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Tenant paid thousands in rent for condo that was in foreclosure

Tampa real estate agent Lori Polin played a key role in one of the state's "most dramatic" mortgage fraud schemes, according to Florida's attorney general. Polin is still an agent — and she's still engaged in questionable dealings, an angry tenant claims.

Jeff Cole, who rented Polin's Tampa condo, says she collected over $14,000 in rent yet stopped making mortgage payments and did not inform him that the bank was foreclosing — an increasingly common problem for tenants in a tanking real estate market.

Polin, who still has a $50,000 homestead exemption, also asked Cole and his mother not to tell the bank she was renting out the condo for fear it would kill a sale, he said.

"She accepted rent for nine months while lying to her mortgage company about her occupancy status," Cole said. "She asked me and my mother to keep her little secret … to save her own a---."

Polin, who works for ReMax Power Advantage in Tampa, did not return phone calls seeking comment. Jeremy Anderson, head of the office, would not comment.

Even as Florida's real estate boom fizzled in 2006, Polin appeared to be one of the area's most successful agents. ReMax International gave her its Chairman's Club Award for agents with gross commissions of at least $500,000.

But in 2007, the Pinellas Realtor Organization and many of Polin's fellow agents received an anonymous letter claiming that at least part of her success was due to alleged mortgage fraud involving nine houses in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Polin told the St. Petersburg Times then that she had done nothing wrong and was the victim of a "smear campaign" by jealous rivals.

This fall, however, Attorney General Bill McCollum sued 10 companies and 15 individuals under Florida's Deceptive Trade Practices Act for their alleged roles in a $37 million fraud scheme. The suit said the co-defendants conspired with Polin and two other agents to inflate sale prices so they could obtain bigger loans and pocket "millions for their own personal use."

Polin, 49, was not named as a defendant because real estate agents are exempt from the act and subject to other state laws. The Department of Business and Professional Regulation would not say if she is under investigation.

In 2005, Polin got a $257,520, low-interest loan to buy a condo in Tampa's Westchase area for use as her primary residence. She signed a "borrower's occupancy rider" saying that she intended to live there and that the lender could demand full payment of the loan if she didn't.

In August, Polin rented the condo to Cole, owner of a firm that helps arrange loans for environmentally friendly projects.

Cole, 39, who moved to Tampa to be close to his mother, said Polin agreed to reduce the rent by $75 a month if he prepaid $10,800 for the first six months. He then went on a month-to-month lease at $1,875 because Polin was trying to sell the condo, whose value had plunged.

"I knew she was upside-down on the property," Cole said, "but we didn't realize she was that far gone" until a foreclosure notice arrived in February. He said the notice was unusual in that it didn't list him and his wife as tenants.

"The reason my name is not on it," he said, "is because the bank didn't know we were here."

Cole said Polin told him that the bank had agreed to a short sale of $183,000 but that the deal would fall through if the lender knew she wasn't living in the condo. She asked him and his mother not to say anything to the bank.

"I said, 'I'm not going to be part of your lie,' " Cole recalled. "I'm not interested in mortgage fraud except to the extent that I want frauds to be punished. I'm sick and tired of this mess and people and their greed."

Foreclosure papers filed Jan. 30 by National City Bank show that Polin had not made a payment since September, about a month after the Coles moved in. In a letter to the bank, Polin wrote that her income had dropped 80 percent during the two years the condo had been on the market.

"In any event," she added, "I have three contracts on this property, and National City has approved it for a short sale. The investor is sending their approval and it will be sold/closed by March 31, 2009."

Instead, the closing is set for today. The buyer has agreed to let the Coles continue to rent.

Even though she hasn't lived in the condo for months, Polin still has a homestead exemption that reduces the 2009 taxes. Failure to notify the property appraiser of a change in status is a misdemeanor that can result in a $5,000 fine, a lien on the property and back taxes plus penalty.

Polin's real estate Web site calls her a "well-respected" agent and "multimillion-dollar producer" with several listings in the bay area. She is also licensed in New York, where she keeps a Manhattan apartment.

As her Web site prominently notes, Polin is "Tampa Team leader" for Sentinels for Freedom, a California foundation that gives veterans four-year grants for schooling, housing and other assistance.

Though Polin has not raised much money, she put together a group that helped bring a Marine to Tampa to attend college, said Mike Conklin, the foundation's chairman. He said he asked Polin about the allegations several months ago, and she told him she was not under investigation "and that it was someone else's major issue." She didn't mention the attorney general's suit, but told him she had considered changing her name, Conklin said.

In New York, Polin now goes by the name "Lori Weber," another of her Web sites shows.

Told about a renter's claim that Polin had asked him to lie to a bank, Conklin said he would ask her to "stand down" as team leader. "We don't want to harm our reputation," he said. "I hope everybody's wrong, but I also know that things happen and you can't see everything out there."

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

Tenant paid thousands in rent for condo that was in foreclosure 05/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 20, 2009 4:59pm]
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