The owner of what was one of the nation’s largest privately held mortgage companies was convicted in federal court Tuesday of masterminding a nearly $2 billion mortgage fraud scheme.
Lee Bentley Farkas, 58, of Ocala, Fla., the owner and chairman of Taylor, Bean & Whitaker, was found guilty of all 14 charges against him for his role in defrauding investors and banks. The jury deliberated for a day and a half before issuing its verdict.
Prosecutors said Farkas used the stolen funds to augment a life of luxury. Farkas owned as many as 40 cars, including a vintage collection, a company jet and a plane he used to fly to a lake house in Maine, an 8,000-square-foot house in Florida and other houses along the East Coast.
Farkas could face up to 30 years in prison on the bank, wire and securities fraud convictions. He stood with his two lawyers at his side and held his head down with his hands folded in front of him as the clerk read the charges and repeated guilty after each one.
After the verdict was read, U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema said from the bench in Alexandria that she believed Farkas was “not honest when he testified from the stand.”
“The time has come for the defendant to recognize what he’s done is very serious,” she said, before two U.S. marshals escorted Farkas from the courtroom.
His sentencing is scheduled for July 1.
During the three-week trial, prosecutors called nearly two dozen witnesses – six of whom were co-conspirators who pleaded guilty to some charges – to testify.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Connolly, said in his closing argument on Monday that Farkas was the leader of the conspiracy and his fraud scheme was one of “staggering proportions and boldness.”
“The defendant ran one of the longest, largest fraud schemes,” Connolly said. “He lived the high life. A jet, a seaplane, houses up and down the East Coast. …He invented fake assets.”
Prosecutors said the scheme eventually led to the demise of Taylor Bean and Colonial Bank in Alabama, one of the nation’s largest regional banks. The government said that from 2002 to 2009, Farkas and his co-conspirators used Taylor Bean as a middleman between lenders and investors. The firm borrowed money from Colonial Bank to buy FHA-insured home loans. Taylor Bean would pool the loans into securities and sell them to investors. Ginnie Mae would then guarantee those securities.
But when Taylor Bean began having cash flow problems, the government said, Farkas and co-conspirators covered the shortfalls with money from Colonial Bank. They misappropriated billions of dollars to cover Taylor Bean’s operating loses, authorities said.
But Farkas’s lawyers – Bruce Rogow of Fort Lauderdale and William B. Cummings of Alexandria – said their client didn’t believe he was doing anything wrong.
Some of Farkas’s co-conspirators also didn’t believe what they were doing was wrong and that the company had collateral to back the loans it was making, Rogow told the jury in his closing argument.
The case against Farkas is one of the largest to emerge from the crisis that brought the nation’s financial system to the brink of collapse. It involved more than 60 million pages of data, including emails, accounting ledgers, contracts agreements and other paperwork, according to Farkas’s lawyers.
Ray Bowman, Talyor Bean’s former president, testified that Farkas could be charitable because he had given him a $200,000 loan from company funds, paid for land for him to build a house on in Ocala, and hired a nurse for Bowman’s mother when she was in hospice and dying of cancer.
Farkas sat through the trial wearing tailored suits, looking tanned and occasionally fiddled with the top of a pen.
On the stand, he told jurors how he bought Taylor Bean in 1991 for $75,000 and grew the business. Taylor Bean went from funding less than $100 million in mortgage loans in 1999 to funding between $2.5 billion and $3 billion in mortgage loans by 2009.
It is now in bankruptcy.
On the stand, he said his company grew too fast and “in retrospect” was “highly leveraged.”
Asked by Rogow why he testified instead of fleeing, Farkas answered, “…I didn’t believe at the time that I’d committed any crime, and I don’t believe now that I’ve committed any crime.”
But Lanny A. Breuer, assistant attorney general for the criminal division of the Justice Department, said in a conference call after the verdict that Farkas was the “mastermind of one of the largest bank fraud schemes” in the collapse of the financial crisis.
“Mr. Farkas may have thought he could steal $3 billion and sail into the sunset, but now a jury has told him otherwise and he must face the severe consequences of his acts,” Breuer said.
Dana Boente, first assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in the call that Farkas’s greed was “staggering.”