tampabay.com

Felon drives dizzying web of house deals

Inflated prices, bogus buyers, swollen loans. It's a whole different housing market for some.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published April 29, 2007


Like thousands of sellers in Florida's struggling real estate market, Frank Quattrocchi reluctantly acknowledged his home might not be worth as much as he thought.

Last summer, Quattrocchi sold his St. Petersburg house for $400, 000 after his real estate agent convinced him that was all he could expect. Thus he was surprised when it sold again in February for $650, 000 - to a man in low-income housing.

That wasn't all. The same buyer also paid $405, 000 for a house owned by the agent.

"I said, 'How can a guy like that afford to buy over $1-million in real estate in one week's time?' " asks Quattrocchi, a retired police officer. "And why would someone pay well above the fair market value in a depressed market?"

Besides the same buyer, the two transactions had another thing in common. The buyer says he found both deals through a St. Petersburg loan officer named Victor Thomas Clavizzao.

A felon, Clavizzao has bought millions of dollars worth of Pinellas County real estate in the names of other people - including three who said they had no idea they were listed as buyers.

In at least two other cases, properties were mortgaged for far more than the actual sales price. Even though Clavizzao was not the buyer of record, tens of thousands of dollars went to him and a company registered in his wife's name.

Many who know the 44-year-old New York native say they considered him friendly and charming, only to find themselves preyed on financially.

"He's nothing but a con artist, " says John David Brown, a former business partner.

Clavizzao acknowledges his criminal past but says he has straightened up.

"You ain't seen me stealing nothin' from no one."

Arrest after arrest

After serving three years in federal prison for wire fraud in the early '90s, Clavizzao worked for a Jacksonville loan company as a "mortgage banker" who handled payments for loan-related costs.

According to a 1998 arrest report, he deposited the money - $15, 150 - into his then-wife's account. He spent 20 months in state prison.

Clavizzao had been out barely a year when he was arrested again, this time in 2001 for stealing checks mistakenly delivered to a strip club that a girlfriend owned. He got two years' probation.

Three years ago, nursing assistant Angela Johnson gave Clavizzao and one of his brothers a $30, 000 down payment on a house in Daytona Beach. The sale never went through - Clavizzao moved another girlfriend into the house and Johnson lost all of her money, she said. She won a judgment - one of many against Clavizzao - but has yet to collect a dime.

"It's turned my life upside down, " says Johnson, 42, who is working three jobs to support herself and her daughter. "I don't have nothing."

In 2005, with his house about to go into foreclosure, Clavizzao declared bankruptcy.

That year, he moved to Pinellas County and ran afoul of the law again. Police stopped him doing 95 mph on U.S. 19. He said that his first name was Joseph and that he had a valid New York license. He didn't.

The officer wrote that Clavizzao later admitted his Florida license was "suspended for failure to pay child support and he figured it would be easier to give me his brother's name, Joseph Clavizzao, so he would just get a ticket instead of going to jail." He was convicted of giving a false ID and spent 20 days in jail.

Despite his record, Clavizzao went to work in late 2005 as a loan officer at McNulty First Lending in St. Petersburg. Loan officers match buyers with lenders and receive fees based on the number and value of loans they write. They don't have to be licensed but must work with a state-licensed mortgage company that is expected to do "due diligence" on its employees.

McNulty's owners say they didn't check Clavizzao's background because he seemed "utterly charming, " as one put it. But Sophia Fields, who did the paperwork on Clavizzao's loans, said she became suspicious when she saw several loans in the name of Thomas Clavizzao, although Thomas never appeared.

On one of the loans, she said, Clavizzao had a Brandon title company fax over the closing documents. Next, she said, he got the keys to a locked office from McNulty's receptionist - now Clavizzao's wife - and removed a notary stamp from the desk of notary Apryl Staus.

"I witnessed this myself, " Fields said. "And he stamped the document. And then he asked me, 'I need you to sign as a witness because I'm closing the loan.' "

Fields said she "witnessed" that loan, then refused to do any more. But she said she saw Clavizzao notarize other paperwork and "personally sign that person's name Thomas on all these loan documents."

Clavizzao denied Fields' allegations.

