzi himself, Bernie Madoff

“A federal grand jury has indicted four defendants, and an information has been filed against a fifth defendant, for their participation in a massive mortgage fraud scheme that allegedly promised to pay off homeowners’ mortgages on their “Dream Homes,” according to a press release I received from the US Department of Justice.

Here are a few other highlights:

“The indictment alleges that the defendants used slick marketing to conceal empty promises,” said U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein. “They convinced many victims to invest at least $50,000 by refinancing their existing homes or buying new homes at inflated prices, while claiming that Metro Dream Homes would repay the mortgages with revenue from profitable businesses. The indictment alleges that there was no revenue to pay the mortgage payments. Instead, the conspirators used some of the investors’ money to repay earlier investors in the Ponzi scheme and spent the remainder on themselves.”

According to the indictment, from 2005 to 2007 the defendants allegedly used corporate names such as “Metropolitan Grapevine LLC,” “Metro Dream Homes,” “POS Dream Homes,” and “POS DH LLC” (collectively, MDH) to target homeowners and home purchasers to participate in a purported mortgage payment program called the “Dream Homes Program.” To participate, an investor had to provide a minimum of $50,000 for each home enrolled in the program, in addition to an “administrative fee” of up to $5,000. In exchange, the program promised to make the homeowner’s future monthly mortgage payments, and pay off the homeowner’s mortgage within five to seven years. Thereafter, the homeowner and MDH would own an equal interest in the home.

The indictment alleges that Andrew Hamilton Williams, Jr., 58, of Hollywood, Fla., was the founder and owner of MDH; Michael Anthony Hickson, 46, of Commack, N.Y., was the chief financial officer; Isaac Jerome Smith, 46, of Spotsylvania, Va., was the president; and Alvita Karen Gunn, 31, of Hanover, Md., was the vice president of operations. The information alleges that Carole Nelson, age 50, of Washington, D.C., was the chief financial officer of POS Dream Homes.

The indictment further alleges that Dream Homes Program representatives explained to investors that the homeowners’ initial payments would be used to fund investments in automated teller machines (ATMs), flat-screen televisions that would show paid business advertisements, and “Touch-N-Buy” electronic kiosks that sold telephone calling cards and other items. To give the Dream Homes Program a veneer of legitimacy and financial success, the defendants marketed the program through live presentations at luxury hotels in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Beverly Hills, Calif., among other locations. The defendants allegedly told some of the investors that they should not worry about the price of the homes or monthly mortgage payments because MDH would make mortgage payments on their behalf.

The indictment alleges that the defendants failed to advise investors that: the ATMs, flat-screen televisions and kiosks never generated any meaningful revenue; the defendants used the funds from later investors to pay the mortgages of earlier investors; and MDH had not filed any federal income tax returns throughout its existence. The defendants also allegedly failed to advise investors that their investments were being used for the personal enrichment of select MDH employees, including the defendants, to: pay salaries of up to $200,000 a year as well as their mortgages; employ a staff of 10 chauffeurs and maintain a fleet of luxury cars; and travel to and attend the 2007 National Basketball Association All-Star game and the 2007 National Football League Super Bowl, staying in luxury accommodations in both instances. Nor were investors told that investor funds were allegedly used to: pay off investors in a prior failed ATM investment venture that Williams had founded called Bankcard Group; make multiple donations of up to $50,000 each to charitable organizations to allegedly give MDH the appearance of being financially successful; and fund investments in third-party businesses that had not been disclosed to investors.

On Aug. 15, 2007, the Maryland Securities Commissioner issued a cease-and-desist order to Williams, MDH and other related companies directing them to immediately cease the offering and sale of unregistered securities in connection with their promotion of the Dream Homes Program. However, the defendants thereafter allegedly called additional meetings in which they made additional misrepresentations about the financial success of MDH’s operations. On Sept. 4, 2007, the defendants filed a legal challenge in federal court in Maryland to the cease-and-desist order. The indictment alleges that at a hearing on Sept. 12, 2007, Hickson testified that the financial success of the Dream Homes Program did not rely upon new investor funds, when in fact Hickson knew that the sole source of meaningful revenue for MDH was new investor funds.

As a result of the scheme, more than 1,000 investors in the Dream Homes Program invested approximately $70 million. When the defendants stopped making the mortgage payments, the homeowners were left to attempt to make the mortgage payments MDH had promised to make in full.

Image by Steve Rhodes, Flickr Creative Commons