TAMPA — As the housing market imploded, Dean Counce's business boomed.
Counce's Brooksville company contracted with lenders to regularly inspect properties in foreclosure throughout the state. By 2009, Counce was sending as many as 100,000 inspection reports each month to Bank of America, receiving about $6.50 for each. Bank of America then billed the federal entities that owned or insured the mortgages.
At one point, Counce was making as much as $1 million per month.
The problem: Half of those reports were fabricated. Now, investigators say, Counce owes taxpayers more than $12 million and faces up to 20 years in prison.
On Friday, the 42-year-old Spring Hill resident pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. His sentencing date has yet to be set.
"In my opinion, Mr. Counce's greed-driven deception is an example of the worst type of criminal behavior," John Joyce, special agent in charge of the Secret Service's Tampa office, said in a released statement. "He exploited and profited from a multitude of fabricated inspection reports, thus taking advantage of a downturned economy."
As part of a plea deal, Counce agreed to cooperate with an ongoing investigation and testify if necessary. Prosecutors, in turn, will not oppose his request for a prison term on the low end of the sentencing range.
"Mr. Counce has agreed that he and many other people broke the law, and he's doing his best now to accept responsibility and move on with his life," said Counce's attorney, John M. Fitzgibbons of Tampa.
Around 2007, Counce founded a company called Mid-Florida Home Securing. He changed the name two years later to American Mortgage Field Services. The company specialized in residential and commercial property inspections and general home repairs and maintenance, according to its website.
But it was the inspection side of the business that made Counce millions.
Lenders such as Countrywide Services and, later, Bank of America would send Counce a list of distressed properties that required periodic inspections mandated — and ultimately paid for — by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or the Federal Housing Administration.
The inspections required Counce to visit a property, complete a report, take photographs and send the information to the lender. Counce performed some inspections personally, but as the company grew, he hired employees to do them.
As the housing market sank to new depths, the company couldn't keep up with the volume of inspection requests, so Counce and his staffers started fabricating reports.
When a new request came in, Counce directed inspectors to visit the property and take many photographs, far more than necessary for a single report. He then directed employees — some of them still in high school — to use the photos for subsequent reports. These workers, according to court records, were called the "dates"
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In other cases, Counce told workers to use information from public websites, such as the local property appraiser's office, to fabricate reports for properties that weren't inspected. Staffers who produced a large number of false reports were often rewarded with cash bonuses.
Employees estimated about 30 percent of the reports completed in 2007 and 2008 were fabricated.
In 2009, Counce won a new contract with Bank of America, and the scale of the fraud increased.
By the end of that year, American Mortgage was sending as many as 100,000 reports each month to the bank's servers in Texas. Employees told investigators about 50 to 60 percent of those reports were fraudulent.
Bank of America paid the company about $23.5 million over the course of five years. Investigators say Counce was able to keep overhead so low that he netted between $700,000 and $1 million in a single month.
One day last March, Secret Service agents raided Counce's office in a nondescript cream-colored warehouse tucked behind a Dollar General Store off Spring Hill Drive. A white truck the size of an RV sat backed up to the door as agents carrying backpacks and plastic cases walked in and out.
On Friday, Counce sat next to Fitzgibbons in a 12th floor courtroom. He sported a buzz cut and a goatee, his burly frame straining the seams of his charcoal gray suit. He offered one-word answers as Magistrate Judge Thomas G. Wilson made sure he understood the plea agreement.
The government estimates Counce owes $12.7 million in restitution, but that's not the final number, attorneys on both sides agreed. Fines could be levied on top of that.
One of Counce's daughters wiped tears as Fitzgibbons asked the judge to allow her father to travel to South Florida and South Dakota to visit his children before the sentencing hearing that will surely result in a prison term.
Wilson agreed and set bail at $30,000.
Times news researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (352) 848-1431.