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FBI Arrests Police Commissioner, Slumlord, Rabbi

by Paul Bass | Jun 17, 2010 4:10 pm

(24) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Housing, Neighborhoods

Paul Bass PhotoFederal agents charged 15 people—some of them prominent local figures—with undertaking massive mortgage fraud and moved to take control of 51 blighted New Haven properties Thursday, as the government’s response to the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis took a new legal turn.

The feds’ charges were laid out in eye-popping legal complaints filed in three separate alleged schemes to buy and inflate values on distressed properties, then stiff government and private lenders and pocket the cash.

The properties in question fall on some of the streets most battered by the current foreclosure crisis, like Starr Street in Newhallville and Fair Haven’s Lloyd Street.

Agents arrested 13 of the 15 alleged conspirators Thursday. Those accused of masterminding the various, apparently unconnected schemes include some local notables: Menachem Joseph Levitin, part of one of the city’s fastest-growing empires of slum rental properties; West Haven Police Commissioner Thomas Gallagher, an appraiser accused of inflating property values in these transactions; former New Haven State Rep. Morris Olmer, who allegedly arranged deals under the pretense of being a lawyer despite having turned in his legal license; and Rabbi David Avigdor, a New Haven attorney allegedly practicing with Olmer.

Gallagher, Olmer, and Avigdor each face up to 20 years in jail and $250,000 fines on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to defraud the government with Federal Housing Administration (FHA)-insured mortgages.

Gallagher’s and Olmer’s alleged fraudulent practices were publicly known as far back as July 2007, when Olmer had his license suspended and this Independent article was published.

Olmer insisted in a conversation Thursday afternoon that the feds invented the case against him—and that any problems should fall on the shoulders of the sellers, not the buyers, of property under law. He said he had a legal right to conduct “notary closings” without a law license, and he contested the feds’ context of conversations secretly recorded by a cooperating witness.

“Everything I did was perfectly proper,” Olmer said.

Avigdor, who presides over Congregation Bikur Cholim Sheveth in Westville, is recovering from a stroke suffered on May 7. He and Olmer turned themselves in to authorities. They were arraigned in U.S. District Court in New Haven Thursday and released on $250,000 non-surety bonds.

Thomas MacMillan Photo“I will prove my innocence, because I would never, ever do” what the government accuses him of doing, said Avigdor (pictured at an unrelated aldermanic hearing last year) Thursday. He declined further comment.

So did Levitin, reached by phone Thursday. “You’ll have to talk to my lawyer, Willie Dow,” Levitin said.

Remarked Dow, “History shows that charges are easily made but not easily proven.”

Police Commissioner Gallagher has served as grand marshal of New Haven’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade and won West Haven’s Irishman of the Year award, noted his attorney, Hugh Keefe. “Tom is highly reputed in this area. He’s very prominent in the Irish-American community,” Keefe said, adding that Gallagher has never previously been accused of criminal conduct.

The government complaints unsealed Thursday (read two of them here and here) offer a look at how alleged scammers profited from New Haven’s foreclosure crisis while leaving a trail of further blight behind them. But the information released so far by the government leaves open other questions about how the alleged scammers were able to obtain so much property, and whether distant lenders or their representatives were merely victims or also at least convenient unwitting contributors to, or beneficiaries, of the scams.

The New Haven sweeps occurred on the same day that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the arrests of 1,215 people nationwide since March on mortgage-fraud-related charges in an operation called “Operation Stolen Dreams.”

The Connecticut arrests, centered on transactions in New Haven and in New London, weren’t directly related to that national operation. A Connecticut Mortgage Fraud Task Force had already been investigating these cases since last July. The task force includes the state and regional offices of the U.S. Attorney General, FBI, federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Inspector General, and U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Directors of those agencies unveiled the latest arrests at a Thursday afternoon press conference in the U.S. Attorney’s Office on the 11th floor of the 157 Church St. office tower across from the New Haven Green.

Their investigation is ongoing, with “no end to what we’re going to find” in “many” other active cases, said Connecticut U.S. Attorney David B. Fein.

