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Agent accused of real estate fraud at center of bizarre condo foreclosure

Foreclosure proceedings on Alejandro Salazar's Tampa condo had dragged on so long he finally called the bank this summer to ask why.

Because, the bank told him, your attorney has been fighting us for a year.

Salazar was stunned to learn that Clearwater lawyer Bruce Harlan had been filing motions in the case since August 2008. Yet, Salazar says, he had never met Harlan, never talked to him and certainly never hired him.

"Is this unbelievable or what?'' he asks.

In a bizarre case, Harlan confirms that he listed himself as Salazar's lawyer even though Salazar hadn't retained him. The person who did, Harlan acknowledges, was a real estate agent who had acquired the deed to Salazar's vacant condo, moved in and wanted to stall foreclosure because she hoped to buy the unit in a short sale.

The agent? Lori Polin, named by Florida's attorney general last year as a key player in an alleged $37 million mortgage fraud scheme.

"I have recently found out that I have been a victim of both Lori Polin and her associate Bruce Harlan,'' Salazar wrote in a complaint last week to the Attorney General's Office.

"Both have been conspiring for over a year to keep my former condo unit (where she has been living now rent-free for over a year) from being repossessed by the mortgage holder.''

The unusual chain of events began two years ago when Salazar fell behind in his fees to the Westchase Community Association. He and his wife later defaulted on their mortgage, too.

"Business just dried up,'' says Salazar, 47, an architectural designer.

Because his wife was pregnant, the couple decided to move to her native Spain where her doctor bills would be covered by that country's universal health care system. Salazar assumed Deutsche Bank would quickly foreclose on the condo.

But when he returned to Tampa this summer on a visit, he learned that the foreclosure was still pending and that Harlan had been representing him.

"I said, 'Who is he?' and the lawyer at Deutsche Bank said, 'You mean you don't know him?' Then, he said, 'I'd advise you to seek counsel immediately and sort this out.' ''

Salazar hired a Tampa attorney, and the two began to unravel what happened.

In June 2008, soon after the Salazars left town, the Westchase Community Association foreclosed on a lien against them for $546 in unpaid fees. The association got title to the condo and two months later deeded the unit to Polin.

It is not known if Polin paid all or part of what the Salazars owed, a total of $2,900 with attorneys fees and other costs. Polin did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Though legal, it is fairly rare for a homeowners association to foreclose and deed a unit to another individual. Records show it has happened only one other time in Westchase in the past two years.

At the time Polin acquired the Salazar condo, she was about to go into foreclosure on her own condo in Westchase. She moved into the Salazar place and leased out her home, collecting more than $14,000 in rent, but not making mortgage payments on either property.

Instead, Polin hired Harlan to delay the foreclosure on Salazar's condo, giving her time to try to buy it for $50,000 — considerably less than the $137,000 the couple owed.

"I told her that before we could handle anything on the foreclosure, we'd need to get the consent of Mr. Salazar,'' Harlan recalls. "She said, 'No problem.' "

When he left Tampa, Salazar had authorized his brother-in-law Ernest Lopez — who was also Polin's accountant — to represent him on matters relating to the mortgage.

At Polin's behest, Lopez sent Harlan an e-mail authorizing him "to speak to the lender to get the debt abated.'' Harlan says he took that to mean he would represent Salazar in the foreclosure case even though he had never talked to Salazar, wasn't officially hired by Lopez, and was actually paid by Polin.

"If I had to do it over again,'' Harlan says, "I would have asked for a letter of authority from Mr. Salazar.''

Florida Bar rules of professional conduct "prohibit a lawyer from doing anything deceitful or misrepresenting himself, certainly as a lawyer for someone who didn't hire him,'' says Gail Ferguson, an assistant ethics counsel.

Harlan says he didn't see any conflict of interest in representing both Salazar and Polin, even though the short sale wanted by Polin could leave Salazar liable for nearly $90,000 on his mortgage. Bar rules prohibit an attorney from representing two clients "if the representation of one client will be directly adverse to another client,'' Ferguson says.

Harlan insists he and Polin were trying to help Salazar: "If Lori had worked a short sale, his benefit would have just been a short sale (appearing) on his credit report, not a foreclosure.''

In fact, a credit expert says, once a bank starts foreclosure proceedings, as Salazar's did, a person's credit score drops as much as if the bank had already repossessed the property.

After Salazar complained, Harlan offered to give him $3,000 if they could proceed with the foreclosure case so Polin would have more time to pursue a short sale.

"As I see it, I am entirely to blame for this situation,'' Harlan said in an Aug. 31 e-mail to Salazar's lawyer. "I will pay $3,000 from my funds to your trust account for a resolution of this matter, which hopefully also will allow me to 'represent' Mr. Salazar in the foreclosure action.''

Salazar refused to sign a letter of representation and rejected the offer. Through his lawyer, he instead asked for $30,852, the amount he said Polin and Harlan had cost him by delaying foreclosure and driving up what he owes the bank in interest and legal fees. Unless he was paid, Salazar said, he would go to authorities.

Harlan calls Salazar's demand "extortion.'' Earlier this month, he withdrew from the case.

A Florida lawyer since 1972, Harlan was publicly reprimanded in 2007 and put on a year's probation for violating Bar rules by failing to keep clients' funds separate from his own.

The Florida Real Estate Commission filed a complaint Oct. 2 accusing Polin of fraud and other misconduct in seven 2006 real estate deals. Polin allegedly jacked up the sales prices on homes so participants could skim off hundreds of thousands of dollars in loan proceeds.

Disciplinary action could include license revocation and a fine of up to $5,000 for each count. The commission has referred the case to state prosecutors for investigation of possible criminal activity.

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at susan@sptimes.com.

Agent accused of real estate fraud at center of bizarre condo foreclosure 10/28/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 28, 2009 1:09pm]
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