Doubt Is Cast on Loan Papers

Special to The Times

Idanel Bonaparte's credit record had a few dings when she borrowed $108,000 from Ameriquest Mortgage Co. last year to fix up her aging home.

The divorced nurse had an offsetting advantage, though: a mutual fund account worth $25,456.53.

Linda Hubbard, a widow working three jobs, refinanced her home with a $211,000 loan from Ameriquest a month after Bonaparte. As she spread out the loan papers on her kitchen table recently, she expressed surprise to see that she had been credited with a 401(k) retirement fund. Its balance: $25,456.53.

Romy Hodge, a disabled house cleaner, said she was scraping by on $561 a month in disability income when Ameriquest refinanced her house with a $75,000 loan. The documents she was handed at her loan closing, two months after Hubbard's, also showed a 401(k) account -- totaling, once again, $25,456.53.

Unlike the account balances, the stories of the three Tampa women don't match. Bonaparte said the mutual fund was hers, but Hubbard and Hodge said they had no such investment or anything like it.

"Oh, my God, are they saying I owned money? I wish I had money," Hodge said when shown a copy of a mutual fund statement with her name on it.

The identical account balances surfaced in papers obtained by three other Ameriquest customers who have filed lawsuits alleging that the company falsified documents in connection with their loans. The three men say the papers bolster claims from across the country of document falsification by Ameriquest workers.

The Times last month reported allegations, in lawsuits and interviews with former employees, that Ameriquest loan agents falsified applications to help customers qualify for loans or lower interest rates. The agents, in turn, would boost their loan volume and earn more commissions, the lawsuits and ex-workers claim.

Orange-based Ameriquest, the nation's largest lender to homeowners with nicked credit and financial problems, denies any pattern of fraud and contends that the three Tampa suits have no merit and should be dismissed.

Company spokesmen declined to comment on the specific documents in question, but they stressed that Ameriquest took allegations of fraud seriously.

The three plaintiffs contend in court papers that Ameriquest had an "art department" in a Tampa office where loan documents were altered. In interviews with The Times, they've shown stacks of what they say are internal Ameriquest files proving their allegations.

In the case of Hubbard and Hodge, the three plaintiffs said in an interview, it seems that Ameriquest employees simply taped the women's names and addresses onto copies of Bonaparte's mutual fund statement, boosting their financial standing for the loan approval process.

The Times reviewed the documents, and they do look as if Bonaparte's portfolio summary was manipulated with correction fluid and tape to create statements for Hubbard and Hodge.

Michael Ceresoto, an attorney for Ameriquest, said the company had been investigating questionable practices at its Cypress Street branch in Tampa for some time. He declined to specify whether allegations about the so-called art department were part of the inquiry, but he said "a number of people" who worked in the Cypress Street office had been fired as a result of the probe.

Ceresoto also said The Times' questions about the account statements had been referred to Ameriquest's fraud investigators.

"When the company sees something going on that's wrong, they take extraordinary measures to make it right," including suing those involved and reporting them to law enforcement, said Ceresoto, a lawyer with Buchalter, Nemer, Fields & Younger in Los Angeles.

Ceresoto added that Ameriquest had spent large amounts to prevent its employees from engaging in fraud-tainted transactions so that it wouldn't get stuck with foreclosed property or be forced to buy back bad loans from investors.

"All lenders fight fraud because it costs them money," the company said in a statement to The Times. "Ameriquest is no different."

Although that is undoubtedly true, critics say, the alleged use of altered documents, if confirmed, spotlights Ameriquest's "boiler room" culture, in which employees are under tremendous pressure to churn out as many loans as possible.

The plaintiffs in the Tampa lawsuits -- George Sokola, Brian Fichtner and Robert Hughes -- maintain that the alleged misdeeds in Florida were carried out by workers determined to sell loans by whatever means necessary.

The three men were among dozens of former Ameriquest employees and borrowers who contacted The Times after it reported last month that consumer lawsuits in at least 20 states allege a pattern of fraud, falsification of documents and bait-and-switch sales tactics at Ameriquest loan offices.

Meanwhile, Ameriquest disclosed in a regulatory filing in February that authorities in 25 states had raised questions about its lending practices, including the accuracy of its appraisals and how loan terms were described in spoken statements to borrowers. The filing, first reported by the trade publication American Banker, said the company had "valid responses" to the concerns raised by the state attorneys general and other officials.

Florida is one of the states examining Ameriquest practices, said Rick White of the Florida Office of Financial Regulation. He declined to elaborate.

The documents amassed by the Tampa litigants, reviewed by The Times, include papers in which borrowers' signatures don't match from one document to another; appraisals far exceeding home values estimated by tax assessors and borrowers themselves; and a "stated income" letter in which a pasted-on signature and date appear in photocopied black, but the handwritten text of the letter is in blue ink.

Nickolas Ekonomides, an attorney who recently took on the cases of the three Tampa plaintiffs, said he had examined the three mutual fund statements and many of the other documents obtained by his clients, and he believed that the papers were fabricated by Ameriquest employees to support loans.

He has yet to make the documents part of any court filing. But he said they should help his effort to prove that Ameriquest, in league with certain outsiders, made a practice of inflating appraisals, falsifying income statements and creating other phony documents so that loans would be approved for customers lured by the prospect of getting cash back on the deals.

Ekonomides said his clients and other borrowers were rushed through closing sessions into loans that socked them with higher fees and interest rates than they had been led to expect.

