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Real estate agent says it may be a rival using smear tactics.
By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published November 23, 2007
In 2006 - a year when most Tampa Bay real estate agents saw their business plummet - Lori Polin did remarkably well.
An agent for Re/Max International, Polin was honored at the company's convention in Atlanta last March with the Chairman's Club Award. That put her in an elite group - fewer than 1,400 of Re/Max's 120,000 agents worldwide - who had gross commissions last year of at least $500,000.
It was an impressive feat at a time when Florida home sales and prices were dropping dramatically. But now Polin, a member of the Re/Max Hall of Fame, is accused of owing at least some of her success to mortgage fraud.
In a letter to Re/Max's Denver headquarters, the Pinellas Realtor Organization and many of her fellow agents, an anonymous sender claims Polin "artificially inflated" the prices of nine homes in Tampa and North Pinellas so buyers could get larger loans.
Most of the houses were mortgaged for far more than the actual sales price, with the buyer or a third party pocketing the difference. Except for well-documented renovations, such "cash-back-at-closing" transactions can be a sign of mortgage fraud. In one transaction, $109,000 went to a construction cleanup company although there is no evidence of any construction or cleanup up since the run-down Clearwater house sold last year.
That house and the others listed by the anonymous sender are all now in foreclosure proceedings, contributing to a Florida foreclosure rate that is the nation's third highest.
"The buyers purchased multiple properties in short periods of time to avoid lenders detecting multiloan transactions and fraud," the letter charges. "Lori's contribution to this fraudulent activity has distorted property values and undermined neighborhoods."
The 48-year-old Polin said she is the innocent victim of a "smear campaign," which she says may have been started by a jealous rival.
"It's serious about these people going into foreclosure, but it has nothing to do with me except this Realtor trying to get me into trouble," Polin said. "All these deals were put together by attorneys and title companies and lenders. Nothing was inappropriate as far as what I did."
All of the transactions involved lawyer Allen Boyarksy, who bought Polin's own Oldsmar home. Polin said she didn't know that Boyarsky's law license had been suspended, that he had a history of drug arrests or that he had filed for bankruptcy protection, listing debts of $300,000.
Boyarsky, who recently started a marketing business with former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Lamar Thomas, didn't respond to requests for comment. In 2006, he was vice president of a mortgage company whose owner, Marcus Habeeb, recently closed all four of his Florida offices because mortgage fraud had become so rampant.
"The whole of Florida, all the transactions are funny," said Habeeb, who lives in New York. "All you got is fraud going on."
Some sketchy buyers
In 1997, Polin was making about $400 a month as a part-time visiting nurse. But after her divorce from her husband, a doctor, she began a real estate career that by 2003 was so successful Judge Nancy Moate agreed to a change in child support payments.
"There was a substantial increase in the wife's income," Moate said at a hearing. "Obviously she's done great."
Divorce files show Polin grossed about $120,000 in 2002, a time when Florida's real estate market was beginning to boom. But as the market began its steep slide in early 2006, she did even better.
Polin listed her house in the Multiple Listing Service, or MLS, at $544,900. But in January 2006, she raised the price to $610,000 and immediately got a contract from Boyarsky. He took out two loans, both co-signed by then-boss Habeeb.
Polin said Boyarsky paid more for the house because it included the furniture. She said she didn't question why an apparently successful lawyer needed someone to co-sign a loan.
"He brought his wife and his baby, he came in a suit and tie," Polin said. "Nothing seemed out of line."
For the rest of 2006, she continued to work with Boyarsky, who told her he represented investors. Among the deals was one involving a Tampa house whose owners had moved to Central Florida.
Iris Alfonso said her house had been on the market for months when Polin asked if she would accept a reduced price of $449,900. So Alfonso was surprised to find a contract price of $540,000.
She was surprised, too, that the buyer, Robert McCauley, agreed to let her sister stay on as a tenant at the same low rent she had been paying.
"It did make us wonder if something was going on here," Alfonso said. "Why would he be willing to take such a small amount of rent when his loan was so much higher than ours had been?"
As foreclosure notices arrived, Alfonso's brother-in-law met McCauley at a club and handed them over. McCauley, 30, was expensively dressed and driving a Cadillac Escalade. But after his arrest last July on a cocaine charge, he applied for a public defender.
He listed zero income and debts totaling $2.4-million.
Polin also was the agent on five houses bought by a young Central Florida woman and two homes sold to an Illinois man, Todd Kittel. Prices on five of the six houses were raised substantially just before they went under contract, and all six were financed for 100 percent of the new, higher amount.
One of the houses - in Palm Harbor - had been reduced to $335,000 in November 2006. Two weeks later, Polin increased the price to $425,000 and immediately got a contract from Kittel.
Utilities records show the water was turned on in Allen Boyarsky's name. Neither he nor Kittel ever moved into the house, which became a crash pad for convicted drug users and their pit bulls.
"It was the scourge of the neighborhood," said Cynthia Conciatu, who lives next door to the now-vacant house.
Kittel, whose other property is also in foreclosure, had only this comment: "I've hired a lawyer and I'm getting my life back together."
Polin defends prices
Reaction to the letter alleging Polin's involvement in possible mortgage fraud has varied.
Re/Max Mutual Realty of Clearwater, where Polin then worked, declined to comment. The Pinellas Realtor Organization said it doesn't act on anonymous complaints. But Re/Max International is "very concerned" about the allegations and is investigating, a spokesman said.
Polin, now with a Re/Max office near her Tampa home, said she could not discuss specific sales because of client confidentiality. But she said she did nothing illegal or improper by increasing prices.
"Prices are always raised and lowered in the MLS," she said. "In fact, there's a phenomenon where if you're not getting bites, you raise the price and you start getting bites."
But a prominent Pinellas real estate broker and appraiser questions such large price increases.
"People don't raise prices $100,000 in this market," said Jack Bowman, past chairman of a state board that has investigated mortgage fraud. "The market began to go south about September of 2005 and anybody who's any good knew it was going. (A price increase) is a red flag."
Polin said she stopped doing business with Boyarsky after the Pinellas Realtor Organization warned agents to be wary of 100 percent financing deals in which borrowers or third parties got cash from the loans. "If he brought clients I said, 'No, go elsewhere."'
Boyarsky worked for American Heritage Mortgage Group until the owner, Habeeb, fired him last year. "I can't prove these things, but I knew prices were escalated and money was passing hands that shouldn't be passing hands," Habeeb said.
Jail records show Boyarsky, 50, was still in the mortgage business as of last February when he was arrested on a cocaine charge. He recently moved out of the house - now in foreclosure - that he bought from Polin.
As for Polin, she insists her success is due solely to hard work. And she doesn't think it's a reflection on her that she sold so many houses to people who defaulted.
"How would I know what the intent of these buyers were? Look at the thousands of foreclosures out there. You can't say Realtors are responsible for that."
Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Last modified November 23, 2007, 00:06:56]