TAMPA — A federal investigation into mortgage fraud widened Tuesday when Sang Min Kim pleaded guilty to money-laundering and conspiracy to commit mail fraud.
The U.S. Attorney's Office already calls the prosecution of Kim one of the biggest mortgage fraud cases it has ever investigated. With Kim's guilty plea, he has agreed to cooperate and testify against the accomplices who helped him, potentially making the case even bigger.
Tuesday's plea deal could shave years off a maximum 50-year prison sentence. If federal prosecutors are convinced that Kim's cooperation substantially assisted their investigations into other mortgage fraud, they will ask U.S. District Judge Susan Bucklew to reduce his sentence. That hearing will be held in about 120 days.
Dressed in a dark blue suit with his hair tied back in a pony tail, Kim politely responded to U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Jenkins' questions and instructions on Tuesday. Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachelle DesVaux Bedke said Kim wasn't considered a flight risk because he has been cooperating with prosecutors. He was released on a $50,000 bond after his gun and passport were taken, but he's free to travel throughout Florida.
It's all been a stunning turnaround for Kim, a 36-year-old tattoo parlor owner who goes by the nickname "Sonny."
Just two years ago, Kim was building a $1.1 million house in a gated Lutz subdivision. A former neighbor in Pasco said a steady rotation of flashy cars — a Hummer, a Lexus, a Mercedes — would fill his driveway.
It had been an American success story: a self-made South Korean immigrant who, armed with only a high school education had managed to build a fortune by flipping real estate as the housing market rocketed to record heights.
Between 2005 and 2008, Kim sold more than 100 homes in some of Tampa's most distressed neighborhoods. He had a Midas touch, buying rundown homes cheap and selling high. A St. Petersburg Times analysis showed buyers paid Kim $10.7 million for homes he bought for $6.5 million.
As the housing market collapsed in 2008, his con was revealed in a trail of foreclosures. He told prosecutors the purchases were part of a wider web of deceit.
Kim's attorney, Richard Escobar, said he was hired shortly after the Times published its story on his transactions in November 2008. His plea agreement says he will cooperate fully with prosecutors as they investigate other suspects. He has promised to disclose all relevant information, including books and papers that document his scheme.
Despite that cooperation, he still could serve time in prison. When he gets out, he'll be starting over.
His fortune, like the go-go spirit of last decade's house flipping frenzy, has vanished. His Lutz home was foreclosed in April 2009. In October, it was auctioned off to SunTrust for $100. As part of his plea agreement, Kim has agreed to forfeit any remaining property and assets he has to the government.
It's not much, considering that all his remaining properties are now in foreclosure.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.