How One Scheme Allegedly Worked

Thursday’s announcements involved three separate, apparently unrelated schemes bringing together lawyers, real estate brokers, appraisers, and “straw buyers” enlisted to pretend to buy properties at inflated prices.

One alleged scheme was centered on the New London area. The other two, New Haven.

One of the New Haven schemes allegedly fueled the rise of a slumlording empire run by Menachem Levitin, who also goes by the name Yosef or Joseph Levitin, and operates and works with a host of limited liability corporations including Shemesh LLC, Solo Investments LLC, and Beit Aviv LLC.

The FBI arrested Levitin last month (as the Advocate’s Betsy Yagla reported) but waited until Thursday to release its complaint.

Levitin started showing up in poor and transitional neighborhoods throughout town a few years ago, buying properties in foreclosure or facing foreclosure.

Neighbors wondered how he found out about these properties and arranged their purchase with distant lenders, before the properties were listed or lenders (who had often purchased subprime or other bad loans from banks or brokers listed in public documents) identified. Meanwhile, Levitin’s management companies earned the ire of neighbors angry over rundown conditions dragging down their blocks. Click here to read a story about one such area, Batter Terrace, where neighborhoods organizer confronted Levitin on the street one day in 2008, and Levitin promised to do better.

According to the federal complaint released Thursday, Levitin and his partners got the money to buy 51 New Haven properties like Batter Terrace by running a scam on 40 different properties.

The group actually ran two alleged scams, according to the feds: “seller assistance scams” and “short sale scams.”

Here’s how the former allegedly worked: Levitin found owners eager to unload rundown properties. He allegedly acted as a middleman: agreeing on a sales price; finding a buyer; arranging for the appraisal. According to the complaint, he got an appraiser to prepare an appraisal document for $50,000 to $100,000 more than the value of the house. He allegedly had a sale document drawn up to reflect the higher, pretend price. The fraudulent documents were used to obtain mortgages at the inflated price. The alleged schemers allegedly pocketed the difference between the real sales price and the inflated price.

Meanwhile, the new owner wouldn’t pay the mortgage. The lender would foreclose; it wouldn’t be able to sell the house for the inflated value of the mortgage.

That problem—a house with a mortgage higher than its value—has plagued properties throughout New Haven neighborhoods, leaving them empty and deteriorating. That situation opened the door for another scam the Levitin crew allegedly undertook—the short sales: Levitin would allegedly step in and offer to take the property off the lender’s hands for less money than the mortgage was worth. The lender, wishing to cut its losses, would agree, unaware that Levitin had allegedly orchestrated the whole deal.

The schemers also allegedly used false leases with pretend tenants to obtain the inflated mortgages. Levitin is charged with rounding up the pretend tenants from “two paid-for database services that derive their information from credit reports.” Investigators reported that the supposed tenants never paid electric bills, despite leases saying they would, or ever lived at the addresses.

Much of the case is built around secret recordings and other information provided by an unidentified undercover “cooperating witness” who allegedly bought properties through Levitin.

The U.S. Attorney has moved to take control through foreclosure of the 51 other properties Levitin and co. allegedly bought with the proceeds of the 40 questioned sales properties like the one on Batter Terrace. Those properties have been the subject of repeated complaints from neighbors and tenants.

“You Don’t Need Them Investigating You”

The separate alleged scheme involving the police commissioner, the rabbi, and the unlicensed lawyer involved $10 million of loans on 35 New Haven properties. Officials estimated that lenders were cheated of $3 to $4 million of that money.

According to the criminal complaint released Thursday, the scheme worked like this:

The alleged mastermind, one Syed A. Babar, would pay “straw buyers” up to $20,000 to sign a contract to pretend to buy a house. The contract would put the price at far higher than the real price being paid. Babar would help a complicit broker prepare a mortgage application for the pretend buyer based on fake bank records, earning statements, and other documents claiming the straw buyer—who’d never seen the property—would in fact buy it and live there.

Gallagher, the West Haven appraiser and police commissioner with a longstanding prominent local practice, would allegedly prepare the fake, inflated appraisal to support the pretend sales price and the inflated mortgage. He allegedly received $8,000 cut on a typical such transaction, even though its stated fee is $375.

