Home Crime Feds charge Valhalla firm with bank fraud over mortgages

Feds charge Valhalla firm with bank fraud over mortgages

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A Valhalla company that offered homeowners a way to reduce and even eliminate mortgage debt was actually filing phony documents, federal officials have charged.

The U.S. Attorney’s office says the Terra Foundation solicited homeowners who were having difficulties making mortgage payments.

Terra claimed it could eliminate mortgage debt for a fee, according to an indictment unsealed on Thursday in U.S. District Court in White Plains.

From 2011 to 2012, the firm filed nearly 60 mortgage discharges with county clerks on loans worth $33 million. The discharges made it appear as if the clients’ mortgages had been discharged, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a press release, when in fact they had not.

The indictment charges Bruce Lewis, 65, Jacqueline Graham, 47, Anthony Vigna, 59, Rocco Cermele, 54, and Paula Guadagno, 58, with conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud and bank fraud.

Lewis, Graham and an unnamed, unindicted co-conspirator were partners in Terra, formerly known as the Pillow Foundation. Vigna worked as an in-house lawyer. Cermele was director of operations and recruited clients. Guadagno did real estate title work.

Lewis and Cermele signed mortgage discharges in which they claimed to be authorized representatives of the financial institutions, according to the indictment.

The defendants profited by charging a monthly fee for services, such as audits that often were not done. They encouraged clients to take out second mortgages or reverse mortgages, secured by the same properties, and they retained a substantial portion of the proceeds.

Clients who took out new mortgages were often left with debt on both the original and the new loans. Many of the clients were elderly.

Cermele, Guadagno and Vigna were taken into custody on Thursday. Lewis and Graham had not been found.

The Terra Foundation and Pillow Foundation are not registered as businesses with the state and are not listed in an IRS database of exempt organizations.

The case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, district attorney’s offices in Westchester and Putnam counties, and the Cheshire, Connecticut, police department.

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