(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)
Just about everyone at the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission seemed to notice that Belinda Richmond was frequently on her cell phone and spent a lot of time faxing private documents somewhere.
No one suspected that Richmond, hired as a receptionist at the EPC in 1996, was busy buying and selling property or that she had gotten involved in a real estate mortgage fraud that would put her in the middle of an FBI investigation.
But according to court records, Richmond intercepted mail to put fictitious income information on loan applications and used the phone to make a bogus employment verification for a relative.
She was also paid thousands in kickbacks to act as a proxy to purchase property for Sean Teelucksingh, a Pinellas mortgage broker arrested by the FBI last week and charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud, according to the records.
The U.S. government has not yet made public the criminal complaint against Teelucksingh.
For her role, Richmond was sentenced to five months in prison and ordered to pay $65,504 in restitution in July after pleading guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. She is free on bail while that judgment is under appeal.
Richmond's public defender, Adam Benjamin Allen, said a pending Supreme Court decision could alter the score on the sentencing guidelines on her case and could result in no prison time at a resentencing.
The FBI investigation into mortgage and bank fraud in the Tampa Bay area continues, and the inquiry regarding Richmond prompted the EPC to launch its own internal investigation and later to revamp office procedures.
"We conducted an in-house investigation to see if anyone else was involved," said EPC general counsel Richard T. Tschantz. "We were worried that (Richmond) was recruiting people for illegal activities."
Richmond's unusual behavior on the job caught the attention of many co-workers, he said. "Everyone seemed to know she was faxing things."
According to an FBI affidavit, Richmond was herself recruited by Teelucksingh after she met him while refinancing her home.
In April 2000, Teelucksingh directed Richmond to buy the home at 35 180th Ave. W in Redington Shores, court records show. Richmond qualified for a $143,350 mortgage for the $165,000 purchase by stating on the loan application that she was a $66,984-a-year legal adviser at the EPC, had 14 years' education and worked part-time at the Bayview Title Insurance Agency in Ruskin, according to the FBI.
In fact, Richmond had failed to complete high school and never had annual income greater than $32,435 while working at the EPC.
A month after buying the Redington Shores property, records show, Richmond deeded it to Allen J. Preston, owner of the now-closed Bayview Title Agency in Ruskin, who later sold the property for $230,000.
Preston was found guilty in a jury trial in 2003 of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. in a scheme in which investors used inflated appraisals and false loan documentation to "flip" properties. Preston was sentenced to 12 months and a day in prison and ordered to pay $252,442 in restitution.
At the EPC, Richmond provided a false confirmation helping enable her cousin to obtain a mortgage loan, according to court records. The cousin, who actually worked at a local foam and packing company, was said by Richmond to be an EPC staffer. Unable to keep up with the mortgage payments on the new loan, Richmond's cousin later lost the home through foreclosure.
With the assistance of false income information, Richmond obtained mortgages to buy three other properties, including two from Teelucksingh. In one case, according to court papers, she claimed she received $1,500-a-month rental income from a Brandon home that was actually her own home, where there were no tenants. In another instance, the records say, the signature of Richmond's EPC supervisor was forged on an income verification form.
Tschantz, the EPC attorney, said his agency conducted a predisciplinary hearing after Richmond was indicted and recommended she be fired. Richmond later was allowed to resign.
The EPC also tightened its mail handling and employment and income verification procedures. Mail is no longer given to receptionists to open but instead is opened by the administrative staff, Tschantz said, and the EPC director for finance is now the only person eligible to sign verification forms.
Allen characterized his client as "susceptible" to recruitment into the mortgage fraud scheme because of money troubles and a difficult home life.
"In her entire life she's never had an arrest," Allen said. "She is a single mom with health problems with a teenager with health problems. She got herself in this situation due to her financial problems. She made a mistake and she is now paying for it."
Tschantz said he was aware of Richmond's medical problems and "bad family situation," but added, "I also believe she knew exactly what she was doing."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or by e-mail at testermansptimes.com.