Two Long Island, New York, men used phony appraisals and bogus loan applications and trusts to carry out a $30 million bank fraud scheme, a federal prosecutor told a jury Thursday in Central Islip.
"It was a long-running conspiracy," Assistant U.S. Attorney Allen Bode said in his opening statement, detailing a scheme that involved more than 20 homes bought between 2003 and 2008 in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Charged with conspiracy to commit mortgage bank fraud are Aaron Wider, 51, the head of mortgage bank HTFC Corp. in Garden City, and Joseph Ferrara Jr., 71, of Long Beach.
Four co-defendants in the case have pleaded guilty.
Bode said the defendants bought the homes from innocent sellers. The properties would be immediately transferred into a phony trust, which then sold it back to the buyer at nearly double the price, he said.
The defendants resold the "toxic" mortgages in the secondary market, pocketing the difference between the real and inflated values, the prosecutor said. All of the homes wound up in foreclosure.
Prosecutors have called the scheme a prime example of corrupt mortgage-lending practices that led to the burst of the real estate bubble nationwide and the financial collapse of 2007 and 2008.
Wider was described by his attorney as an astute businessman, not a criminal.
"Properties get sold for different values all the time," Commack attorney Richard A. Miller told jurors, adding that it's "not a crime" to put property into a different name or trust.
Ferrara's attorney, Anthony La Pinta of Hauppauge, called his client "merely a Joe from the streets" with a ninth-grade education.
La Pinta said Ferrara was duped into thinking he'd be helpinrenovate investment properties.
"Joe was lied to and manipulated by that man, Aaron Wider," the attorney told the jury.
But Bode said Ferrara played a role in the scheme, purchasing eight of the homes and overstating his income to qualify for mortgages.
Three co-defendants -- Manjeet Bawa, 47, of Dix Hills, and attorneys Eric Finger of Miami and John Petiton of Garden City -- could be called as witnesses, Bode said.
Joseph Mirando, 55, of Centereach, a real estate appraiser, pleaded guilty Thursday morning before the trial started.
He told U.S. District Judge Arthur D. Spatt that he prepared appraisals at Wider's request for more than 20 homes that "contained values for the properties that were far greater than the properties were worth."
Testifying for the prosecution, Nassau County deputy assessor Eileen Ryan said she spotted a series of puzzling real estate transactions with HTFC holding the mortgage.
She testified that Ferrara bought a Carman Mill Road property in Massapequa for $450,000 on Jan. 31, 2007 and immediately transferred it to a trust bearing the seller's name. The same day, the property was resold for $800,000.
"On its face, unexplainable," she said. "There was a whole pocket with that same pattern."
Ryan said she alerted the county appraiser, who contacted the district attorney's office.
Testimony resumes Monday. Wider and Ferrara face up to 30 years in prison if convicted.