As her concerns grew, Fields complained to McNulty's owners. Nothing happened to Clavizzao; she was canned.

"I was kind of glad they did fire me, " she said. "I was like, you can't do that, that's fraud and I don't want no part of it."

Surprise buys

Thomas Clavizzao, 70, lives in New York state. In a phone interview, he said the only property he ever had in Florida was a Charlotte County condo that has been sold.

"No, I didn't know that, " he said when told that records show him buying five houses in St. Petersburg. Asked about his son Victor, Clavizzao replied, "I can't talk about that now."

Most of the documents in Thomas Clavizzao's name are notarized by Apryl Staus. But Staus' signature does not look the same on all. On one mortgage, her first name is misspelled as "April." She could not be located for comment.

Victor Clavizzao insists that his father bought the properties with the idea of getting good deals in a slow market, then renting the houses until conditions improved and they could be resold.

But records show that four of the fives homes purchased last year in Thomas Clavizzao's name were bought at prices 40 to 80 percent higher than they had sold for in 2005. All four are mortgaged for the full purchase price, and all four are now in foreclosure proceedings, including one rented out last summer.

Victor Clavizzao told the tenant that he had just gotten the property and that it was his house, the renter said. Clavizzao cashed the $1, 500 monthly rent checks but stopped paying the mortgage or maintaining the property, said the renter, who plans to move.

In another transaction involving Clavizzao, appraiser Allen Lynn said "a red flag went up" when he saw a contract that showed a house selling for considerably more than the listing price.

Lynn called the seller's real estate firm - Hofacker & Associates - and discovered the seller, a doctor, had never seen nor signed the contract for the higher amount. The mortgage company Lynn worked for rejected the deal, but another lender granted mortgages for $710, 000. The sale price was $650, 000.

The closing statement - which is not part of the public record - shows the extra $60, 000 went to Platinum Capital, a company registered to Clavizzao's wife, for "upgrades" to the house.

"In retrospect, I know there was something wrong with the transaction, " said Bill Hofacker.

He said that the closing - at which Clavizzao was present - was "chaotic, " and that he let the deal go through only after ensuring any money for Platinum Capital would not come out of the seller's pocket.

Neighbors say Victor Clavizzao told them that he was the buyer - although the mortgages are in brother Vincent's name - and that no work was done on the waterfront house except to gut it. The house is now in foreclosure proceedings.

Pleas to relatives

Until their lawyer began searching public records, Walter and Barbara Norton never knew they owned a $930, 000 waterfront home in St. Petersburg's Venetian Isles.

The Nortons are grandparents of Clavizzao's wife, Angel. They say Clavizzao began to ingratiate himself last summer, calling them Mom and Dad and suggesting they invest in real estate together since Norton, 63, had heart problems and could no longer install drywall.

While Barbara Norton was at work, Clavizzao talked her husband into signing a contract on a house in Shore Acres for $700, 000 - $50, 000 more than the seller had paid for it three months earlier.

"I was mad he took advantage of Wally, but ever since he's been ill he's easy to take advantage of, " said Barbara Norton, 67. She said she signed only after Clavizzao pleaded with her, claiming he would lose his job.

Clavizzao - who lives in the Shore Acres house - drew up a contract in which he agreed to pay the mortgage, taxes and insurance. The couple got $29, 000 at closing, which they regarded as a gift for their trouble.

Clavizzao then "harassed us" to sign the paperwork on another Shore Acres house so he would have a place for one of his many relatives to live, Barbara Norton said.

When Clavizzao fell behind in mortgage payments, the Nortons became worried about their liability. They consulted a lawyer, who found their names on mortgages on an even more expensive home in Venetian Isles.

"I said, 'Oh, my God, we never signed that, ' " Barbara Norton recalled.

Clavizzao denies the Nortons' signatures were forged. "What you're talking about is border-line crazy, " he said.

The house was sold through real estate agent Tammy Brophy Wenzel and is now in foreclosure proceedings. A few weeks ago, the Nortons went to see it for the first time.

"It's a gorgeous house, but I could never own even a pillar, " Barbara Norton said.

