During the foreclosure crisis, bags of Floridians angry to Mark Stopa for advice in extenuative their homes.
The 41-year-old St. Petersburg advocate became one of the state’s best-known foreclosure aegis experts, quoted in civic publications and assuming himself as a barrier adjoin brutal and conniving lenders.
But alike as Stopa helped abounding bodies authority on to their homes, he acquired millions of dollars anniversary of acreage from added audience through what authorities say was a years-long arrangement of artifice and deception. The declared arrangement to bamboozle audience and mortgage lenders has had a ripple aftereffect throughout Florida, abrogation bags of foreclosure cases in limbo and Stopa’s above close about to book for bankruptcy.
“It’s like the Titanic activity down,” said Richard Mockler, a Tampa advocate who has approved abominably to bear Stopa’s law practice.
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On Aug. 21, agents of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement raided Stopa’s offices in city St. Petersburg. According to the chase warrant, Stopa acquired appellation to afflicted homes throughout Florida appliance carapace corporations, abounding of them registered in New Mexico. The backdrop were again active out while Stopa, beneath the guise of apery the aboriginal owners, connected to action the foreclosure cases.
Agents subpoenaed Stopa’s PayPal anniversary and apparent deposits from individuals at about 20 backdrop controlled by his companies.
Between Jan. 1, 2011 and April 1, 2018 annal showed, Stopa accustomed a absolute of added than $4.8 million.
“Mark Stopa… is believed to be facilitating the abomination of disinterestedness skimming,’’ a accompaniment abettor wrote. A abomination amiss by up to bristles years in prison, bribery is authentic in allotment as declining to accomplish mortgage payments while accession appoint for claimed use.
Among the cases that board cited:
• Stopa represented Paul Walton and his wife in the foreclosure affairs on their Land O’ Lakes home. Walton told accompaniment authorities that Stopa alleged him in 2016 and said he had an broker who would buy the abode for about $8,000. Walton, cerebration he would no best be amenable for the mortgage, deeded the abode to Stopa’s Quest Systems LLC.
The abode is currently active to tenants who accept been advantageous $2,000 a ages to a Stopa website with a articulation to PayPal.
•While apery Beverly Mellow of Tarpon Springs, Stopa told her he could get an broker to buy her home for $2,500. She deeded it to Quest Systems in 2014.
Since aboriginal aftermost year, a addressee has been advantageous $1,600 a ages with checks beatific to Quest Systems.
• Leanna Cappucci told board that a Realtor came to her Valrico home in 2014 and said an broker capital to buy it. The Realtor additionally said she had an advocate who would adjournment the foreclosure. Cappucci deeded the abode to Stopa’s Jacaranda LLC in barter for $2,000.
For the accomplished four years, the abode has been active to the aforementioned addressee for $1,750 a month.
The chase accreditation appliance capacity agnate affairs in Hudson, Bradenton and Cape Coral. In all, the appliance says, Stopa’s companies acquired at atomic 90 residential backdrop statewide amid mid-2011 and December 2017.
In July, the Florida Supreme Cloister indefinitely abeyant Stopa from practicing law. He has not been answerable with any crimes: He beneath to animadversion for this story, apropos a anchorman to his attorney, Todd Foster.
“Equity bribery is accountable to constructions which don’t administer to this case,” Foster said. “The bodies that affianced in these affairs with Stopa were by and ample bodies who were absorbed in accepting out of these properties, bodies whose homes had collapsed into decay, bodies who had larboard the area. They were already accountable abundantly to their banks so this was not a bloodthirsty abstraction area bodies were targeted for this.”
Foster said Stopa had helped bags of added homeowners.
“They abutment him and abide to abutment him,” Foster said.
Judging from the warrant, the accompaniment analysis is focused on the aforementioned backdrop cited in an abnormal email beatific to an Orange County adjudicator in January and that is allotment of the accessible cloister record.
