TAMPA — State law enforcement officials charged four people Tuesday in a multimillion-dollar mortgage fraud scheme that stretched through Hillsborough, Pinellas and Polk counties.
The scammers gave a lender kickbacks to approve phony mortgages, authorities said. Of 300 loan applications submitted by Tampa-based Sunstate Mortgage Co., investigators say 280 were funded and collectively valued at more than $34-million.
Orson Benn, Constance Golder, David Tuggle Jr., and Eric Steinhauser were arrested and will face prosecution by the Attorney General's Office of Statewide Prosecution.
Benn, 37, is the former vice president of the lender, Argent Mortgage Co., and Golder, 31, worked there as an account executive, according to Attorney General Bill McCollum's office. Tuggle and Steinhauser, as the mortgage brokers Sunstate Mortgage, submitted the forged mortgage loan applications to Argent that Benn would approve, McCollum's office said.
Tuggle, 31, and Steinhauser, 29, paid Benn more than $100,000 to approve the loans, and Golder helped served as liaison between Argent and Sunstate Mortgage, the attorney general said.
"Mortgage fraud threatens the very essence of the American dream — the goal of home ownership," McCollum said in a statement. "Unfortunately, Florida ranks first in the nation for the number of mortgage foreclosures, making our citizens who are struggling to protect their homes even more susceptible to fraud."
Multiple local agencies participated in the investigation.
Robert Lee Jordan, 50, and his wife lost their four-bedroom Temple Terrace home and had to move into a two-bedroom apartment because of a Sunstate loan.
When he sought money for home renovations through Sunstate, he said the company forged documents and withheld others from him. His mortgage went from about $680 a month to $1,700.
"What my wife was making and what I was making, we barely could afford to pay that without having to scuffle," Jordan said. "It got to the point where we couldn't do it."
Rather than go into foreclosure, Jordan decided to sell. He said he contacted Sunstate sometime in 2003 or 2004 and gave up fighting to keep his home last September.
"If they're scheming like that, they're supposed to be caught," Jordan said. "It turned my whole life around. We still haven't bounced back from it."
Kevin Jackson, chief investigator with the Hillsborough Consumer Protection Agency, said the case against Benn started with a complaint to his office nearly four years ago. Investigators described Argent, a California-based wholesale mortgage company, as "one of the nation's largest subprime lenders."
"We recognize that Orson Benn was overseeing all of Florida for Argent, and there are many brokers we believe who are submitting fraudulent documents or have, and we're going to continue investigating," Jackson said.
Benn was previously charged in a case in Polk County. After that initial investigation, officials began looking at other targets involved in fraud with Benn.
In July 2007, investigators arrested Scott A. Almedia of Lithia and accused him of obtaining mortgages under false pretenses and charged him with racketeering. He was accused of submitting false mortgage documents to Argent and paying off Benn.
Tuesday, Benn was charged with racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering, mortgage fraud and grand theft. He could face up to 95 years in prison.
Golder, Tuggle and Steinhauser have been charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering. They could face up to 30 years in prison.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.