Two campaigns received checks signed by Brandon Green, an invented identity at the center of investigations.
By JEFF TESTERMAN
Published February 4, 2004
TAMPA - A federal and state investigation into property deals in Tampa Heights has turned up falsified deeds, fictitious buyers and millions of dollars in fraudulent mortgage loans.
Now, investigators have something else to look into: phantom campaign contributions.
The name Brandon Green, an invented identity allegedly used by former mortgage broker Matthew B. Cox to obtain several mortgage loans, was also used last year to sign a pair of $500 checks - one to the Tampa mayoral campaign of Bob Buckhorn, and another to the City Council candidacy of Kevin White.
Cox, a relative and several business associates also wrote 16 more $500 checks to White's campaign.
When Buckhorn learned last week of the falsified contribution to his campaign, he obtained a copy of the $500 check from his campaign records and delivered it to Tampa police Detective Bill Todd, who is handling the department's investigation into questionable deals in Tampa Heights.
"I told them they need to add campaign violations to what they're already looking at," said Buckhorn, who lost the election to Pam Iorio. "We are as much a victim in this as the financial institutions that got taken."
On the photocopy of the check Buckhorn turned over to police, Brandon M. Green is described on the memo line as an apartment landlord and is listed as living at 3409 E 26th Ave. in Tampa.
Someone used the name Brandon Green and the 26th Avenue address and presented a phony driver's license at loan closings to obtain five mortgage loans totaling $858,000, records show. Lenders on all five loans foreclosed after payments ceased, but were never able to find Green at the 26th Avenue home or any other address.
David A. Walker, who bought a mortgage brokerage company from Cox, maintains that Brandon Green and several other fictitious names were created by Cox to put onto a series of deeds and mortgages.
But the use of Green's name as a campaign contributor is "news to me," Walker said.
Walker acknowledged that he, Cox and several associates who worked together at Walker's United Capital Trust mortgage brokerage business did give generously to the campaign of White, now a City Council member who represents Tampa Heights and who has bought and sold property in the neighborhood himself.
Sixteen contributions of $500 each linked to Cox and the brokerage associates poured into White's campaign. Cox gave two $500 contributions. His mother gave one $500 check. Walker, his wife and another of Walker's businesses each gave $500.
Sarah Frame, a broker who worked in Walker's office, said she was asked by Walker and Cox to write a check for $500 to the White campaign, and assured she would be reimbursed by them. Frame said she complied and was repaid. She said her boyfriend, broker Kirk Stevens, also wrote a $500 check and was repaid.
"That is definitely a violation of election law," said Phyllis Hampton, an attorney with the Florida Elections Commission. "You cannot make an indirect contribution in that way."
Frame said she never knew the donation crossed any line.
"This is unbelieveable," she said. "Walker asked for the donation. I didn't even think twice about it."
Turner Earnest, another broker at United Capital Trust, said he too was asked by Walker to make a $500 contribution to White. He did so even though he knew nothing about the council candidate, he said.
"I did make the contribution," said Earnest. "I trusted Dave."
Frame, Earnest and other brokers defected from United Capital Trust last spring, saying they were increasingly wary of mortgage underwriting rules being broken to get loans approved.
"A number of people walked out," said Earnest. "We did not want to do anything that could endanger our livelihoods."
Walker now says that, because of a medical condition, he can't recall whether he or Cox pressured employees into making campaign contributions. "I don't say it didn't happen," Walker said Tuesday. "I was heavily medicated at the time. It may have happened. I'm not sure."
Walker said that Cox was the mastermind behind a series of property purchases by madeup identities whose names were then used to obtain more than $2.7-million in loans.
One of the phony names, James J. Colon, was used to purchase from Walker the white clapboard house at 3409 E 26th Ave. - the same address later listed as the residence of the Brandon Green whose name was signed to the two $500 campaign contributions.
Walker said he did not realize at the time that Colon, his buyer in the $70,000 deal, was an invented identity. Walker said he was handed papers to sign by Cox and signed them.
Back in 2002, Cox pleaded guilty to grand theft and mortgage fraud in separate cases. He was placed on probation and stripped of his broker's license. He is now a fugitive being sought by federal and state authorities for violation of probation.
White, elected last March, recalls meeting with Walker, Cox and associate Rudy Arnauts - who gave two $500 checks to White - to discuss the future of Tampa Heights. But White says he had "no earthly idea" of who might have sent him an illegal campaign contribution. "I knew absolutely nothing about them except they were fiercely interested in developing the Tampa Heights area," White said. "Whoever wanted to write me a check wrote me a check."
Walker, Cox and Arnauts worked together in an investment company called Urban Equity, which was linked to the Buckhorn campaign by a South Tampa businesswoman named Janet Cruz. Cruz was Buckhorn's campaign manager and did part-time public relations work for Urban Equity.
Cruz parted ways with Urban Equity and hired an attorney after learning that her name had been placed on a deed of a Tampa Heights home at 101 E Amelia Ave. without her knowledge or consent.
- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at 813 226-3422 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org