The new employees will be responsible for the prosecution and investigation of real estate fraud in San Joaquin County. The funding for the two positions, $382,239, is money from a negotiated settlement between the California Attorney General and Countrywide Financial Group for $5.2 million from the Foreclosure Crisis Recovery Fund.
The fund was created after the State of California won a lawsuit against Countrywide Financial Corporation in October 2008 in which the state alleges that Countrywide “engaged in false advertising and unfair competition in the origination of residential mortgage loans and home equity lines of credit,” court documents state.
The grant money is intended to fund local efforts to combat mortgage and foreclosure fraud. Fourteen agencies in 12 counties received a portion of the grant, including the San Joaquin County district attorney’s office which received all the allotted funds at one time.
“Anytime you can get dollars like this for the DA or sheriff’s, you need to take it,” said Supervisor Leroy Ornellas, who represents the county’s 5th District, which includes Tracy and Mountain House. “We got a nice portion (of funds) for San Joaquin.”
The new positions, which are expected to be filled soon, will augment the county’s real estate fraud prosecution unit, which currently consists of prosecutor James Lewis, one investigator and one paralegal. There is no hiring timetable, Ornellas said.
The funds became available to Willett in June but the DA did not cash the check, because Gov. Jerry Brown threatened to reallocate the grant money to the state general fund to help balance the state budget, according to Ornellas. He said Willett waited until the state budget was passed to move forward with his plans to seek approval to hire new people.
Willett officially requests to the supervisors in his letter dated Sept. 11 for the release of these grants to fill the two positions with civil servants from a list of previously laid-off employees from his office.
Willett stated in his letter that the investigation and prosecution of real estate related crimes is labor intensive and requires months of investigation and typically involves multiple suspects, witnesses, victims and multiple jurisdictions.
According to Willett’s letter, the lack of staffing in this unit has created a backlog of cases from across the county. He said currently they are only able to prosecute roughly half of the cases that are filed.
Over the past few years, the district attorney’s office has undergone several cuts in manpower due to budget reductions. In 2009, the DA’s office cut seven prosecutors, followed by the closing of the Tracy-based DA’s office in 2010, according to Robert Himelblau, prosecutor and spokesman for the district attorney.
“It will help us prosecute these crimes,” Himelblau said. “Real estate is a highly specialized area. James Lewis, he’s working overtime.”
On Aug. 9, Lewis successfully prosecuted a Ponzi scheme case involving a former Tracy-based real estate firm, Ward Real Estate.
Leesa Marie Ward and Alison Ann Jensen pleaded guilty to failure to file tax returns with intent to evade, the sale of securities by false statements, grand theft and conspiracy. Both women were sentenced to three years in San Joaquin County Jail in French Camp for allegedly stealing $5.8 million from 33 investors.
• Contact Denise Ellen Rizzo at 830-4225 or email@example.com
At a glance
WHAT: San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors
WHEN: 9 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 11
WHERE: County Administration Building, 44 N. San Joaquin St., Sixth Floor, Stockton
DETAILS: Chairman Steve Bestolarides and supervisors Leroy Ornellas, Frank Ruhstaller, Carlos Villapudua and Ken Vogel were present.