A criminal past, a trail of new victims
A convicted cocaine trafficker with a mortgage broker license ultimately admitted that he fleeced 30 customers out of $2.8 million.
BY JACK DOLAN
Eighty-three-year-old W.C. Eckles limps around the outside of his house, pointing to the holes in his walls. He stuffs them with rags. He covers them with plywood. But wind, rain and mosquitoes still find their way through, tormenting his sleep, he said.
The trouble began in 2004, when a salesman knocked on his door and offered a new mortgage that would cut his monthly house payment in half. It would also provide $30,000 for renovations -- a new roof, new windows, new floors.
That salesman worked for mortgage broker Scott Almeida, who stole most of the money, court records show, but not before his construction crew had descended on the Bartow house and torn gaping holes in the walls.
Now, the place is uninsurable, Eckles said. ''I feel pretty rough. I don't see my way out no more.''
One of Almeida's 30 victims, Eckles never knew that his broker was a convicted cocaine trafficker who got his license straight out of federal prison. Nor did others -- not the brain-damaged ex-boxer confined to a wheelchair, not the woman whose loan proceeds paid for Almeida's engagement ring.
But they are among thousands of economically vulnerable Floridians, living on the edge of financial survival, who suffered as the state's mortgage-fraud rate became the nation's highest.
At least twice during Almeida's five-year estimated $13 million crime spree, state regulators got credible warnings about his predatory practices. But they did nothing to stop him.
Louise Winters, 80, of Tampa, reached out to regulators for help after Almeida sold her a 30-year mortgage that was supposed to pay off her existing home loan, settle a few bills and provide $10,000 for renovations -- to be done by a construction company Almeida's ran.
''I been here 42 years and I decided I wanted new floors,'' Winters said.
Almeida's construction manager slapped down some loose linoleum in a tiny front room, then covered a single step with an ill-fitting spare scrap of the material.
Winters never saw him again.
Her daughter, Lois Robinson, spent the next nine months trying to get Almeida to complete the promised work or refund the money.
That's when Robinson noticed that Almeida had lied on the loan application, listing her mother as 60 when she was actually 76. He also made up a job at a retirement community that allegedly paid Winters more than $30,000 a year.
Winters hasn't worked since her husband died in 1990, she told The Miami Herald.
Not knowing where else to turn, Robinson wrote to the state's Office of Financial Regulation in July 2004, exposing the lies that Almeida had included on the loan application.
''My mother and I would like this transaction to be investigated,'' Robinson wrote. ''My mother was defrauded of a considerable amount of money.''
But regulators closed the complaint with no action, their records show.
Winters said she was surprised to learn that the state had granted Almeida a license shortly after his release from federal prison. ''They couldn't possibly have been doing their job,'' she said.
Four months later, the OFR received an almost identical warning from the Hillsborough County Consumer Protection Agency. Investigator Eric Olsen had discovered that Almeida lied about another customer's income to get a loan, then diverted the proceeds.
Over a span of five months, Olsen made at least 48 calls to Almeida's company, trying to get the customer's money back, records show.
At one point, Victor Frias, the man who had been defrauded, went to the company's office and confronted Almeida's boss, Frank Giffone.
That only made things worse, Frias said. ''We went around and around, and finally he said he wasn't going to give me the money back because I went to the consumer department.''
In late October, Olsen got Giffone's lawyer on the phone. After their conversation, Olsen made the following notation in his investigative file: 'He hoped that Frank [Mr. Giffone] would `make it right for all who are involved' and he said that there were quite a few involved. He would not comment further.''
The next day, Olsen checked state records and saw that Giffone and Almeida were licensed mortgage brokers. He thought he had found the answer. Get the licenses revoked and put the men out of business until the police and courts could deal with them.
A few days later, Olsen's boss sent a summary of his investigative report to the OFR, records show. Again, regulators took no action.
Almeida kept his license for almost a year, long enough to scam more than $1 million from 12 other victims, including former boxer Calvin Washington.
He had been unable to work since he suffered a head injury in the ring in the 1980s, said Hillsborough Consumer Protection Agency investigator Robert Robillard.
Washington lived with his mother, Barbara Spann, in a modest Winter Haven house.
In October 2004, one of Almeida's salesmen showed up and said he represented a government program that helps disabled and elderly homeowners, Spann said.
He offered a refinancing deal that would reduce Washington's mortgage payments and provide nearly $26,000 cash for a new bathroom, new floors and handicap ramps for the front and back doors.
''My son said, 'Mommy, it's going to be a paradise,' '' Spann said.
The work never got done.
Almeida's crew removed burglar bars from some ground-floor windows and power-washed the house, prepping it for the appraisal photo required by the bank, court records show.
That was the last that Washington and Spann saw of them.
The $25,961 that was supposed to go to the renovations wound up in one of Almeida's bank accounts.
Another victim, Rita Gatlin of Bartow, agreed to a new mortgage that would generate $40,949 to pay for a new bedroom and bathroom. Her check also went into one of Almeida's accounts, with Gatlin's signature forged on the back, court records show.
The same day Gatlin's money was deposited, Sept. 20, 2004, Almeida wrote himself a check from the account for $2,000. Orson Benn, Almeida's contact at Argent Mortgage Co. in New York, which financed the loan, got a check for $3,000. It was one of many kickbacks Almeida sent Benn for approving questionable loan applications, court records show.
Benn is in the Polk County jail, awaiting trial on racketeering charges.
Almeida wrote at least one more check from that account, $12,000 to buy his fiancée a 1 ½-carat diamond engagement ring, court records show.
Gatlin, the borrower, got next to nothing. One day, some Almeida employees showed up and power-washed her house. She said she never saw them again.
POLICE STEP IN
In 2005, the Hillsborough County Consumer Protection Agency got three more disturbing complaints about Almeida.
Still frustrated by the OFR's lack of action, Hillsborough investigators reached out to the Office of the Statewide Prosecutor and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said the Hillsborough agency's chief investigator, Kevin Jackson. Their joint investigation led to a wide-ranging racketeering indictment and guilty pleas. Almeida confessed to fleecing 30 people for $2.8 million.
Almeida told The Miami Herald that almost all mortgage applications have some element of fraud, and that the practice was rampant in the industry.
''They're going to have to build 60 more jails if they want to prosecute everyone,'' he told the newspaper.
In five years, Almeida generated $13 million in loans from the now defunct Argent, which was then one of the biggest subprime mortgage lenders in the country.
Under a plea agreement, Almeida received a 10-year prison sentence. Giffone pleaded guilty to racketeering.
But the successful prosecution doesn't erase the frustration that investigators felt toward the state regulators, who had been alerted to Almeida years earlier.
When Jackson went to his counterpart at the OFR in 2005 to compare notes at the start of his own probe, he was surprised by how much the OFR already knew.
''He had a lot of this information. But he couldn't find it, he just wasn't putting it together,'' Jackson said of the OFR investigator who first looked into the complaints.
Mike Brown, a supervisor in the OFR's Tampa office, said: ''When my investigators started looking at this, the fraud didn't look like it was happening with the mortgage brokers. It looked like it was happening with the construction company.''
That's why he was happy to leave it to the consumer protection agents, Brown said.
None of that helps W.C. Eckles. In hindsight, he said he wasn't even that interested in most of the renovations that Almeida's salesman offered -- a new roof, new windows and shiny new floors.
He was sold by the promise of a taller toilet, to take the strain off his aching knees.
''It sounded good, so I went for it,'' Eckles said. ''It was my age. They took advantage of me.''