Lucie Tondreau, a community activist who made political history as North Miami’s first female Haitian-American mayor, was sentenced to 65 months in federal prison on Tuesday for her role in an $11 million mortgage fraud scam.
A tearful Tondreau said she wished “she could turn back time” and apologized to people she hurt — especially to the community who saw her as a symbol of hope and helped elect her mayor.
“I wish I understood the implications of what I was doing,” Tondreau told U.S. District Judge Robert Scola during her sentencing hearing.
A Miami federal jury found her guilty of conspiracy and wire-fraud charges after a two-week trial in December featuring emotional testimony from individuals who acted as “straw buyers” and said they had trusted her.
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Tondreau, 55, had faced a potential sentence of up to 30 years but Scola said he recognized that Tondreau had learned a lesson. Still, the judge said, a strong message needed to be sent to anyone else considering mortgage fraud operations and similar schemes.
“The mortgage fraud caused great damage not only to the banks but to the people who were brought in, the straw buyers whose credit was ruined,” Scola said.
Tondreau’s defense attorneys highlighted her good works as a community activist, calling several witnesses who spoke highly of her. They said she never asked for money when she gave them assistance.
“She is someone who seems to be from the people, who knows the people,” Emmanuel Alvarez, a Haitian radio host, said. “Money could never be the motivation for the Lucie Tondreau I’ve known for the last 30 years.”
The defense also submitted several letters of support from community members along with elected officials like Miami-Dade County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, U.S. Rep Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens, and former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré.
Prosecutors held firm to their argument that Tondreau was not unwittingly tricked into the scheme by her co-defendant, former business partner and ex-fiance, Karl Oreste. U.S. Attorney Lois Foster-Steers argued that the plan wouldn’t have worked without Tondreau.
“People trusted her and without the straw buyers, without the individuals with names, identities and credit, this fraud would not have been successful,” Foster-Steers said.
Throughout the hearing, muffled whimpers and tears were heard from supporters in the audience, especially as Tondreau was taken away in handcuffs after Scola’s decision. One woman nearly fell off her bench in tears but was quickly consoled by others around her. Tondreau’s attorneys considered the sentencing a slight victory, given the 30 years she might have faced.
“We asked for a lower sentence, but the government asked for a significantly higher sentence and the judge did what he was thought was appropriate,” attorney Ben Kuehne said. “We have no grievance with that.”
Kuehne said he and Tondreau’s other defense attorney, Michael Davis will appeal the decision.
The government found that she and her co-defendants, including Oreste and two other men who are fugitives, tricked banks into loaning them $11 million between 2005 and 2008 in the midst of the real estate boom.
Oreste, 57, pleaded guilty to wire-fraud conspiracy last July and in his plea agreement said he and Tondreau used Haitian radio to draw people into their scam against eight banks, including large ones like Wachovia. Oreste, in his statement, said they used the money to purchase more than 20 homes and pocket personal cash.
He was sentenced to more than eight years in prison last month.
A group of eight straw buyers testified during the trial and said they received thousands of dollars for participating in the scheme, but many said their credit and finances were significantly damaged.
Before her brief political career, Tondreau was widely known in the Haitian community for voicing her opinions on Haitian radio over the years. Before her trial began last December she continued to make appearances on the TV show Face a Face on Island TV, a Haitian-American cable network.
Former North Miami councilman Jacques Despinosse said he thinks the situation will bring healing to the community and he’s happy that she didn’t get the maximum sentence.
“We knew the judge was not just going to let her go, but five years is better than 30 years,” Despinosse said.
He and other supporters mostly expressed concern for Tondreau’s daughters—Nancy Lafleur, Elodie Alcindor and 15-year-old Luddy Delmont. Outside of the federal courthouse Tuesday, Lafleur said she was thankful for the final outcome.
“We’re still praying, we’re still together, we’re still a community because that’s what she stood for,” Lafleur said.
Tondreau was also sentenced to three years of supervised release at the conclusion of her prison term. The restitution she’ll have to pay will be finalized by the end of May.