Before dawn one hazy March day in L.A., Armando Granillo pulled his SUV into a Starbucks near MacArthur Park, where he planned to pick up an envelope full of cash from an Arizona real estate broker, federal investigators say.
Granillo, a foreclosure specialist at mortgage giant Fannie Mae, expected to drive off with $11,200 — an illegal kickback for steering foreclosure listings to brokers, authorities allege in court records.
Granillo would leave in handcuffs. And investigators are now looking into assertions by Granillo and another former Fannie Mae foreclosure specialist that such kickbacks were "a natural part of business" at the government-sponsored housing finance company, as Granillo allegedly told the broker in a wiretapped conversation.
Investigators are examining whether other workers in Fannie Mae's Irvine office solicited illegal payments, according to three people with knowledge of the probe, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. Granillo at first offered to cooperate with investigators but later declined to talk, two of the people said.
Another former foreclosure specialist in Irvine, Cecelia Carter, contends in an Orange County Superior Court lawsuit that Fannie Mae fired her in 2011 for trying to expose the kickbacks.
Fannie Mae is the nation's biggest buyer of home loans and guarantor of mortgages bundled for sale to investors. Granillo was among more than 50 workers in Fannie Mae's Irvine office, which opened in late 2008 after Fannie buckled under the weight of mass defaults on the home loans it had guaranteed. Taxpayers spent $116 billion bailing out the company, which remains under U.S. government control.
The workers' jobs were to move thousands of homes in Western states off Fannie's books through foreclosure sales, giving Granillo the power to select the brokers, who make commissions on each sale. In exchange, investigators allege, he demanded a 20% cut of the Arizona broker's commissions.
In the sting in Los Angeles, federal investigators had wired the broker, identified in court records only as A.M., for sound and video. "As Granillo raised his hands ... I saw him holding the manila envelope containing the cash," special agent James Shields wrote in an affidavit, filed in federal court to support three fraud charges.
The 44-year-old Huntington Beach resident has pleaded not guilty and remains free on bond pending trial, scheduled for Aug. 6 in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana. He could not be reached, and his public defender, David Israel Wasserman, declined to comment.
In a post-crisis era, foreclosure listings are a premium commodity for brokers, as buyers and investors swarm for bargains in beaten-down housing markets in Arizona and California. Fannie Mae is a trove of listings, having sold about 740,000 repossessed properties since 2009.
Regulators are keeping a close watch for kickback deals as the housing market heats up and new regulations take hold following the mortgage meltdown, which exposed widespread corruption in the housing and lending markets. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray said his 2-year-old agency has moved to shut down kickback operations not only because they're illegal but also because they reduce competition and increase costs to the public.
"The CFPB will continue to take action against schemes designed to let service providers profit through unscrupulous and illegal business practices," he said this month in announcing a settlement with a homebuilder accused in a kickback scheme. The consumer bureau also fined four mortgage insurers $15.4 million last month over alleged kickbacks.
A Fannie Mae spokesman declined to comment on allegations involving the Irvine office but released a statement saying the company has warned its staff repeatedly against seeking payments from real estate agents.
"While wrongdoing by Fannie Mae's [foreclosure] employees is rare, we take all allegations seriously," the company said in the statement.
Granillo worked near John Wayne Airport in a high-rise whose lobby has no listing for Fannie's eighth-floor office — a safeguard to prevent disruptions from foreclosed borrowers and other disgruntled members of the public, Carter said.
The specialists working there decide who can market homes most effectively, what to spend on maintenance and rehabilitation, how to deal with liens on properties, and whether to accept bids from potential buyers that the brokers bring to them.
Among the brokers Granillo worked with was A.M., in Tucson, whose Fannie Mae foreclosure listings had totaled no more than 15 until last fall. After raising the tally to 100, Granillo allegedly told the broker that the increase would continue — so long as he received a cut of the broker's sales commissions.
The broker told Granillo he "would think about it," according to the affidavit. Instead, he called an FBI agent, who got the broker in touch with the Office of Inspector General at the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Fannie Mae's regulator.
On Feb. 2, Granillo drove to Arizona and met the broker, who was wearing recording devices, at a restaurant in a Tempe mall. Promising to help A.M. close sales and "put other Realtors in Tucson out of business," Granillo said he needed extra money because his wife, instead of working, often had to stay home with their autistic daughter, the affidavit says.
Prosecutors say Granillo described the scheme as illegal but "a natural part of business," like getting baseball tickets for doing a deal. What's more, the affidavit alleges, he told the broker not to speak to other workers in the Irvine office, whom he said were "engaged in similar conduct."
Carter, 47, of Riverside, filed her wrongful termination suit this month, seeking compensation for lost wages and punitive damages for Fannie Mae's "reckless disregard" of her rights.
She contends the company failed to address her complaints about numerous improprieties, including marketing homes without clear title and assigning brokers to list homes in markets with which they were unfamiliar. She also alleges discrimination based on her age and race.
The suit says she was fired for reporting her suspicions about employees soliciting kickbacks, including Granillo and certain managers. She said she began raising those suspicions in 2009 and ultimately took them to higher-ups in Washington, D.C., at Fannie Mae's human relations and ethics offices.
Fannie Mae spokesman Andrew Wilson said the company doesn't comment on litigation and personnel matters.
A 10-page Fannie Mae internal investigation on Carter's accusations, obtained by The Times, said she produced no hard evidence of kickbacks and had never seen money change hands.
One of Carter's lawyers, Peter M. Whelan of Bernabei & Wachtel in Washington, called that investigation "a sham," saying Fannie Mae had not even tried to interview one employee whom Carter had accused of taking kickbacks — a manager who had been fired.
A footnote in the report said the manager "no longer works at the company, which would make review of this contention superfluous because investigations could direct no action in the matter."