The accusations that have piled up against Eliseo Carrillo run counter to the image the Chicago entrepreneur cultivated as a champion of Latino immigrants.
As the housing market weakened in recent years, Carrillo's smiling face appeared on billboards throughout the city's Mexican-American neighborhoods. Spanish-language TV commercials featuring Mexican music and Carrillo wearing a stylish cowboy hat promised that his real estate companies — all using the name "Protecta" — were friends and guardians of immigrants in need.
But after signing what they believed were loan papers to save their homes from foreclosure, at least four of his struggling clients have filed lawsuits alleging that they were misled into surrendering the deeds to their homes in complex "mortgage rescue" schemes they didn't understand.
Some of the properties still face the risk of foreclosure after third-party investors recruited by Carrillo's company failed to make mortgage payments on the homes, according to the lawsuits. Two of those investors, each named as a co-defendant in at least one suit, also are facing financial problems, according to court documents.
Meanwhile, Carrillo and his companies walked away with tens of thousands of dollars in broker fees, closing costs and other forms of compensation — in one case, more than $86,000, according to the suits.
The mortgage lawsuits depict Carrillo, 36, as a "scam" operator, savvy in the arcane laws governing real estate transactions, who saw profit in the thousands of troubled home mortgages taken out by immigrants less likely to understand the complicated English-language legal documents and less prone to speak out if something went awry.
A few of the clients were in the country illegally, making them even more vulnerable, according to attorneys and community activists.
"There was a lot of preying on the immigrant community, with the feeling of patriotism, camaraderie and family and all of these things," said Rey Lopez-Calderon, a South Side community organizer familiar with Protecta's transactions. "If you've looked at his commercials, he really overdoes it. He's got this big cowboy hat on. He's got the thick Mexican accent. He's really: `I am super Mexican guy, and I'm out there helping the community.'"
Protecta, which Carrillo has shut down, and two other companies he directs — My Loan Negotiator and Cairo Holdings — are being investigated by the Illinois attorney general's consumer fraud division. A spokeswoman for the attorney general confirmed the probe of Carrillo's companies but declined to discuss specifics.
Carrillo and his companies also have been targeted by at least a dozen lawsuits since 2006, including the four filed by clients regarding Protecta schemes in which third parties "lent" their credit to distressed homeowners by assuming ownership and taking out a new mortgage in exchange for a profit, with the original homeowner paying rent to cover that second mortgage.
Most of the other lawsuits were filed by banks, including one that sued Carrillo last year for failing to repay $2 million in loans and which last week disputed his claim to have once worked there.
Agreeing to answer questions only via e-mail and Facebook, Carrillo defended the business practices called into question by the suits and state investigation, adding that he is cooperating with the attorney general's inquiries. He contends that everything was legal and that his clients were aware of what they were getting into.
He said the lawsuits represent "less than half of a percent of all transactions we were ever involved in," and that many of the loan deals were handled by others under him.
Carrillo, who according to public records once owned a 1999 Bentley sedan, said he is now insolvent. He said he is out of the financial business and studying to get into law school. He called the attorney general's investigation politically driven — the latest in a chain of what he alleges is government harassment over the years that has led to multiple audits and a brief cancellation of his broker's license.
"I learned my lesson, when government messes with you, even though it's power abuse, just let it happen," he wrote. "NO ONE will come to the rescue."
The state probe is not the first time Carrillo has been eyed by state regulators. In 2007, the state fined Protecta $30,000 for allowing unlicensed brokers to initiate more than 200 mortgage loans. In an interview with the Tribune then, Carrillo claimed the investigation was retaliation because he had contributed $8,200 to a 2006 election challenge to state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago.
Describing himself in community newspaper profiles as a son of Mexican immigrants who pulled himself up from a modest life in Little Village, Carrillo is a former Bogan High School class president and DePaul University graduate who acquaintances say is charismatic yet down to earth. He boasts on an online resume of a consulting stint at the PricewaterhouseCoopers accounting firm and a two-year stint as a community bank director.
However, the bank where he said he oversaw 70 loan officers — National Republic Bank of Chicago — is among those that have sued him. Moreover, two top officials from the bank told the Tribune that Carrillo was never an employee.
"No, no, he didn't work here," said the bank's chairman, Hiren Patel. Patel said he knew Carrillo only as a customer who failed to pay $2 million in construction loans for 10 properties until the bank sued him last year. Many of those properties are now vandalized neighborhood eyesores, according to yet another lawsuit.