Inspired by late-night infomercials, corrections officer Jacques Kelly wanted to become a real estate mogul by picking up rundown properties in New Haven. He was uneducated. Naive.
Andrew Constantinou, working as a Madison loan officer at the height of the pre-recession housing bubble, was drowning in a flood of real estate transactions. He was overworked and careless.
Both men were duped by a group of liars and cheats, and ended up arrested for crimes they didn’t commit.
That was the picture painted by the two men’s defense attorneys during opening statements in Judge Janet Hall’s first-floor courtroom in U.S. District Court on Church Street Tuesday.
The opening statements offered an unusually vivid and personal look at how mid-level players in mortgage-fraud rings allegedly came to play essential roles in stealing from banks and destroying urban blocks.
Kelly (pictured) and Constantinou are defending themselves from charges that they knowingly participated in one of New Haven’s largest-ever exposed mortgage fraud rings, one that bilked lenders out of millions of dollars. They have both pleaded not guilty.
As a jury trial kicked off Tuesday morning, the government offered a 16-member jury a different picture of Kelly and Constantinou. Prosecuting attorneys contend that both men willingly entered into a conspiracy that devastated struggling New Haven neighborhoods. The government also accuses Kelly of committing wire fraud and making a false statement.
Special Assistant U.S. Attorney John McReynolds introduced the government’s case in the prosecution’s opening statement.
“Jacques Kelly and his coworkers wanted to invest in real estate,” McReynolds said. “They wanted to buy and sell houses and make millions. Only they didn’t have any money.”
So they deceived lenders to giving them money, McReynolds said. “The deception was so complete that lenders gave more” than Kelly and his co-workers were paying for houses.
“What that meant was that while they were supposed to bring money to closings, they got money back—$20,000, $30,000, $40,000.”
Kelly and his co-workers lied about how much they were paying for homes, about how many mortgages they had, and how much money they had in checking accounts, McReynolds said.
“They got appraisers to put higher values on property than they were worth,” he said.
Constantinou (pictured), meanwhile, worked on commission as a loan originator for GMAC and Countrywide, two lenders. “The more loans he could close, the more he could make,” McReynolds said.
Constantinou helped Kelly and others get around limits on the number of mortgages they could take out, and got kickbacks in return, McReynolds said.
Hubert Santos, Constantinou’s lawyer, acknowledged that his client made mistakes. But he argued his client was no conspirator, just an overworked paper-pusher.
“Let me take you back before 2008,” Santos said to the jury. “Real estate throughout this country was hot, hot, hot.”
At that time Constantinou was working as a loan originator, “the first person you talk to when buying a house.” His job was to take information about how much a buyer earned, what kind of debts he had, the quality of his credit, if he had any assets.
It was a busy, busy time, Santos said. “As he got into the office in the morning, the phones would be screaming off the hook. The fax machine would be churning out document after document.” Everyone was looking for a mortgage.
“Did he make some mistakes? Did he fail to do something because of the tremendous volume he was encountering? Yeah, absolutely,” Santos (pictured) said. But did he commit fraud or conspire to commit fraud? No.
Bruce Koffsky, Kelly’s attorney, also took the jury back in time—to 1983, when his client graduated high school. He shared a brief bio, of a man with an interest in real estate who got in over his head.
After graduation, Kelly took a year of college, ran out of money and joined the air force. Six years later, he became a corrections officer at the Westchester corrections center. He married and bought a house.
In 2002, while visiting a friend in Virginia Beach, Kelly found a townhouse on the market for $64,000, for only $2,400 down. The real estate company would manage the property for him. Kelly bought the house, and sold it three years later for a $19,000 profit.
“In Jacques’ mind, when that happened, he was not only a homeowner, but an investor,” Koffsky said.
As the “economy tanked and prices plummeted, Jacques would stay up late at night and watched shows about buying real estate with no money down,” Koffsky said. “This was for him.” He bought books and videos.
In 2004 and 2005, “with his good friend Ron Hutchison” (who has pleaded guilty to mortgage fraud), Kelly bought two multifamily houses in New Haven. The two were part of a group of corrections officers who “got taken in,” Koffsky said.
Kelly eventually got tired of driving up to New Haven to check on his properties. “That’s when Jacques Kelly met Menachem Joseph Levitin,” Koffsky said.
Levitin (who has also pleaded guilty) offered to manage Kelly’s properties. And he started telling Kelly about buying real estate with no money down, maybe even getting money back at closings, Koffsky said.
Koffsky held up DVDs for the jury to see, movies on how to get cash at a closing and buy with no money down. These were the kinds of “infomercials” Kelly had been watching, Koffsky said.
“These were naive investors,” Koffsky said. Kelly and his correction officer colleagues only had high school educations, maybe a little college.
They “were asked to sign and sign and sign with little understanding of what they were signing,” Koffsky said. Kelly had no intent to defraud or to join any conspiracy. Kelly’s intent, Koffsky said, was just to be a real estate investor.