Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that JACQUELINE GRAHAM was sentenced today to 132 months in prison in connection with a $38 million fraudulent mortgage debt elimination scheme. GRAHAM previously was convicted in June 2019 after a two-week trial before U.S. District Judge Nelson S. Román, who also imposed today’s sentence.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said: “Jacqueline Graham brazenly defrauded vulnerable homeowners during the housing crisis by falsely promising that, for substantial fees, she could make millions of dollars of their mortgage debt disappear. In reality, she pilfered her victims’ money, leaving them far worse off, and some ended up losing their homes. Now Graham will spend 11 years in federal prison for preying upon her many victims.”
According to the Indictment in the case, the evidence presented at trial, and statements made in public court filings and proceedings, including GRAHAM’s sentencing hearing:
From at least 2011 to at least 2012, JACQUELINE GRAHAM partnered with Bruce Lewis and John Ruzza in operating the Valhalla, New York-based Terra Foundation, which held itself out as a business that would investigate and eliminate mortgage loans in exchange for fees, soliciting clients who were having difficulties making their mortgage payments. In fact, however, Terra engaged in a wide-ranging scheme to defraud clients, county clerks’ offices, and banks.
The fraudulent scheme, which was created by GRAHAM and Lewis, involved Terra performing “audits” of clients’ mortgages, sending pseudo-legal paperwork to the banks and/or lenders holding the mortgages, and ultimately filing purported mortgage discharges with the relevant county clerks’ offices. As a result, anyone doing a title search for one of Terra’s clients would see that the client’s mortgage had been satisfied. The mortgages had not, however, been discharged, and the mortgages were eventually reinstated, after the clients paid their fees.
In order to effectuate the scheme, GRAHAM, Lewis, and Ruzza involved others, including Rocco Cermele, the director of operations, Paula Guadagno, who filed discharges on behalf of Terra, and Anthony Vigna, a lawyer and CPA who worked in Terra’s offices. Vigna was formerly an Assistant Corporation Counsel for the City of Yonkers, and a college accounting and law professor, including stints on the faculties of Mercy College, Iona College, SUNY Maritime College, College of Mount St. Vincent, and Westchester Community College.
In total, GRAHAM and her co-conspirators filed over 60 fraudulent discharges in Westchester and Putnam Counties in New York, and in Connecticut. The fraudulent discharges claimed to discharge mortgages with a total loan principal of nearly $38 million.
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In addition to her prison term, GRAHAM, 54, formerly of Antioch, California, and Levittown, Pennsylvania, was sentenced to five years of supervised release and ordered to pay restitution to her victims in the amount of $694,450 and forfeiture of $138,941.86.
Lewis, 67, formerly of Alaska and Washington State, previously was sentenced by Judge Román to seven years in prison, three years of supervised release, and forfeiture of $149,408.
Vigna, 61, of Thornwood, New York, previously was sentenced by Judge Román to one year and one day in prison, three years of supervised release, and $250,500 of restitution.
Ruzza, 49, formerly of Mahopac, New York, previously pled guilty before U.S. District Judge Cathy Seibel to one count of participating in a conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud, and bank fraud relating to the Terra scheme, as well as one count of participating in a conspiracy to commit wire fraud, two counts of bank fraud, two counts of wire fraud, and one count of obstruction of justice.
Cermele, 57, of Yonkers, New York, and Guadagno, 62, of Verplanck, New York, previously pled guilty to their participation in the scheme.
Mr. Berman praised the outstanding investigative work of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Mr. Berman also thanked the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office and the Department of Housing and Urban Development for their assistance in the case.
This case is being handled by the Office’s White Plains Division. Assistant United States Attorneys David Felton, Michael Maimin, and James McMahon are in charge of the prosecutions.