After closing on the property, she said, Clavizzao took her granddaughter to Las Vegas and got married. Two of his previous marriages were annulled because he wasn't divorced from his current wives.

A common link

Tammy Brophy Wenzel was also the agent on other sales in which buyers had a connection to Clavizzao.

In February, James Conard - the Nortons' ex-son-in-law - bought a house that Wenzel owned and had rented to one of Clavizzao's brothers.

A week later, Conard also bought the house that Quattrocchi, the retired police officer, was stunned to see go for $650, 000 - $250, 000 more than what his agent, Wenzel, had told him he could get last summer.

"So now my suspicions mature, " Quattrocchi said. "Next thing, I see her house sold a week before to the same guy. She had told me she couldn't get rid of it."

Conard, who is in a wheelchair from a motorcycle accident, lives in an apartment owned by Abilities Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides affordable housing for the low-income disabled. He said he met Clavizzao through family connections and Wenzel through the mortgage office where Clavizzao worked.

Conard said the houses were presented as investments that would rent for $3, 500 apiece - enough to cover mortgage payments until he could resell. Both houses are still vacant. People who know the market say such rents are virtually unheard of.

"If I could get $3, 500, I'd be pleasantly surprised, " said Sean McQuaid, a lawyer who has been unable to get $2, 350 for a similar house. He's lowered the price to $480, 000 on another home, close to the one Conard bought for $650, 000.

Conard, 51, said he got enough cash from the mortgages to cover the first few payments. He also invested part of the proceeds in a Quizno's sandwich franchise that Clavizzao and his wife recently bought in St. Petersburg.

(Denver-based Quizno's says the sale from a Seminole couple to the Clavizzaos was done without corporate approval, and "is in violation of the franchise agreement.")

Quattrochi has filed a complaint with the state Division of Real Estate about the transactions on his house. Wenzel referred a reporter to her mother, Mary Brophy, a well-known real estate broker, who said she could not discuss the transactions for client privacy reasons.

Quattrocchi is angry about his own experience. But he feels sorry for Conard.

"I hate people who fool around with disabled people, " he said. "If you're going to take advantage of somebody, take advantage of somebody who can take care of themselves."

Partner signs on

John Brown met Clavizzao last winter and got the impression he was an active investor.

"He told me he owned all these houses, " Brown recalled. "He said, 'You rent them out, use the money to pay the mortgage and maintenance.' It kind of made sense."

The two formed a company - B & C Funding - to buy two condos at Villa Del Mar in Clearwater. Each unit sold for $725, 000 but was mortgaged for $805, 000 in the name of Anthony Clavizzao, with Victor signing for his brother under power of attorney.

After closing costs, there was enough of a spread between the sales price and the mortgaged amount for $45, 000 to go to B & C, Brown said.

On March 27, after the first condo closed, a North Carolina bank wired the $45, 000 into B & C's account but mistakenly wired an additional $45, 000. In a civil suit, Brown said, Clavizzao was "fully aware" of the error and knew the bank would require return of the money.

"Despite having this knowledge (Clavizzao) proceeded to begin emptying the corporate account of all funds" - a total of $125, 000 in withdrawals over three days, the suit alleges.

"I could kick myself" for not checking Clavizzao's background sooner, Brown now says. "He's a despicable human being."

Clavizzao said he has not been served with the suit and could not comment. Asked why his brother gave him power of attorney instead of appearing in person, Clavizzao replied: "He's busy."

Since early March, records show, Anthony Clavizzao has been in the Duval County jail serving a five-month sentence on felony drug charges.

Inquiry begins

In December, witnesses say, Victor Clavizzao hit a parked car and kept going. He says someone else was behind the wheel, but he faces trial on charges of driving with a suspended or revoked license, a felony, and leaving the scene of an accident.

Last week, the state Office of Financial Regulation said it had begun an investigation into his business "activities."

Clavizzao's former associates at McNulty have severed ties with him so he has applied to 1st Continental Mortgage, a nationwide company, to operate as a branch. But he has already opened an office on St. Petersburg's Central Avenue under the name "1st Continental Mortgage Co. - a Platinum Capital Funding Co."

Several people were working there last week. Clavizzao said he had a closing at 9:30 Thursday morning.

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com