Troubled investor's buyer didn't know he was one

A familiar name pops up in a real estate deal.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published August 18, 2007

At the peak of the Tampa Bay area's housing boom, Mark Lepzinski urged fellow real estate investors to "Buy, Buy, Buy."

Lepzinski's own investments, though, didn't fare too well. By July, the former Merrill Lynch financial adviser and his wife had nine properties in foreclosure proceedings and were about to default on a big balloon mortgage.

Yet even as home sales plunged and lending standards tightened, the Lepzinskis managed to find a buyer for one of their properties: an 82-year-old man whose son worked with felon loan officer Victor Clavizzao.

The buyer, Frank W. Conard Sr., said he was only trying to help his son get a commission and didn't realize the deal had been finalized. A retired trucker, Conard was surprised and angered to learn he is now responsible for payments of several thousand dollars a month on mortgages totaling $630,000.

"I couldn't get that kind of money if I stood on my head," Conard said.

Clavizzao, whose criminal record and suspect real estate deals have been chronicled in the St. Petersburg Times, told the loan company he arranged the deal but said he did not personally benefit.

As for Lepzinski, the July 23 transaction was the latest in a series of houses he has sold in the past year to people connected to Clavizzao.

Asked if he wanted to comment, the 49-year-old Lepzinski said: "Why would I?"

All in the family

Lepzinski, who lives in Clearwater, joined Merrill Lynch's Tampa office in 2000 and within two years was making $112,000 annually in salary and bonuses, according to divorce records. He and wife Peggy later reconciled. When he left in 2004 to join another brokerage, Merrill Lynch sued him in federal court for allegedly taking confidential client information with him. The two sides later settled in private.

That year Lepzinski also began buying houses, fixing them up and reselling them. By mid 2005 he was devoting all his time to real estate, boasting in a discount properties newsletter that he had purchased a small St. Petersburg house for $80 a square foot and was reselling it for $140 a square foot after renovations.

"This makes us look to repeat over and over," Lepzinski wrote. "Tampa Bay is a hot market."

However, the market soon began to cool, and it became harder for investors to "flip" properties for a quick profit. But Lepzinski had made an acquaintance with Clavizzao, the St. Petersburg loan officer who had served prison time for fraud and grand theft.

According to Pinellas County records, the Lepzinskis have sold eight houses since last summer, four of them to Clavizzao's father. The elder Clavizzao, who lives in New York, told the Times he knew nothing about the transactions. All four houses are in foreclosure proceedings.

In another deal arranged by Clavizzao, the Lepzinskis sold a fifth house for $51,000 more than they had paid for it just seven months earlier. Clavizzao lives in that house although the mortgages are in the name of his wife's grandparents.

Despite the sales, the Lepzinskis began missing payments in December on several other properties they owned. Among them was a two-story house in St. Petersburg's Crescent Park area that they bought for $485,000 in late 2005.

Neighbors say the house was partly renovated, but often looked abandoned because the yard was overgrown. The Lepzinskis hired real estate agent Brian Huntington, who said he was unable to sell it because "it's been a dead market." The couple then tried to sell the house "by owner," with no luck.

Until July.

An angry exchange

Interviewed this week at his home in a rural area of Ocala, Frank Conard looked surprised when a reporter showed him two mortgages with his signature dated July 23.

"They fell through," Conard said of the transaction, "because the man wanted more money."

Told the mortgages had been recorded, Conard immediately called his son James, who worked with Clavizzao as a loan officer. "I thought you told me this fell through," the elder Conard said angrily. "We're working on that," the son could be heard replying.

The elder Conard said he agreed to the deal only because he thought a commission would go to his son, who "doesn't get a heck of a lot of money" since being paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. Frank Conard acknowledged signing the mortgages at a lawyer's office in St. Petersburg but said he was so rushed he didn't understand the terms and amounts.

"I figured if I could do something to help my son I would, but if it got into something that didn't sound right, I didn't want no part of it," Conard said.

Worried lenders

Lenders reportedly have tightened loan standards since so many borrowers began defaulting on subprime mortgages, throwing the housing market into turmoil. How, then, could an 82-year-old who said he lives on Social Security get a $567,000 first mortgage with nothing down?

Don Currie, president of HighTechLending Inc. in California, said the loan application showed Conard had "considerable" assets, including a trucking company he owned and operated. Currie said he was unaware Conard was retired or that Conard Transport has been inactive since 1993, according to Florida corporate records.

Late this week, Currie said he had talked to Conard, who told him he now intends to make the mortgage payments and move into the house with his sons in the required 60-day period.

"We are very concerned about the situation as of right now," Currie said. "They are aware that if for any reason we come out and knock on the door and they are not there, we will call the loan due."

Clavizzao, who has a new grand theft charge in connection with a condominium purchase, recently moved out of his St. Petersburg office after the owner began eviction proceedings because of $9,300 in unpaid rent. Clavizzao is now working as "an entrepreneur and property manager," according to his lawyer, Scott Andringa.

The Lepzinskis used the proceeds from the sale of the Crescent Park house to pay off the first mortgage and to partly repay a Largo man from whom they had borrowed $50,000 that was due in June. They still have at least seven properties in foreclosure proceedings in Pinellas and Hillsborough countries, including two due to be sold at public auction Sept. 4.

But on his Internet site - ezhomestobuy.com - Lepzinski lists dozens of "investor deals" and continues to tout his investment know-how:

"We strive to understand your objectives, earn your trust and help you realize profitable results."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.