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By Felix Adamo/ The Californian
BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
FRESNO — After five days of testimony from more than a dozen witnesses, federal prosecutors rested their case Tuesday against Bakersfield mortgage fraud defendant Julie Farmer.
As the day’s court proceedings were drawing to an end and the jury had been excused, the former office manager’s Fresno defense attorney, Tony Capozzi, told the judge he thought the government had failed to present evidence that Farmer had knowingly conspired to defraud lenders, or that she was even aware of such a conspiracy.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Kirk Sherriff countered that there was a “ton of evidence” Farmer participated in the malfeasance. He said last week’s testimony from three people who had worked for Crisp, Cole & Associates Inc., also referred to as Crisp & Cole Real Estate — the company at the heart of the case — proved Farmer had participated in a scheme that cost lenders nearly $30 million in losses between 2004 and 2007.
The three witnesses were former financial official Sneha Ramesh Mohammadi and loan officers Christopher Lance Stovall and Jerald Teixeira. Each had agreed to testify as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors, and each said Farmer was part of the scheme or at least aware of it while it was occurring.
The case now turns to the defense, which predicted the trial will go to the jury for deliberations as soon as Thursday.
Tuesday’s proceedings at U.S. District Court in Fresno included testimony by a former loan processor at the company, who said Farmer was aware of forgeries being performed at the company’s mortgage arm, and that the defendant even complimented an employee’s signature-tracing work.
“Julie was looking over her shoulder,” Brandice Bingaman said, referring to forgeries done by another loan processor at the office.
Under cross examination, however, Bingaman, an employee of Tower Lending, explained that the forgeries were done only to clean up paperwork that had been red-flagged by a state Department of Real Estate auditor, and that the false signatures were never submitted to lenders for loans.
Also Tuesday, a former real estate agent with the company known as Crisp & Cole testified that Farmer instructed him in late 2006 to make a series of financial transactions needed to complete a home loan obtained under false pretenses.
Jeriel Salinas was a “straw buyer” in the $1.3 million purchase of a Shaver Lake home nominally owned by Farmer but which actually belonged to Crisp & Cole.
He said Farmer told him to notify her when his credit union had received $130,000 the company had wired to his account to help secure approval of two loans funding the transaction.
He said Farmer also instructed him to deliver two cashier’s checks totaling $105,000 to the now-defunct company after the deposit had been confirmed. The property was one of many the company owned that eventually went into foreclosure.
Under questioning by Capozzi, Salinas acknowledged the defendant never asked him to buy the property, and that he was owed some $400,000 by the firm’s co-owner, David Crisp.
But Salinas rejected Capozzi’s suggestion that the $130,000 wired to his account constituted partial repayment of the debt.
“It just went right back out” of Salinas’ account after the loan was approved, Salinas said.
Prosecutors have alleged Farmer was involved in directing a mortgage fraud ring led by Crisp and business partner Carl Cole, both of whom pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail, wire and bank fraud. Each has been sentenced to 17 1/2 years in prison.
Farmer has maintained she was unaware of any illegal activity and was only following orders. She is the only one of 15 defendants without a plea deal.
Farmer faces charges of conspiracy to commit mail, wire and bank fraud, six counts of mail fraud, four counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Prosecutors say people involved used straw buyers to obtain home loans fraudulently and then sold the properties multiple times to extract the equity.
Bingaman said that under an arrangement with prosecutors, she testified Tuesday on the condition that nothing she said can be used to prosecute her. She currently faces no criminal charges.
Salinas pleaded guilty in November to one count of conspiracy to commit mail, wire and bank fraud and is scheduled to be sentenced May 12.
Farmer took notes and appeared to pay close attention to Tuesday’s testimony but otherwise showed little reaction to the witnesses’ testimony. Her lawyers say she plans to take the witness stand in her own defense later this week.
Two FBI forensics experts took the witness stand Tuesday. One, a computer examiner, discussed a number of spreadsheets and other digital real estate records Farmer had worked on. Some involved properties prosecutors allege were bought and sold fraudulently.
The other FBI expert, a forensic accountant, discussed diagrams he had created of complex financial transactions surrounding five properties Crisp & Cole had owned under straw buyer arrangements. Each of the properties ended up in foreclosure, but not before the company was able to extract various commissions, sales proceeds and loan origination fees.
The accountant, Joseph Weston, testified about a company ledger about 30 pages in length with many hundreds of entries. He said there were many instances where Farmer was listed as having received thousands of dollars in commissions.
But Weston conceded under cross examination by Capozzi that he did not know what the commissions were for.
“I really can’t say if they’re normal or not,” Weston said, adding that he was not an expert in real estate or mortgage loans.