A Florida businessman’s trial on charges of masterminding a $2 billion mortgage fraud scheme began Monday in a federal courtroom in Alexandria with defense lawyers saying they might call actor John Travolta as a character witness.
Lee Bentley Farkas, who was the owner and chairman of Taylor, Bean & Whitaker, is charged in a 14- count indictment that alleges he and co-conspirators defrauded investors and banks.
Lawyers on both sides said they would call nearly 70 witnesses. The most well-known would be Travolta, who defense lawyers said lives near Farkas, and might be called as a character witness, as the two men are friends and share an interest in aviation. Other witnesses may include former employees of Taylor Bean and officials at the government agency that oversaw the government’s bailout program, known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Farkas’s company, based in Ocala, Fla., was once one of the nation’s largest privately held mortgage companies. The fraud case against him and several co-conspirators is one of the largest to emerge from the crisis that brought the nation’s financial system to the brink of collapse. The government alleges the scheme eventually lead to the demise of Taylor Bean and Colonial Bank in Alabama, one of the nation’s largest regional banks.
The trial is expected to last three weeks.
Already, several people who formerly worked at Taylor Bean, including the former treasurer and former president, have pleaded guilty to fraud charges.
Prosecutors allege that Taylor Bean acted 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. Ginne Mae would then guarantee those securities.
But when Taylor Bean began having significant cash flow problems, the government says, Farkas and co-conspirators allegedly covered the shortfalls with money from Colonial Bank. They misappropriated more than $1 billion to cover Taylor Bean’s operating losses, authorities said.
The government alleged that Farkas used the stolen money to buy expensive cars, including a 1961 Porsche and a 1963 Rolls Royce, planes and properties.
“This is a case about lying and stealing on a staggering scale,” Patrick Stokes, deputy chief of the criminal division’s fraud section at the Justice Department, said in his opening statement to jurors.
He said Farkas and his co-conspirators used “brazen schemes to steal money” through Taylor Bean. He called their scheme a “house of cards” that was built on “deceit and massive debt.”
“The reason for the conspiracy is simple,” he said. “]Taylor Bean] needed money and the defendant and his co-conspirators went out and stole it.”
Farkas’s lawyers said their client didn’t steal and that it is a complex case of mortgage securities and agreements.
“The government thinks they’ve found a hole at TBW,” said Craig Kuglar, an Atlanta-based lawyer for Farkas in his opening statement. “There is no hole. The government didn’t do its homework. The government didn’t understand the complex agreements before it shut down Mr. Farkas and put 2,500 people out of work.”
Kuglar described Farkas’s business as the “diamond ring” for the fees it made in the mortgage business. He described Taylor Bean as a business that grew and had employees who answered the phone on the second ring, saying ‘It’s a great day at TBW. How may we help you?’”
The case, Kuglar told the jury, involves the government’s confusion over accounting and Colonial Bank’s own failings in the mortgage business.
Kuglar said his client hired executives at Taylor Bean who kept him abreast daily of his main questions: Are we making money? And secondly, “Do we have money and do we have collateral?”
Farkas was told “yes until the very end” on his questions of Taylor Bean’s profitability, Kuglar told jurors. “The evidence will show Mr. Farkas did not steal anything.”