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Madison Lawyer Admits Role in Buying Home in Dead Man's Name

Borough resident Paul DiGiacomo was the last of five defendants to plead guilty in mortgage fraud scheme, according to the attorney general's office.

Madison Lawyer Admits Role in Buying Home in Dead Man's Name

An attorney from Madison on Monday became the last of five defendants to plead guilty for their roles in a scheme led by a Hudson County woman to defraud a mortgage lender of $431,2000, the Office of the Attorney General announced this week.

Paul DiGiacomo, 46, of Madison, a lawyer who laundered stolen funds through his trust account, pleaded guilty to second-degree money laundering before Superior Court Judge Thomas V. Manahan in Morris County. Under his plea agreement, the state will recommend an eight-year state prison sentence and a $150,000 fine, the attorney general's office said.

The leader of the scheme, Genilza R. Nunes, 38, of Kearny, pleaded guilty on May 8 to second-degree money laundering before Superior Court Judge Salem Vincent Ahto in Morris County. Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that she be sentenced to 10 years in state prison, including two years of parole ineligibility, and be ordered to pay a $150,000 fine, according to a state news release.

“Home sales typically involve various professionals, including real estate agents, attorneys, title agents and mortgage brokers, who are responsible for providing multiple layers of review and oversight to prevent fraud,” Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa. “In this case, however, we had dishonest operators in every one of those roles, leading the unsuspecting lender to provide a $431,200 mortgage loan to a dead man. We will continue to work diligently to uncover such mortgage fraud schemes and send those responsible to prison.”

“In this troubled economy, we’re working hard to stop those who engage in financial fraud,” said Stephen J. Taylor, director of the Division of Criminal Justice. “We’ve made it a priority to investigate and prosecute major white collar crimes, including complex mortgage fraud and money laundering cases.”

Three other defendants pleaded guilty during the past two weeks:

  • Lillian Veras, 40, of Kearny pleaded guilty on May 14 before Judge Manahan to second-degree money laundering. Veras, a real estate agent and notary, helped prepare false loan documents for the scheme and forged signatures. She faces a recommended sentence of seven years in prison and a $150,000 fine.
  • Maureen R. Stillwell, 50, of Somerville, an employee of Ideal Title Agency, LLC, who helped prepare false closing documents, pleaded guilty before Judge Ahto on May 8 to second-degree money laundering. She faces a sentence of up to seven years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
  • Sheila Zullo, 46, of Green Brook, the owner of Ideal Title Agency, LLC, pleaded guilty on May 7 before Judge Manahan to third-degree money laundering. She admitted that she illegally distributed the loan funds as escrow agent. She faces a recommended sentence of up to three years in prison and a $150,000 fine.

A sixth defendant, Nuno J. Sousa, 37, of Union City, agreed to be charged by accusation with third-degree securities fraud and was admitted by the court into the Pre-Trial Intervention Program in April. All six defendants who have pleaded guilty or entered PTI are required to pay restitution to the lender, Provident Funding Associates, equal to one-sixth of the $431,200 loan amount, or approximately $71,867 each.

Deputy Attorney General Marysol Rosero took the guilty pleas for the Division of Criminal Justice Financial & Computer Crimes Bureau. Detective Sgt. Louis A. Matirko and DAG Rosero conducted the investigation and were assisted by Deputy Attorney General Michael Rappa, Special Agent Tanya Chavez, Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Special Agent Robert Manchak, Office of Inspector General, Federal Housing Finance Agency, and Division of Criminal Justice Interns Andrew Davenport, Brittany Kieran and Cara Ogulin.

Nunes is scheduled to be sentenced on June 29. Her co-defendants are scheduled to be sentenced as follows: DiGiacomo on July 6; Veras on June 22; Stillwell on June 29; and Zullo on June 29.

The scheme

Nunes, the mastermind of the scheme, acted as a principal of Leska Management, a bogus real estate management company. With Veras’ assistance, she arranged for the purchase of a home in Newark from a woman who had fallen behind in her mortgage payments. The seller owed $477,196 on her loan, but the holder of the mortgage, Kondaur Capital Corp., agreed to a “short sale” for $260,000 to a purported buyer identified by the defendants. A “short sale” is a pre-foreclosure sale where the mortgage holder agrees to permit the home to be sold for less than the amount due on the loan.

That sale was never completed. DiGiacomo, who held himself out as the attorney for both the buyer and Leska, told Kondaur the sale had fallen through. He then negotiated with Kondaur to assign the mortgage to Leska at a discounted price of $219,877. He never disclosed that, prior to assignment of the mortgage, the home was sold at an inflated price of $539,000 to a fictitious buyer created by the defendants. Nunes, with assistance from Sousa, a mortgage broker, fraudulently applied to Provident Funding Associates for a $431,200 mortgage loan and purchased the home using the identity of a deceased man whose last name was “Benazi.” Nunes created counterfeit bank records, employment records and false identification documents for Benazi for the loan application, and she had another man pose as Benazi at the closing. No payments were ever made to the lender on the loan. The seller was never notified of the closing, and her signature was forged on the closing documents.

Stillwell handled the closing for Ideal Title and assisted in the creation of false closing documents used to deceive the lender. She never collected monies due at closing from the buyer, and falsified HUD settlement statements to indicate that they had been collected and that the prior mortgage had been paid off. In her role as escrow agent, Zullo, the owner of Ideal Title, misappropriated loan proceeds by wiring $376,032 to DiGiacomo’s attorney trust account at Nunes’ direction. DiGiacomo used $219,877 of the misappropriated funds to pay for the assignment of the mortgage and wired the balance of $156,155, representing the net illegal profits, into a bank account controlled by Nunes and Veras. Stillwell, Zullo and DiGiacomo were all compensated for their participation in the scheme.

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