Known as "Big O, " the six-foot three-inch, 280-pound Benn grew up as the son of a subway mechanic in one of Brooklyn's toughest neighborhoods. Even without a formal banking education, he needed just three years to advance from a low-paid clerical job to vice president.
At first, his job was to trouble-shoot problems that cropped up in loan applications, court records and interviews show.
Argent made money bundling the mortgages and selling them to investors on Wall Street, not by collecting monthly checks and depending on the borrowers' ability to pay. The accuracy of individual loan applications was not a priority, Benn later testified.
With control over hundreds of millions of dollars in loans, Benn launched a subprime empire that would soon cover most of Florida.
After four months on the job, Benn flew to Tampa to meet with mortgage brokers, who courted him with a luxury box at a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game, football tickets and strip-club outings, court records show.
He taught one of those brokers, Scott Almeida, a convicted cocaine trafficker, to prepare phony income statements and doctor credit reports.
A few months later, Almeida introduced Benn to Tampa brokers David Tuggle and Eric Steinhauser.
Soon after Benn taught them to prepare phony documents, they began to write millions of dollars in loans.
Along the way, the brokers showed their gratitiude. Air-express envelopes stuffed with cash -- a total of hundreds of thousands of dollars -- routinely arrived at Benn's million-dollar house in the New York suburbs. In slightly more than two years, Tuggle and Steinhauser alone paid Benn between $70,000 and $100,000, they told police.
SOUTH FLORIDA LINK
As the scheme grew riskier, it extended south, almost 300 miles, to the door of Yvette Valdez in Homestead.
Benn told Steinhauser to create a phony backdated deed to help a borrower get a loan. But Steinhauser said he had trouble finding someone in Tampa willing to help him because the deed would be filed in court.
So, Benn referred him to Valdez at Sandkick Mortgage.
For 16 months, Valdez and her co-workers were a mainstay of Benn's lucrative Miami-Dade operations, writing more than $1 million worth of loans in a typical month.
The Miami Herald obtained every loan application that Sandkick sent to Argent between May 2004 and September 2005, for mortgages totaling $22 million.
The documents include all of the personal and financial information about the borrower supplied by the broker.
Out of 129 applications, 103 contained red flags: non-existent employers, grossly inflated salaries and sudden, drastic increases in the borrower's net worth.
The simplest way for a bank to confirm someone's income is to call the employer. But in at least two dozen cases, the applications show bogus telephone numbers for work references, the newspaper found.
On three applications, Valdez provided her own private cellphone number, even though the borrowers did not work for her.
Another application included a June 2004 letter from "Community Bank, " saying the borrower had $63,000 in his account. The phone number on the letter does not belong to a financial institution, however. It belongs to Bill Rieck, a Key West city employee, who told The Miami Herald that he was surprised his number was used.
"I ain't no community bank, " he said, adding that the cell number has been his for at least six years.