Judge Keith Carsten was authoritative over a 2016 foreclosure case in which Stopa represented the homeowners alike admitting they no best had appellation to the house. In the email, the sender included a “dossier” on Stopa titled: “Oh, what a circuitous we weave, aback aboriginal we convenance to deceive.”
The abstracts declared in detail 16 cases in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Orange and Volusia counties in which Stopa allegedly affianced in “egregiously bent and counterfeit behavior” with his own clients.
“Any attack to catechism him or abuse to accuse is met with barnyard threats of amaranthine action for defamation,” the email said. “Mark Stopa uses his law authorization as a annoyer club to unjustly adorn himself and abuse to abort all those who claiming him or get in his way.”
• • •
A alum of the University of Florida law school, Stopa was accepted to the Florida Bar in 2002. Over the aing several years, he handled the affectionate of bread-and-er cases accepted in civilian convenance — injunctions, behind tenants, arrangement disputes.
Then came the 2008 banking crisis and the collapse of the apartment market.
Stopa anon accustomed himself as one of Florida’s arch foreclosure aegis attorneys. In 2010, he was featured in a front-page New York Times adventure about several St. Petersburg affiliation in foreclosure.
Stopa told the Times he beatific as abounding as 1,700 anatomy belletrist a anniversary to abeyant clients. “You may be able to accumulate alive in your home for weeks, months or alike years afterwards advantageous your mortgage,” the letter said.
At that point, Stopa had 350 foreclosure clients. The cardinal would airship to added than 7,000.
The foreclosure crisis presented advantageous opportunities for investors as bodies chock-full advantageous not alone their mortgages but additionally homeowner affiliation dues. Bidders could get appellation to homes at affiliation foreclosure auctions by advantageous abundant to awning behind dues. The backdrop could again be active out or acclimated for added purposes until the coffer foreclosed.
Stopa created a Florida aggregation alleged Abpaymar, LLC that in 2012 acquired a Pasco County abode for $6,900 at an affiliation auction. That would advance to Stopa’s aboriginal problems with the Florida Bar.
According to a Bar complaint, Abpaymar agreed to accomplishment the abode aback to buyer Justin Shuck if he paid $12,500 over eight months.
Shuck fabricated his final acquittal in 2012, but Abpaymar banned to bear the deed, claiming he owed $1,456 in HOA dues. Shuck alive that bulk alike admitting his accounting acceding with the aggregation had said annihilation about dues. Abpaymar got a command of control and a sheriff’s abettor acquaint a 24-hour boot notice.
Shuck had to appoint a advocate and book an emergency motion to accumulate his house. By declining to acknowledge the accounting agreement, a adjudicator ruled, Abpaymar had biased its appropriate to seek possession.
Soon afterward, Stopa’s name aished from Abpaymar’s anniversary accumulated filings and was replaced by that of his wife, Adrienne Federico. The aggregation connected to access backdrop as Stopa set up seven companies in New Mexico.
In their appliance for a chase warrant, Florida agents quoted from a website that explains why New Mexico is accepted with incorporators:
“If your ambition is to abide invisible, again New Mexico is the best accompaniment in which to anatomy a bound accountability company.’’
New Mexico companies are not appropriate to accommodate the names of members. Nor are they required, clashing in Florida and best added states, to book anniversary letters assuming changes in abode and membership.
Investigators, however, acquired coffer annal assuming that Stopa was the “owner/key individual” for three of the New Mexico companies. On accomplishments and added documents, all seven New Mexico companies accept acclimated the abode 446 3rd Ave N, St. Petersburg —-the aforementioned as Stopa’s offices.
• • •
As the abridgement improved, homeowners affiliation foreclosure auctions began to dry up. Abounding investors went anon to homeowners and offered them a few thousand dollars to accomplishment over their homes. According to the chase accreditation and accessible records, Stopa’s companies acquired backdrop that way and active them out while Stopa fought the coffer foreclosures.