Olmer, allegedly pretending he was still licensed to practice law, would handle the closing. David Avigdor, an attorney sharing an office with Olmer in New Haven, is alleged to have signed the documents and distribute the proceeds of the sales to co-conspirators.

“This was done in a number of ways, including through the bank account of a sham construction company for fictitious renovations,” according to the criminal complaint. As with the Levitin case, the complaint attributes some information to an unidentified “cooperating witness” involved in the alleged transactions and secretly recording conversations.

In one such conversation, the witness allegedly asked Babar what the complicit broker thought a particular fraudulent document. Babar allegedly replied that the broker “just wants to ‘make money,’ and that he ‘don’t give a shit about FHA because it’s a government loan.”

In another purported taped conversation, the witness and Babar discuss a rare development: a bank noticed something funny about one of the documents: “Babar state[d] that the “bank got clever nowadays.’ Babar then wonder[ed] aloud, ‘How the f_ck did they [the bank] notice it?’ [The cooperating witness] later asked, ‘Do you think they’re going to verify stuff now, with like the bank statement and things like that?’ Babar replied, ‘no.’” Babar also told the witness to pretend to work in “human resources” for a fake company called “Global Home Painting” under a fake name to verify one participant’s alleged employment.

In other alleged taped conversation, former attorney Olmer, allegedly handling a closing, told the witness to avoid responding to questions from a lender about bank statements. “You don’t need them [the lender] investigating you guys as to what’s been happening,” he allegedly advised.

“Let me tell you something,” Olmer responded in an interview later Thursday. “Those conversations were after everything had been done, not during the time these things were going on.

“I’m pretty sure I know who he’s talking about. The guy was talking to me and asking me just as a friend, because I can’t give him legal advice what to do. They were after this one guy because they had caught up to him and he hadn’t paid anything on eight deals. I think I did one of the deals for him back in ‘07.”

Olmer further argued that it’s up to the seller, not the buyer, to properly disclose payments involved in a real estate transaction. “Most of the rules with respect to borrowing money had to do with protecting the borrower and the bank from terrible actions by the brokers to screw the borrowers,” he said.

He added that at a closing, it’s OK to break up the payments into separate checks, as long as the full price is genuinely paid, which he claimed did happen in these transactions.

“Look at it this way,” Olmer said. “If the seller is supposed to get $50,000, and the seller says at the time of the closing says, ‘Listen give me $45,000 and give $5,000 to my brother-in-law, that’s perfectly all right, as long as the seller gets the full amount he’s supposed to get.”

Olmer said he openly handled the closings as a notary public, not as a lawyer.

“There’s two ways to do a closing in Connecticut,” he said. “One, you can do a closing as a lawyer. Two, you can do a closing as a notary public. I run a business called Docs/Notary LLC. I can’t give out title insurance. But I can do what are called notary closings.”

The government complaint listed 10 transactions in which attorney Avigdor allegedly prepared documents claiming to have distributed between $43,625 and $89,228 to a fictitious company called Sheda Telle Construction LLC.

Olmer said he’s convinced the construction company is real and received the money.

“How the hell can you send money to a company if it’s not a legitimate company?” he asked. “I was positive it was a real construction company. The guys told me that. I knew Babar for years. I’ve done work for him before. He came to me a year or two ago. He said he had a new idea because business was so bad. He was going to do home repairs. Buy properties that were downtrodden, that were in bad condition, fix them up and sell them. That was his whole idea. That was the apparent purpose. That’s what he said.”

Paul Bass Photo At Thursday’s press conference, U.S. Attorney Fein (pictured with Connecticut FBI chief Kimberly Mertz) described an example of an allegedly fraudulent sale in Fair Haven, at 211 Lloyd St. The straw buyer never even received the keys to the house she was allegedly buying and moving in to, Fein claimed. Rather, she received “$10,000 in a black plastic trash bag.”

