The convicted target of one of the largest mortgage fraud investigations in the Pittsburgh region will likely get a new trial because his lawyer nodded off during his recent trial in U.S. District Court.
James Nassida, former owner of Century III Home Equity in the South Hills, Pennsylvania, was convicted Monday of orchestrating a complex fraud scheme with the help of his sister, Janna Nassida.
But Mr. Nassida’s lawyer, veteran defense attorney Stan Levenson, fell asleep a few times during the three-week trial and the jurors noticed.
“I’m embarrassed about it, and it shouldn’t have happened,” Mr. Levenson said today.
He said he’d had a cold and had taken cold medicine that made him sleepy.
He admitted that he nodded off several times last week as the trial, which featured huge amounts of documentary evidence and nearly 40 witnesses, drew to a close.
After the Nassidas were found guilty, U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose asked the jurors if they’d seen that Mr. Levenson had drifted off.
Eleven of the 12 said yes.
The judge could have declared a mistrial but instead is expected to appoint a new lawyer to represent Nassida. That lawyer is likely to file a motion for ineffective counsel and ask for a new trial. Or Nassida could seek a plea deal, although that appears unlikely.
Janna Nassida was tried along with her brother but her conviction will stand, and she will not be tried again.
Mr. Levenson said the government’s evidence against his client was overwhelming. After three weeks of often mind-numbing testimony, the jury deliberated only about an hour before finding the Nassidas guilty of bank fraud and conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud.
“I think the outcome will be the same,” Mr. Levenson said of a new trial.
The U.S. attorney’s office declined comment.
Prosecutors said Nassida, 48, of Pleasant Hills, who started Century III in 1994, headed a conspiracy that used inflated borrower incomes and assets, along with fake property appraisals, to fool lenders into making millions of dollars in fraudulent loans. The motive was greed, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan Conway, who said James Nassida lived a lavish lifestyle on the proceeds of his schemes.
Janna Nassida, 45, of West Mifflin, was the No. 2 official and a loan officer in the company and helped with the fraud.
Over the last two years, numerous loan officers at the company had pleaded guilty and become government witnesses against the Nassidas as the government built its case.
Prosecutors and agents said Century III had become an “incubator” for mortgage fraud schemes in the 2000s, and the investigation generated other cases for the mortgage fraud task force here.