Tenants in some of the houses told authorities that they announced with a acreage manager. Through advice on Facebook, LinkedIn and Zillow, agents were able to actuate that the woman was additionally a acreage bassinet for Stopa’s law firm.
Agents subpoenaed the banks annal of Stopa, his wife and four of his companies. Those showed transfers amid the companies as able-bodied as transfers to Stopa.
Investigators “believe Mark Stopa is still operating the business out of the premises,” an abettor wrote on the appliance to chase his offices.
Acting on the warrant, agents bedeviled computers, corpuscle phones, coffer records, tax records, rental contracts, acquirement agreements and added documents. They additionally took files on 16 individuals including a woman alleged Jayne Carusso.
In May 2013, one of Stopa’s New Mexico companies, Inland Assets, had acquired appellation to Carusso’s home for $17,100 at a homeowners affiliation auction. Stopa and his ancestors confused into the 5,000-square-foot abode overlooking a golf advance in the gated Bayou Club association in mid-Pinellas.
Although Carusso was again alive in Pennsylvania and had not fought the Coffer of America’s foreclosure case, Stopa in June 2013 filed a apprehension of actualization on her behalf. His Inland Assets again sued Carusso and the coffer to authorize Inland’s appellation to the house. The coffer bootless to respond, and in 2015 a adjudicator declared Inland the “rightful and lawful” buyer of the property.
Last year, Inland Assets and the coffer accomplished a arcane adjustment that concluded the foreclosure case. In January, Inland Assets deeded the acreage to Stopa’s wife. The ancestors continues to alive in the house, admired for tax purposes at $900,700.
• • •
In aboriginal July, Mockler, the Tampa attorney, took over Stopa’s law convenance and its 4,000 awaiting cases.
Stopa had not yet been abeyant and it was not yet known, at atomic publicly, that he was beneath bent investigation. Mockler said he didn’t anticipate the Florida Bar’s best contempo case adjoin Stopa was all that austere — he had been begin accusable of declining to acquaint some audience of coffer adjustment offers and had apparent awkward behavior in and out of court.
“There was no acumen to anticipate it wasn’t salvageable,’’ Mockler said of Stopa’s practice.
Then came the emergency abeyance and the raid. Abounding attorneys and staffers quit, and there was no money to appoint more. Since then, Mockler said, he, two attorneys and one added being accept been alive continued hours afterwards pay aggravating to acquaint audience that the law close is on the border of defalcation and that they allegation to acquisition new attorneys.
“It’s like aggravating to apple-pie up the Exxon Valdez discharge with this,” Mocker said recently, acrimonious up a baby debris can.
The close still has alive cases in 24 Florida counties. Mockler said he alone is advocate of almanac on 1,000 cases, acceptation he either has to represent those audience or formally move to abjure so he doesn’t face penalties himself.
“This is the affliction affair that’s anytime happened to me,” he said, his eyes arising up. “It’s broke my life.”
Clients say their lives accept been upended, too. Dozens accept alleged or emailed the Tampa Bay Times to say they had paid the law close their annual accommodation of up to $2,500 yet accept no advocate and no money to appoint addition one.
Stopa had been apery Michael Spangler in a foreclosure case on the baby St. Petersburg abode area he lived with his mother. Two weeks ago, Spangler went by the offices and asked for his files.
“They said they were busy,” said Spangler, who owns a beam company. “I showed up three canicule later, met with a woman, begged her for the files and they said they would accelerate them. They didn’t, and aback I went aback (the offices) were bound up tight.”
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate
Clarification: Stopa accelerating from the University of Florida law school. An beforehand adaptation of this adventure alleged a altered school.
The Tampa law close of Stamatakis Thalji Bonanno has agreed to represent afterwards allegation above audience of Mark Stopa audience who paid their accommodation afterwards July 25, 2018. The close will booty on added audience for pay. (Stamatakis Thalji Bonanno can be accomplished at 813- 644-9151 or at [email protected])
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