In the end, he said, borrowers might have been able to pay off a few credit cards with the cash they received, but they were then left with mortgages not supported by the true worth of their homes.

"Now the debt is so high that no legitimate lender is going to refinance, because it just won't appraise out," Ekonomides said. "The value of the home just isn't there."

The three Tampa lawsuits, filed separately more than a year ago without help from attorneys, allege that Ameriquest, working with complicit appraisers and title insurers, deceived the three borrowers about the terms of their loans. The intent, the suits allege, was to lure the home purchasers into unfavorable deals by promising that they would get cash back when the loans closed.

The three plaintiffs have since retained Ekonomides to represent them. Ekonomides said the documents obtained by his clients, which appeared to have information on more than 100 other customers, were important to the litigation because they provided evidence that the company "made a practice of committing this kind of fraud."

The lawsuits are pending in Hillsborough County Circuit Court. Ekonomides said he was revising the suits and intended to refile an amended complaint for each of the cases that would add allegations of civil racketeering and violations of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.

In its dismissal motions, Ameriquest describes the three lawsuits as vague and ambiguous, and asserts that the defendants have no standing to make some of their claims and fail to properly state other allegations. The dismissal motions say the suits improperly plead "impertinent, scandalous statements and/or mere opinions."

More broadly, Ameriquest spokesmen deny that the company engages in improper lending practices in Florida or in any of the 46 other states where it offers mortgages. At the same time, they said fraud had been a growing headache for the entire mortgage lending industry as borrowers misrepresented their finances to get home loans and insiders abused the system for profit.

Ameriquest Mortgage is a unit of privately held Ameriquest Capital Corp., the nation's largest "sub-prime" mortgage lender. Many of its customers are homeowners struggling with charge card debts or other financial problems that make it harder for them to get prime loans with lower fees and interest rates. Ameriquest said, however, that it was a mistake to think of its clients as financially unsophisticated, and the company described the "typical customer" as "solidly middle-class."

For his part, Ekonomides claims that Ameriquest loan officers in Tampa made borrowers look financially healthier than they really were by creating fictitious earnings on "stated income" loans, which are used legitimately by self-employed people who don't have W-2 statements, pay stubs or other documents to prove their income.

Hubbard and Hodge said that they had no knowledge of any mutual funds associated with their loan applications and that they never saw the allegedly doctored fund statements. But when they pulled out copies of their own files for a reporter, they found that the loan documents prepared by Ameriquest employees listed retirement savings precisely matching the $25,456.53 on the account statements.

Hodge said her Social Security disability checks barely covered her mortgage payments. She said she slept in a metal shed in back of her 632-square-foot house so that other family members who helped pay the bills could live in the residence.

Early last year, Hodge said, an Ameriquest employee called her out of the blue about refinancing her loan. She said she told him she didn't earn enough to qualify. A few weeks later, she said, the loan agent called to say he could refinance her tiny home for $75,000 that very day.

"I said no appraiser has been here -- I knew he hadn't, because my pit bulls would tear up anyone who went in the back," she said. "And they said don't worry -- the appraiser already gave me what I needed."

Hodge's loan papers show that her home was appraised at $100,000. Of the $75,000 loan she received, her papers show that about $58,000 went to pay off her old mortgage, about $10,000 was given in cash to Hodge and $7,000 went to settlement charges, mostly for Ameriquest fees and services.

Hodge said she didn't look closely at the loan papers as she signed them. She said she did ask about one entry, which showed incorrectly that she was earning $4,000 a month at her own cleaning business. She said she was disabled and had been out of work for years.

"The guy said, 'Don't pay any attention to that -- it's just paperwork,' " she recalled.

As for Hubbard, she said she signed her loan documents at a rushed closing session, not reviewing them because her son, at the time a trainee appraiser, had said Ameriquest would get her a good deal.

Hubbard said she was disappointed because she wound up with less money than promised from her refinancing, while facing more than $11,000 in settlement charges. She said she had been told orally that her new interest rate would be below the 6.5% on her old mortgage, but it wound up rising to 6.95%.

When a reporter visited Hubbard's spacious home in a gated new housing development in a Tampa suburb, she too pulled out a folder with loan documents that she said were given to her at the closing.

The documents not only showed $25,456.63 in a retirement account but also listed her as self-employed and making $11,371 a month. Hubbard said that in reality she was earning about $4,000 a month from jobs at three colleges while working on her doctorate.

She has since taken a job at a mortgage brokerage and says she now believes that Ameriquest exploited her ignorance.

"They lied about my income. They lied about this retirement account," Hubbard said, gesturing toward the documents on her kitchen table. "They told me I was going to get a lower rate, but when the closing came it was higher. What's the benefit?"

Idanel Bonaparte, the nurse who really did have $25,456.63 in a mutual fund, said she was generally satisfied with Ameriquest. But she said she couldn't understand why anyone at a financial firm would take her asset statement and put someone else's name on it.

"Why would a company do something like that?" she said. "Wouldn't that ruin your reputation?"

*

Reckard is a Times staff writer and Hudson is a journalist based in Roanoke, Va. Times researcher John L. Jackson contributed to this report.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 29, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction Ameriquest documents -- An article in Monday's Section A about alleged falsification of Ameriquest Mortgage Co. loan documents misspelled the last name of a person who has sued the company in Tampa, Fla. His name is George Soroka, not Sokola.
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