At the press conference, Fein declined to elaborate beyond what was in the detailed documents his office released. He wouldn’t say, for instance, if the investigation would look at whether lenders were more than “victims” in these transactions. Nor would he say how it was that Levitin was able to find out about which often-remote lenders to make deals with, when even sophisticated would-be purchasers had no idea whom to contact, or even that a house was being sold.

He did make it clear that lots of more information would emerge as the investigation continues into the latest recurring wave of real estate speculation and alleged fraud in struggling city neighborhoods.

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Comments

posted by: Ellis Copeland on June 17, 2010  6:12pm

Yet the Big Kahuna continues to slip through the net.

posted by: kamb on June 17, 2010  8:44pm

Not surprised!

posted by: mikepc45 on June 18, 2010  12:09am

If any of you care this is a direct result of the Community Reinvest Act under Carter and Clinton. If the original rules of Fannie, Freddie, and the FHA had followed this would not have happened. Please take the time to Google Franlklin Raines and Jemie Gorlick in conjunction with Fannie Mae.The other gangster in this group is part of the troika of gangsters now sitting in the White House. Check out Rhambo’s little bonus rreceivedafter pillaging Freddie-Mac Acorn is another culprit in this.The rules were broken to give people who were not qualified loans, then then flood gates of crime and fraud were unleashed. I saw this happen, I was in the business 15 years and got out as a matter of conscious.I once saw mortgage were a couple six mos. out of bankruptcy bought a home in Indiana with no money down and walked out of the closing with the house and 3 thousand dollars in their pocket as seller agreed to pay closing costs and the purchasers got the overage. The mortgage was of the worst kind, a six month libor. But they did not care they got 3 grand and a place to live for free until eviction. This loan was sold a mortgage backed security.

posted by: Political Assasin on June 18, 2010  6:30am

Gallagher ... appraised 50-52 Bristol St. in West Haven 10 years ago. This house had City of West Haven tax liens of approximately $28,000, Regional Water company liens and an IRS lien. All liens totaling approximately $89,000. 
Gallagher, acting as an agent for “Blue Ribbon Appraisals” (71 Elm St.West Haven)appraised the property for approximately $30,000. Because Municipal taxes take precedent, all other liens (including the IRS)go away.
Aspen Funding Group, also of 71 Elm st., purchased the property for approx $30,000 from West Haven and within 1 month flipped the property for more than $89,000 without doing any work.
Sound familiar?

posted by: cedarhillresident on June 18, 2010  7:01am

Joe ownes the property on Rock and State and the property on State and Blatchley in Cedar Hill. http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/7_displaced_by_blatchley_fire/

I complain for ever about the Rock street one with garbage over flowing for weeks from the dumpsters. Friends that lived there went over a month in Feburary WITHOUT heat. They finally moved as soon as there lease was out. Another older couple that lived there for decades who had the rent cheap because of that where forced to leave because the roaches where not being taken care of even after repeated calls the the company that now managed it. (levitin) I finally met with the owners from New York and told them how Joe was trying to move a Biker club that was kicked out of East Haven into the building…who did not move in thanks to LCI and Rebecca our Police district manager at the time. They have been placing some good people in the building since.  But not after repeated complaints of the crack and prostitution the building was bringing into my area.
I wonder who will be caring for these properties while this is happening?? And what is going on with the burnt out house on Blatchley?

posted by: jcp on June 18, 2010  8:26am

Who’s the Big Kahuna?

posted by: davec on June 18, 2010  9:16am

Cedarhill,
I keep my eye on 501 Blatchley because I have been photographing it.  There were 7 people living in the house at the time of the fire.  I’m willing to bet most are stilling living in the house today.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/twolaneblacktop/4684642321/

posted by: Morris Cove Mom on June 18, 2010  9:25am

Wow, no rest for the wicked, as these folks have scammed over 50 properties before being caught.  But at what cost?  The US Government has bailed out banks, mortgagers, and the auto industry….because people like this keep defrauding us, the American people.

This is also why New Haven is in dire straits.  All these properties have tax liens on them, in addition to water and sewer liens, too.

