TAMPA — Peter Porcelli, the telemarketing tycoon who poured part of his fortune into the former world champion Tampa Bay Smokers fast-pitch softball team, has been indicted on a mail fraud charge in connection with a mortgage foreclosure program.
Porcelli, 57, of Oldsmar is already behind bars. Two years ago, he was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison and ordered to pay $11.9 million in restitution for a credit card scam that victimized tens of thousands of credit-poor consumers nationwide.
A federal indictment unsealed Friday accuses Porcelli of using a foreclosure salvage service and a mortgage lending business to defraud homeowners in financial distress.
The mail fraud charge is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The U.S. Attorney's Office also is seeking $1.16 million in restitution, the amount netted by Porcelli and his companies in the mortgage operation.
Kathy Visceglie, a Pasco County resident who organized homeowners to expose Porcelli's foreclosure salvage tactics, cheered news of the indictment but said it comes too late to help dozens of area residents who lost their homes.
"Porcelli's company looked like a nonprofit that was offering hope, but it turned out to be the worst kind of fraud," she said. "I'm relieved the government finally took action. But it's too late to put people back into the homes they lost."
The new charge against Porcelli stems from a Postal Inspection Service investigation and an April 2003 order by a federal judge presiding over a Federal Trade Commission case involving deceptive telemarketing. The ruling permanently prohibited Porcelli from working with credit-related products.
A year later, however, Porcelli incorporated the Safe Harbour Foundation, a Clearwater nonprofit firm that offered to "help save homeowners from foreclosure by introducing them to lenders," according to court papers.
Porcelli used the title "relief coordinator" and the phony name "Peter James" in Safe Harbour's pitch to homeowners. His mailings said the Safe Harbour Foundation had been established "to give people a second chance when no one else will," and promised a "guaranteed solution to stay in your home."
But homeowners then found themselves referred for financial help to Silverstone Lending, a second company set up by Porcelli. Prosecutors say Silverstone used high-fee second mortgages and short-term balloon loans in which a quick default often ended with borrowers losing their homes.
A St. Petersburg Times examination of Porcelli's business practices in 2007 documented the stories of local residents snared by the lending program, including Sarasota County roofer and handyman Calvin Lewendowski.
He phoned Safe Harbour looking for help with a foreclosure and he was talked into borrowing $35,000 when he needed only $20,000 to settle the case. He says he didn't understand that the Silverstone loan carried an option to take his house.
"You hear about this kind of thing on the news," Lewendowski said after vacating his Northport home. "But you never expect it to happen to you. It is so cold-blooded."
Ron Cacciatore, an attorney representing Porcelli, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Porcelli emerged from personal bankruptcy in the early 1990s to establish Marketing Response Group and Laser Co., a printing and direct mail company that brought in as much as $42 million a year and was a semifinalist for small business of the year in Tampa in 1995.
At about the same time, Porcelli founded the Tampa Bay Smokers, stocking the fast-pitch softball team with stars from the legendary Clearwater Bombers club and giving them jobs at his direct mail firm.
With Porcelli pouring an unprecedented $500,000 a year into the softball team, the Smokers won the 1996 International Softball Congress championship.
After the FTC accused Porcelli's company of deceptive practices involving free vacations, he established the Bay Area Business Council, a Largo telemarketing company.
The operation used teams of cold-callers in boiler rooms in North America, the Caribbean and India. Consumers with failing credit were offered MasterCards and other services worth $159 to $499, but an estimated 165,141 victims ended up with little more than a worthless debit card backed with a phony magnetic strip.
The FTC shut down the credit card call centers in 2004, saying Porcelli's practices "amounted to little more than thievery."
St. Petersburg Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or firstname.lastname@example.org.