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Felon changes tune on mortgage fraud

Early last year, Barbara and Walter Norton were stunned to discover their names on loans for a $930,000 waterfront house in St. Petersburg's Venetian Isles. Their suspicions quickly focused on one person — their granddaughter's boyfriend, felon loan officer Victor Clavizzao.

Clavizzao, 46, denied that the couple's signatures had been forged or that he had done anything wrong. "What you're talking about is border-line crazy,'' he told the St. Petersburg Times in April 2007.

That was then. Now, in filings made public this week in U.S. District Court in Tampa, Clavizzao agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to fraudulently obtain nearly $6-million in mortgage loans on the Venetian Isle house and 12 other homes and condos in Pinellas County.

The agreement, which must be approved by the court, also requires Clavizzao to make full restitution to lenders and other victims, to pay a fine of up to $11.9-million and to "cooperate fully'' in a continuing federal investigation into mortgage fraud. In return for helping investigators, Clavizzao could be spared the maximum prison term of five years when he is sentenced.

"He's bad news,'' Walter Norton, 69, said Friday on learning of the agreement. Norton said Clavizzao recently stopped his son and told him, "If I go up on this (charge), you're first and he's next,'' apparently referring to the elder Norton. The family's lawyer reported the incident to the FBI.

Clavizzao could not be reached for comment. The plea agreement "reflects and rewards Victor's cooperation as well as his desire to accept responsibility for his actions,'' his lawyer, Scott Andringa, said in an e-mail. "Mr. Clavizzao will continue to assist the government, if requested, and make every effort to see that the victims are compensated for their losses.''

Clavizzao already had a long criminal history, including prison terms for fraud and grand theft, before he began working as a loan officer in St. Petersburg at the peak of Florida's real estate boom in 2005. A series of stories in the St. Petersburg Times chronicled many questionable loans in which Clavizzao was involved, including several made in his father's name although the elder Clavizzao told the Times he knew nothing about them.

Most of the houses quickly went into foreclosure because no mortgage payments were made even though Clavizzao was leasing out the properties and collecting thousands of dollars in rent. In some cases, companies registered to him or his girlfriend also got tens of thousands of dollars from loan proceeds at the time of closing.

Several of the loans cited in the Times stories are among the 13 listed in Clavizzao's plea agreement as having been obtained by fraud. In a separate information filed Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney's Office says Clavizzao and unnamed co-conspirators forged applicants' signatures, fraudulently notarized documents and prepared false closing statements for federal housing authorities. The conspirators are also accused of making misrepresentations to lenders about the identities of buyers and their true financial status, including assets, liabilities and income.

In one case, the information says, BNC Bank issued a $189,600 mortgage on a house in St. Petersburg based on an income figure that Clavizzao himself picked "specifically so that the income would be sufficient to induce the lender to part with the money.''

Clavizzao also induced others to take part in the transactions by paying them as much as $29,000 for the use of personal information needed to secure the loans.

No one else is named in the information or plea agreement but "co-conspirators are mentioned so we have an ongoing investigation,'' said Steve Cole, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office. "We have more work to do, but we can't speculate on when or if others will be charged.''

If a federal judge approves the agreement, Clavizzao probably would be sentenced within 90 days following an investigation to determine whether he should receive the maximum five years or a lesser penalty.

The federal case is not Clavizzao's only legal problem. In March, he was charged in Georgia with driving drunk on the wrong side of a major highway. He was arrested a few weeks later in Pinellas County for violating probation on a variety of charges including grand theft and driving with a suspended or revoked license. On May 14, a Pinellas judge sentenced him to a year on work release.

On Aug. 1, Clavizzao showed up at a house in northeast St. Petersburg to collect rent even though he is not the property owner and the house is currently in foreclosure. The house, which is not one of the 13 listed in the plea deal, was purchased for $650,000 in early 2007 in the name of a partially paralyzed man who at the time was living in low-income housing for the disabled.

On Aug. 12 — the day after he signed the federal plea agreement — Clavizzao obtained a notice of eviction against tenant Robert Mathewson, demanding that he, his wife and their baby either move out or pay $8,000 in rent they allegedly owe. But Mathewson said Friday that he has paid Clavizzao $1,600 every month in cash even though Clavizzao let the property fall into such disrepair that the tenants had to foot a $1,400 air-conditioning repair bill and the city had to mow the weed-choked yard a week ago.

"How does a scumbag like him get away with this?'' asked Mathewson, who said he will fight the eviction.

That's a question Walter Norton also asks. In addition to the loans on which their signatures were forged, the Nortons also took out loans on two other houses because Clavizzao promised to make the mortgage payments until he could resell the houses for a profit. All are in foreclosure.

Norton said the transactions have ruined his credit. But the real tragedy, he said, was his wife's sudden death in January at age 68.

"She was as healthy as you and me,'' he said. "All this pressure on her from these houses — she couldn't take the pressure.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.

Felon changes tune on mortgage fraud 08/22/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 26, 2008 4:43pm]
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