Think of all the years of back taxes on 50+ properties, and you’ll see that this is one of the reasons the Mayor wants to increase taxes.

posted by: Nan Bartow on June 18, 2010  10:01am

Yes, who is the Big Kahuna?

posted by: Cedarhillresident on June 18, 2010  11:15am

davec commented on a few of your photos…what is the State street project for?

posted by: davec on June 18, 2010  11:24am

My State Street project is art.
But this is getting off the thread of this article.

posted by: robn on June 18, 2010  12:22pm

Theres an old con artist ditty, “you can’t cheat an honest man.” In this case its both true and not true. The banks got cheated first because of their indifferent greed (dishonest) but ultimately, taxpayers (honest) get cheated as the banks moan and groan for federal assistance and cities and neighbors get saddled with blighted properties.

posted by: Marieah C. Viviel Rozo on June 18, 2010  2:10pm

Good work.-To bad it had to take that much time. Thanks.

posted by: Vern on June 18, 2010  2:37pm

Morris Olmer, an 82 y/o distinguished ex-attorney, should have been appointed as a Judge instead of being arrested.

posted by: robn on June 18, 2010  4:01pm

ummm? whats your thinking behind that Vern?

posted by: 89446974796 on June 18, 2010  6:52pm

As I try to keep up on fashion, I have a Bloods bandana, but where do you buy ... those Lou Reed shades!?

posted by: cedarhillresident on June 18, 2010  7:13pm

Just found out that the above mentioned property on Rock and State is in Foreclosure to! Must be a part of this case.

posted by: Ellis Copeland on June 19, 2010  2:08am

The Big Kahuna is just who you’d think:  the biggest fish the Feds have yet to nail.  He who specializes in property theft at the expense of the whole city

posted by: more info on June 19, 2010  7:53am

Its nice to see justice being served! If you have been served with foreclosure, do yourself a favor and get the proper representation.

posted by: robn on June 19, 2010  4:42pm

So this police commissioner, a rabbi, a slumlord, and an FBI agent walk into a bar….

posted by: The truth on June 20, 2010  4:53am

I feel bad for everyone in this situation,
money is the root to all evil and it’s sometimes hard to resist the temtation. I pray for the tax payees and the neighborhoods and the the families that will also be effected by those who will serve time. Lesson learned even when you do dirt, trust no one!

posted by: J on June 20, 2010  10:11pm

This is all disgusting. I wish I could say I’m shocked.

I do think, though, David Avigdor should be featured less prominently here. It is conceivable, given his alleged *complicity* rather than *activity* (not to mention profit) that he was duped. And though saying so betrays me as an interested party, I must point out that he has been well loved in his community for decades and has never, to my knowledge, displayed so much as an inkling of ill intention or misdeed. If ever a person was innocent until proven guilty, it is Rabbi Avigdor.

posted by: Ned on June 21, 2010  11:31am

501 Blatchley Slum now has a dark, smokey past…
http://seeclickfix.com/issues/1482

See what other “investors” have to say about property in New Haven:
[url=“http://www.biggerpockets.com/users/petrelis”]In my own words…

I’ve been investing in New Haven county Ct since 1992. I buy and hold 2-6 unit properties and also buy,fix and sell houses.

I primarily buy me rentals in low income areas (the hood) but I have bought in war zones also. In 06 and 07 I unloaded some of my war zone properties by doing exchanges into low income areas. I gave up cash flow for less head aches.

Well, its hard flipping now, but its getting to be prime duck hunting season in Ct. for rental property and I’ve got one more real estate cycle in me! [/url]

Maybe the feds want to check out some properties on Clay St.?

posted by: Former Tenant on June 27, 2010  9:51am

Yes, Justice finally served.  This same slum lord refused to fix my bathroom which was growing mold and becoming a hazard to my health.  When I asked him to fix it, he said, “We can have that fix in a day” then his partner looks out the window and see’s that I drive a new Ford Explorer and say’s “Is that your truck? How much do you pay for rent?”  The mold never got fixed and I quickly moved out!!! They even told me that I couldn’t afford to move and live in the Westville area where my apartment was because houses cost $500,000 in that area so I was getting a good deal.  ...

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