A Contra Costa County real estate investor has agreed to plead guilty to his role in conspiracies to rig bids and commit mail fraud at public real estate foreclosure auctions in Northern California, the Department of Justice announced.
Felony charges were filed this week in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in Oakland against Charles Gonzales, of Alamo. Including Gonzales, a total of 44 individuals have pleaded guilty or agreed to plead guilty as a result of the department’s ongoing antitrust investigations into bid rigging and fraud at public real estate foreclosure auctions in Northern California.
According to court documents, beginning as early as April 2009 until about October 2010, Gonzales conspired with others not to bid against one another and instead to designate a winning bidder to obtain selected properties at public real estate foreclosure auctions in Alameda County. Gonzales was also charged with conspiring to commit mail fraud by fraudulently acquiring title to selected Alameda County properties sold at public auctions and making and receiving payoffs and diverting money to co-conspirators that would have gone to mortgage holders and others by holding second, private auctions open only to members of the conspiracy. The department said that the selected properties were then awarded to the conspirators who submitted the highest bids in the second, private auctions. The private auctions often took place at or near the courthouse steps where the public auctions were held.
“The Antitrust Division’s ongoing investigation has resulted in charges against 44 individuals for their roles in schemes that defraud distressed homeowners and lenders,” said Bill Baer, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. “The division will continue to work with its law enforcement partners to vigorously protect competition at the local level.”
The department said that the primary purpose of the conspiracies was to suppress and restrain competition and to conceal payoffs in order to obtain selected real estate offered at Alameda County public foreclosure auctions at non-competitive prices. When real estate properties are sold at the auctions, the proceeds are used to pay off the mortgage and other debt attached to the property, with remaining proceeds, if any, paid to the homeowner. According to court documents, the conspirators paid and received money that otherwise would have gone to pay off the mortgage and other holders of debt secured by the properties and, in some cases, the defaulting homeowner.
“The symbolism of holding illegitimate and fraudulent private auctions near a courthouse is deplorable,” said David J. Johnson, FBI Special Agent in Charge of the San Francisco Field Office. “The justice system will continue to prevail in this ongoing investigation pursuing bid rigging and fraud at public foreclosure auctions.”
A violation of the Sherman Act carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine for individuals. The maximum fine for the Sherman Act charges may be increased to twice the gain derived from the crime or twice the loss suffered by the victim if either amount is greater than $1 million. A count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine. The government can also seek to forfeit the proceeds earned from participating in the conspiracy to commit mail fraud.
The charges are the latest filed by the department in its ongoing investigation into bid rigging and fraud at public real estate foreclosure auctions in San Francisco, San Mateo, Contra Costa, and Alameda Counties. These investigations are being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office and the FBI’s San Francisco Office.
Anyone with information concerning bid rigging or fraud related to public real estate foreclosure auctions should contact the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office at 415-934-5300 or call the FBI tip line at 415-553-7400.