A Hudson, Wis., couple said Thursday that straying from their values led them to key roles in the massive multimillion-dollar mortgage fraud scheme that ended with substantial prison time.
Calling their intricate scheme "extensive and insidious," a judge had little sympathy for James and Wendy Ober before he handed each a 10-year sentence for racketeering Thursday.
"It's clear that James Ober and Wendy Ober are not the victims," Hennepin County District Judge Joseph Klein said. "They do not erase the footprints that have been laid down by a person's conduct."
The couple pleaded guilty earlier this year in connection with the plot, which involved obtaining fraudulent loans through their company, Mortgage Planners Inc., then obtaining kickbacks valued at more than $6 million. The complex equity-stripping plot relied on forged documents such as property records, college transcripts, pay stubs and even court records to qualify "straw buyers" for mortgage loans that required extensive documentation because they were guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said they brokered about $23 million in loans, used to buy properties in the Twin Cities and outstate.
Among their victims was Rosa Ventura, whose identity was stolen to take out a fraudulent mortgage. Through an interpreter, she told Klein how she was in El Salvador when her husband called from their Twin Cities home, panicked over strange bills and letters. "You cannot imagine the anguish that I felt and all the pain because I could do nothing," she said.
The sentences were longer than recommended by state guidelines, in part because the Obers' actions involved identity theft, involved three or more conspirators and constituted a major economic offense that caused unwitting homeowners to fall into foreclosure. They were ordered to pay more than $500,000 in restitution on behalf of seven victims, along with a $50,000 fine. The Obers will contest the restitution amount in an upcoming hearing.
Others charged in the scheme include Raul Burgos Pliego of Farmington and Alejandro Sanchez of Bloomington. Pliego pled guilty to racketeering and is scheduled for sentencing next week. Authorities are searching for Sanchez, who is believed to have fled.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Thomas Sinas argued for more than 12 years each for the Obers. "No other mortgage fraud racketeering case has involved such systematic criminal activity in one organization," he said. "In this world of fraud, nothing was off-limits."
James Ober's attorney, Thomas Kelley, called his client a good person with strong moral character "who made some grievous mistakes."
"It was poor judgment on his part, but he is not a thief at heart," he said.
Wendy Ober's attorney, Timothy Webb, called her a church member, volunteer and mother who has the support of friends and family, including daughters who sobbed as she was led away.
Addressing the judge, James Ober, 44, said that he was ready to face the consequences of his actions. Wendy Ober, 42, turned and tearfully apologized to Ventura, and her own family.
"There are so many [victims]," she said. "I don't think I can begin to say I'm sorry to all of them. It's a trickle-down effect."
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921