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House of ill finance

When the American dream turns out to be an illusion

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Carlotta Anthony told almost everyone about James Cornelius and his promise to help her buy a house. And everyone who listened told someone else. Within two years, Cornelius' promise became a reality not just for Anthony but for her cousin, her in-laws and her in-laws' in-laws, too. In all, six people bought homes through Cornelius, either directly or indirectly because of Anthony's urging.

"I thought he was on the up and up," she says.

When it came time for Anthony's friends and relatives to sign their loan agreements, it was either too soon or too late for Anthony to warn them about the downside of Cornelius' promise. It would take two more years for the half-dozen homebuyers to corroborate their mortgage horror stories.

The stories all started with a deal that sounded sweet. For a few thousand dollars, Cornelius would begin hunting houses, according to the buyers. He'd show them ranches or split-levels or bungalows in suburban subdivisions -- a home so nice they thought it never could be theirs. And he'd help them buy that piece of paradise.

The women who hired Cornelius -- from a young wife to a working grandmother -- now say they had something in common that should have warned them of the trouble to come: an eagerness to buy and a lack of means to do so.

Earlier this year, Anthony got a foreclosure notice in the mail. And bankruptcies and foreclosures, like Cornelius' name, began to spread.

Cornelius, who is neither a licensed real estate agent nor mortgage broker, has not been charged with any crime. But Atlanta Legal Aid attorney Bill Brennan, a predatory lending expert who's investigating the cases of Anthony and three fellow homebuyers, says he's seen major errors in the women's loan applications -- errors that lead him to believe the loans were approved based on false information.

He also says falsified loan applications are on the rise nationwide. From Cleveland, Ohio, to Greenville, S.C., from mobile homes to multimillion-dollar estates, brokers are arranging record numbers of false loans -- duping banks and lenders into believing unfit buyers are qualified.

Brennan points out that two of the women's applications have something odd in common: Light of the World Christian Academy is listed as a place of employment. In one file, a W-2 from Light of the World is attached.

But neither of the women ever worked at the school. They say they have no idea how the false information got into the loan applications.

In another of the applications Brennan obtained, the income at the borrower's real job is exaggerated. And in all the cases, the misrepresentations gave lenders the impression the buyers could afford their payments. They couldn't. And loans were approved that never should have been.

The owner of Official Mortgage & Investments Inc., the licensed brokerage firm where Cornelius sent the women, says he didn't know any information was false when he processed the applications.

"I try to pride myself on running a clean shop," Official Mortgage owner John Stricklin Jr. says. "If there was anything fraudulent submitted it was unbeknownst to me."

Cornelius did not return numerous phone calls; his attorney, Samuel Rael, called Creative Loafing back on Cornelius' behalf; he said he'd find answers to CL's questions. After Rael's first call, however, he failed to return numerous phone calls and e-mails. His secretary later said he had to fly to New York on an "urgent legal matter" and would return in a few weeks. He did not respond to subsequent voicemails.

Brennan says he intends to report Cornelius to the Georgia Real Estate Commission once he wraps up his investigation.

It is illegal for an unlicensed real estate agent or broker to accept payments for helping somebody find a home, according to Ric Wilson, spokesman at the commission.

"You have to have a real estate license to procure prospects, either tenants or borrowers," Wilson says. When the commission finds somebody's been operating without a license, it asks the person to sign an order saying he or she will stop.

"And then if they fail to stop," Wilson says, "we can file a case with the district attorney or the solicitor's office."

Mortgage fraud allegations such as Brennan's have become all too common in Georgia, where fraud cases have swamped the U.S. Attorney's Office over the past year. The Atlanta office has indicted 31 defendants in U.S. District Court on mortgage fraud charges since March. One official calls the breadth of the fraud -- which has touched 30 towns and cities in the metro area -- "an epidemic."

If you add up the alleged damage in the indictments, the defendants duped lenders into approving $94.5 million in fraudulent loans on 250 homes. So far, 25 of the defendants have pleaded guilty.

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