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Cape man previously charged with fraud in N.Y.; Sentenced to 30 months in prison

By Staff | Sep 15, 2008

A decade ago in New York, where Wall Street held the promise of riches, Ronald Luczak started selling securities.

He ended up as one of 13 defendants in a stock trading scam, pleading guilty to a federal fraud charge and receiving a 30-month prison sentence.

By the summer of 2005, he was on supervised release and settled with his family in Southwest Florida, where the money was in real estate.

With his wife, Lisa Luczak, who opened Cape Coral Equity and Development Group that fall, real estate was the business he ended up in.

Fraud allegations came the following year, and Wednesday, he and his wife both pleaded guilty in federal court to fraud counts related to a mortgage fraud scheme in Cape Coral that involved at least 37 properties and more than $27 million in home loans.

In his plea agreement, Ronald Luczak admitted to contracting to buy homes at one price, then having the home appraised for a higher amount — often bumping the price up by about $150,000 — and pocketing much of the difference as an “assignment fee.”

In a year and a half, his wife’s company received $5.8 million in those fees.

To buy the properties, the Luczaks relied on 100 percent financing and fraudulent loan applications using “straw buyers” — people told that they would make a profit when the Luczaks flipped the home in six months to a year. Some received initial payments of $5,000.

In effect, though, these buyers — many from New Jersey and south Florida — were agreeing to put their names on loan applications that the Luczaks had filled out with inflated monthly incomes, invented work histories, and in some cases, temporarily pumped-up bank account balances.

In one instance, according to Lisa Luczak’s plea agreement, she claimed that one of these straw buyers had worked at her company for several years, when the reality was her company had only been around for a few months.

Many of the properties these buyers took out loans for have since gone into foreclosure — adding to the tally in Lee County, which still ranks as one of the foreclosure hot spots nationally.

For example, for one investor described in the initial criminal complaint bought a home in Cape Coral in February 2006, county records show the investor signed for two mortgages in his name on a 3,990-square-foot, canal-front home in January 2006 totaling $750,000. Both mortgages were through New Century Mortgage.

The same home had sold for just $450,000 only six months before that sale. Foreclosure proceedings started on the property in early 2007.

What Ronald Luczak pleaded guilty to last week was one count of money laundering, one count of wire fraud and one count of conducting a prohibited monetary transaction — spending some of the money from the scheme to buy a $21,000 watercraft. He had been facing 12 counts altogether.

His wife pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud. She had been facing five counts of wire fraud and prohibited monetary transactions.

A title agent who was included in the original indictment was later dropped from the case, but two others involved with the Luczaks went on to enter guilty pleas.

Sandra Mainardi, a New Jersey resident who helped process loan applications with the Luczaks for 100 percent financing of inflated sales prices, pleaded guilty last month to one count of wire fraud.

Alex Nelson Gonzalo, a former Cape Coral police officer and real estate agent, pleaded guilty earlier this year to accessing an FBI database without authorization. He was licensed in Florida as a real estate sales associate in November 2005, the same month that Ronald and Lisa Luczak set up their companies in the state, and the initial criminal complaint described Gonzalo as someone who helped the Luczaks locate the properties. Gonzalo’s real estate license has since expired.

There is no record of either Lisa or Ronald Luczak holding a real estate or mortgage broker’s license in Florida.

When Ronald Luczak was arrested in late 2006, the significance of the fact that he had faced fraud charges before came out in an early detention hearing in the case.

A transcript of the hearing shows that David Haas with the U.S. Attorney’s Office described the earlier stock fraud case in New York as “strikingly similar” to the current real estate fraud case in Florida.

“The defendant was involved in a scheme where stocks were being overrepresented in value … which is exactly what was being done here, where prices of houses were being overstated,” he said. “So, some people learn from their mistakes and some people get more savvy from their mistakes.”

In New York, Luczak had been working at a small brokerage house, and allowed others at the business to use his license to sell securities. In the resulting federal cause, he pleaded guilty to a count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud. Others arrested in the case also faced money laundering charges and legal action from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

At the 2006 detention hearing, though, Luczak’s attorney at the time described Luczak’s role as very minimal.

“In that stock fraud case, this guy was a tiny little fish,” Robert Altchiler said.

He argued that in the new real estate fraud case if the deals in Cape Coral had been a scam, Luczak would have been caught sooner. He also said Luczak — a father of two and a churchgoer — was new to real estate; he would not have had anyone to teach him how to start a scam.

Both Lisa and Ronald Luczak are scheduled to be sentenced in December.

The Cape Coral home the couple bought in 2005 — and the only property in the county that remained in their name this year — was scheduled for a foreclosure sale the same morning that they made their guilty pleas in federal court.

Elizabeth Wright is a staff writer for the Bonita Daily News. Contact her at eawright@bonitanews.com.