Criminal record not often an impediment to getting a Florida real estate license

Steven Pollack is an ex-con with convictions for bank theft and grand larceny, a record that came to the attention of Florida regulators when he applied for a license to sell real estate.

Some states do not let felons sell real estate and would have rejected Pollack's application out of hand.

The Florida Real Estate Commission did not do that. Instead, it considered his background. It knew he had ripped off banks in the 1970s by writing checks on closed accounts. It was aware he had quit his most recent job, as a mortgage broker at Wells Fargo, after a new federal law made it hard for felons to hold mortgage licenses.

Then the panel voted unanimously to allow Pollack to handle the money people use in real estate transactions.

On that same day last month, the Orlando-based Real Estate Commission considered a total of 46 applicants with criminal records. It granted licenses to 29. The pattern is pretty much the same each month.

These applicants then join the ranks of more than 300,000 agents, brokers and appraisers who shepherd billions of dollars in property transactions each year in Florida.

Florida regulators can't say how many of them have criminal records — even though the state required applicants in October 2009 to disclose all convictions, regardless of how old, when applying for licenses.

With more than 2,100 unresolved investigations of rogue real estate agents, industry professionals want Florida to get tougher on applicants with criminal records.

Kevin Chadwick, a Realtor for 30 years and owner of six Keller Williams offices with more than 400 agents in Tampa Bay, bristled when told Florida sometimes grants licenses to people with serious criminal records.

"I am really shocked at that," he said. "I think most brokers are not aware that this is going on."

• • •

Before hiring agents, Chadwick's company checks local, state and national Realtor boards for any complaints against agents. He expected more rigorous screening in Florida and was surprised by how few people are denied licenses.

Chadwick wondered whether the state should start notifying brokers about applicants who have serious criminal pasts.

"If the state of Florida is rubber stamping applicants, it's possible that a convicted felon can end up in someone's house," he said.

Anand Patel, a Tampa broker who also holds licenses in Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi, said felons should not be brokering property deals in Florida.

"We are looked at as one notch below used-car salesmen," Patel said "There are many good ones out here, but every one puts us in the same batch as the bad ones."

The Florida Real Estate Commission is supposed to protect the public from unscrupulous real estate agents. But the numbers suggest its screening process is something less than rigorous. Since 2008, the state has processed 34,780 total applications and denied 215. That's less than 1 percent.

Ralph McCoig who recently left the Florida Real Estate Commission, said Florida should exclude more people from getting licenses to protect the integrity of the industry.

"We have to be careful on who we allow to have a license," McCoig said. "We're there to protect the public."

The process of getting a real estate license differs substantially from state to state.

• Florida requires 63 hours of classroom instruction to become a sales associate. Texas requires 150 hours; Ohio, 120; Arizona, 90; and Georgia, 75. Many others only require between 40 and 60 hours. Massachusetts requires only 24.

• Some states have a zero tolerance policy. Ohio and Arizona, for instance, ban anyone with felony convictions from holding a license; Michigan bars those with convictions for misappropriation of funds and embezzlement.

"The reason for these statutes is that the purchase of real estate is often the largest financial transaction in most people's lives," said Dennis Ginty, spokesman for the Ohio's Division of Real Estate. "Ohio law provides protection for consumers to ensure that they are working with real estate licensees who are honest, truthful and reputable."

In Florida, any change to real estate licensing requirements would come from the Legislature.

• • •

Each month, the seven member Real Estate Commission questions applicants with serious criminal offenses or those who failed to disclose criminal matters that showed up during the state's check of law enforcement databases. Real estate insiders refer to the meeting as the "Jerry Springer Show" because of the crime tales that people divulge.

In the last two years, there have been 2,700 such applicants.

Before voting on his application for a real estate license last month, commissioners asked Steven Spaulding about this two arrests in 1996 and 1998 for indecent exposure.

Spaulding didn't want to talk about it.

Police reports had the details, his attorney said, adding: "It would be very embarrassing for him to explain. I don't think it has to be announced to the public."

A commissioner pressed the issue: "It does mention the proximity to a playground."

Spaulding's attorney responded that his client's record was not that bad.

"It's a misdemeanor offense," the attorney said. "No prison. No sexual predator sanctions. . . . It was lewd and lascivious behavior not directed toward anyone."

Spaulding got his license.

Dana Lincoln didn't.

Lincoln told the commission she stole food and a jacket three years ago in Pennsylvania. She blamed her troubles on her ex-husband.

"I was married to an extremely abusive con artist, thief and very manipulative person," she said. "What I did was very shameful and bad."

Commissioner Poul Hornsleth urged Lincoln to let more time pass before seeking a license, adding: "How can we approve you to go in people's houses when you've been caught stealing?"

The commission denied her application but urged her to reapply in a year.

For 10 years, attorney Daniel Villazon has argued cases on behalf of applicants. The key to getting a license is for applicants to show they've remained crime free after a conviction, said Villazon, a former general counsel for the Real Estate Commission.

"I think they should get a second chance," Villazon said. "The passage of time makes a difference."

Amir Boctor, convicted of cocaine trafficking in 1991 and grand theft in 1997, asked for a second chance.

"The first offense took place in 1991, almost 20 years ago," Boctor said. "Since then I have managed to stay clear of illegal activities."

He stressed that he holds licenses for a mortgage broker and a used-car dealer. Boctor plans to join forces with his wife, a successful real estate agent in South Florida.

"I'd be a great addition to the real estate force in our state," Boctor said.

"This is an applicant we might consider giving a chance to," Hornsleth said.

By a vote of 5-1, the commission approved Boctor's application

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

Criminal record not often an impediment to getting a Florida real estate license 12/03/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 3, 2011 3:31am]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...