TAMPA — Mortgage fraudster Victor Clavizzao, who bilked lenders out of more than $2 million during the "Wild West" days of the real estate boom, was sentenced Tuesday to five years in federal prison followed by three years' probation.
Clavizzao drew the maximum penalty for one count of conspiracy to commit mail, wire and bank fraud, the charge to which he pleaded guilty in September. U.S. District Judge James Moody also ordered him to pay $2,075,000 in restitution to lenders and gave him a warning.
"Based on your history, I'm predicting you're going to have a hard time going three years without violating your supervised release," Moody said. "I'm telling you right now, you do not want to come back before me."
A co-defendant, Mark Lepzinski, pleaded guilty to the same charge and was sentenced in March to 13 months in prison.
As the St. Petersburg Times first reported exactly two years ago, Clavizzao, a native New Yorker, had a lengthy prison record for fraud and grand theft before he moved to Pinellas County in 2005 and began working as a mortgage loan officer at the height of the subprime lending frenzy. Using "straw buyers" and false income figures, he arranged loans on at least 18 houses and condos and pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars in loan proceeds.
While acknowledging Clavizzao's wrongdoing, his attorney, Scott Andringa said the lending business was far different when banks required no proof of income or employment.
"We were dealing with a Wild West-like situation, almost like a gold rush," Andringa told the judge. "Everybody knew what was happening, and everybody wanted in on it because everybody was making money. When Mr. Clavizzao would call a lender, they were happy to hear from him. Then the real estate market collapsed, and suddenly it was like a game of musical chairs and the lender is the one without a chair."
Andringa asked the judge to reduce the maximum sentence, arguing that Clavizzao, 46, did not use what prosecutors called "sophisticated means" to defraud lenders. Moody rejected the request.
"Forging people's names — I find that to be sophisticated means," the judge said.
Clavizzao, accompanied to court by one of his brothers, nervously tapped his fingers, then stammered as he read a prepared statement.
"I accept responsibility and with great remorse I realize my actions have caused great hardship to others," he said. "I've lost more than I've gained."
Clavizzao's long string of victims includes Walter Norton, grandfather of his former girlfriend. Norton, 64, said his wife died of stress-induced illness after Clavizzao forged their names on $930,000 in loans for a waterfront house in St. Petersburg's Venetian Isles.
"I feel he was the cause of her death," Norton said Tuesday. "I wish he'd gotten more time."
Free on bond since September, Clavizzao has continued to collect rent on houses to which he has no legal claim. In at least one case, he rented out a house without informing the tenants that it had been foreclosed on and was about to be sold.
"I never saw a cent from that whole thing," said Frank Conard, 84, who says he was duped into taking out $630,000 in loans for the house in St. Petersburg's Crescent Lake area. "He's hurt an awful lot of people, and I just don't believe people like him are able to walk around doing things as long as he did."
Moody allowed Clavizzao to remain out on bond until his daughter graduates from high school in June. Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Palermo said Clavizzao has cooperated with authorities and provided information "we're pursuing in hopes of additional prosecutions." Palermo would not say whether any more arrests are expected.
At the time of his conviction on the federal charge, Clavizzao was on probation for state charges of driving drunk on a revoked license and leaving the scene of an accident that he tried to blame on one of his children. He also owes tens of thousands of dollars in civil judgments, most of them stemming from real estate deals.
"I tell you," Conard said, "I don't believe I've ever met anybody like that in all my life."
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: Earlier versions of this story published in print and online included a photo of someone other than Victor Clavizzao.