Confronted with a growing epidemic of mortgage fraud -- Florida now has the highest rate in the nation -- the number of license revocations declined over the last five years, leaving borrowers at the mercy of predatory brokers.
During the peak of the housing boom, the Office of Financial Regulation ignored a state law enacted in 2006 that compelled it to perform nationwide criminal background checks on applicants. That failure allowed people convicted in other states -- and in federal court -- to peddle loans in Florida without any scrutiny.
Regulators allowed at least 20 brokers to keep their licenses even after committing the one crime that seemed sure to get them banned from the industry: mortgage fraud.
''I knew we had a problem. I had no idea how bad,'' U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said when told of The Miami Herald's findings.
Martinez is co-sponsor of an amendment to a sweeping federal housing bill that would ban anyone convicted of a felony from selling mortgages for seven years.
While much attention on the national mortgage crisis has focused on questionable Wall Street practices, the damage done by criminal brokers began on a far more basic and intimate level.
In brokerages at nondescript offices in strip malls across the state, the frauds ran the gamut, from simple schemes to boost reported incomes and assets, to elaborate enterprises with straw buyers and bogus appraisals.
Sometimes banks were the targets of the fraud; other times, borrowers.
Don Saxon, commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation, said he didn't know why his staff issued licenses to bank robbers and racketeers, but would look into the cases cited by The Miami Herald.
''You're asking me to get into the heads of the people who made those choices,'' Saxon said. He added: ''Certainly we are not proud of the fact that these people have gone on to do bad things.''
OFR officials who do the screening said there is no single standard they use to decide who gets a license: The criminal background check is just one of many factors.
''We look at all the facets around, you know, whatever file, and we predicate on the fact that everybody deserves another chance,'' said Terry Straub, director of the OFR's Division of Finance, which regulates the mortgage industry in Florida.
Miami-Dade schoolteacher Candace Young said she expects more vigilance from regulators.
She ran up a $100,000 legal bill while fighting to get her house back after broker Michael Fletcher -- who has a conviction for grand theft -- allegedly slipped the deed into a stack of documents he got her to sign. Young said she thought she was simply refinancing.
She got the house back. A civil-court judge nullified the deed transfer because the notary whose signature is on the documents admitted she was not present for the deal.
Fletcher could not be reached for comment for this report.
''I think it's horrible,'' Young said. ''Why would you let someone convicted of grand theft just go and raid the public? What does it take to lose a license?''
THE BOOM YEARS
When Almeida made the jump from cocaine trafficker to mortgage broker in 2002, he joined a wave that would nearly triple the number of brokers in Florida by the summer of 2007.
They were the first, and only, contact most buyers had with the banking industry.
Their role was simple: to persuade banks to lend their customers the money they would need to buy into the booming real-estate market.