Saturday, November 18, 2017
Business

Mortgage fraudster promised to help them build a church, then split with their money

RECOMMENDED READING


PLANT CITY — Every Sunday morning, members of the New Testament Outreach Holiness Church #2 gather for services in a strip shopping center on the outskirts of town. They sit in neat rows, facing a raised dais and a pulpit bedecked with flowers.

It looks like a church, but it is not a real church building, the kind that Pastors Minnie and Sam Wright have long dreamed of having in order to spread their ministry and help more of the needy.

So three years ago, when the Wrights met a man named Victor Thomas, they were thrilled to learn that he worked with a New York lending company. And not only did Thomas offer to help them get a $650,000 loan to build their church, he would handle all the details, from buying the land to arranging environmental testing to finding an architect and contractor.

Just as importantly, he seemed like a good Christian. As Minnie Wright puts it:

"When you said, 'praise the Lord,' he'd say, 'praise the Lord.' When you said, Amen,' he'd say, 'Amen.'"

Over time, the Wrights began to have their doubts about Thomas. But it was only after he took more than $16,000 with nothing to show for it that they discovered who he really was — Victor Thomas Clavizzao, a repeat felon still on probation after serving a five-year federal prison sentence for mortgage fraud.

"We got ourselves in a mess," Wright says.

She contacted the Tampa Bay Times after reading a story in early May about Clavizzao, who had returned to the loan business less than a year after getting out of prison. The story told how the 54-year-old Clavizzao had begun using the name Victor Thomas and had listed an unsuspecting Tampa physician as vice president of his St. Petersburg-based loan company.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: After prison term for Tampa Bay mortgage fraud, he's back in business

Clavizzao, who lives near Daytona Beach, did not return numerous calls seeking comment. In an interview for the May story, he said his loan business was legitimate and that he told potential clients of his criminal history.

As the demand for mortgages soared during the housing boom of the early to mid 2000s, Clavizzao was among the thousands of loan originators hired by mortgage companies to sell loans. Originators — many of whom had criminal records like Clavizzao — did the same job as mortgage brokers but were not bound by the same rules. That inevitably led to trouble in a frenzied environment where even borrowers with poor credit and no proof of employment or income could get mortgages.

Then the market crashed and borrowers defaulted in droves. The federal government tightened lending standards and Florida passed a law that required the licensing of loan originators, defined in part as:

An individual who, directly or indirectly, solicits or offers to solicit a mortgage loan, accepts or offers to accept an application for a mortgage loan… on behalf of a borrower or lender.

Loan originators in Florida now must complete a 20-hour course, pass a national exam and undergo criminal background checks. Violating the law can be a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Applicants with existing felonies for fraud and other money-related crimes are permanently barred from licensing.

Clavizzao couldn't qualify for a license because of his criminal record, but the lack of one didn't stop him when he met the Wrights.

Minnie Wright, 65, is a stylish woman with silver- flecked hair who owns a business that trains students to be certified nursing assistants. Her husband is a heavy equipment operator for Mosaic, the big fertilizer company. They live in a neat but modest house; their priority is providing a fine, permanent home for the church they started in 2004.

After years in rented space, the Wrights were so passionate about building a church that Minnie sketched a design in pencil, then took it to Staples to have it digitally redrawn and printed out in full color.

"Dear Jesus, this is the vision that shall come to pass," she wrote. "It's your kingdom building."

The couple already had picked out a site for the church in 2014 when Clavizzao contacted an insurance company where Wright's brother, Carlton Brunson, is a manager. Clavizzao — then using the name Victor Thomas — wanted to buy a life insurance policy so Brunson went to see him.

Clavizzao had an office in downtown St. Petersburg but said he worked with a lender in New York. "I asked if he did church loans and he said, 'Absolutely,'" Brunson said. He invited Clavizzao to meet his sister, who found him polite and charming. He told her that she looked exactly like his mother.

Accompanied by a lawyer, Clavizzao then met with the New Testament congregation.

"He (was) all cool and calm and collected,"Wright said. "It sounded really good. It's like, okay, this guy is what we need."

After that meeting, the Wrights gave him $2,200 — which they understood to be a fee that Clavizzao and the lawyer would split — and another $9,100 that was supposed to go for appraisals and other costs.

The Wrights also filled out paperwork, including a form on which they put down their Social Security numbers and gave Key Capital Commercial Funding of New York City permission to obtain their credit reports. Another form, which Sam signed, authorized his bank to "provide information concerning my finances and assets."

On July 29, 2014, Clavizzao presented them with Key Capital's "Proposal Letter for Guaranteed Business Purchase Loan." It outlined the terms of a 15-year, $650,000 loan at 5.1 percent interest.

The Wrights didn't realize then that there was no Key Capital Commercial Funding in New York City, or anywhere else. Nor did they notice other peculiarities, including "lien" misspelled as ''lean."

Still, things seems to move along.

Clavizzao contacted a Tampa environmental company to test the vacant lot the Wrights wanted to buy for the church. He introduced them to a friend of his that he said was a contractor.

Shortly after Christmas 2014, Clavizzao said he needed to give the seller's lawyer a down payment for the land. Minnie Wright wrote a check for $5,000.

It was after a Tallahassee architect drew up plans for the church that the Wrights began to get a whiff of trouble. At a meeting with Clavizzao and church members, the architect asked for $3,800 as a down payment for his services. That surprised the Wrights, who assumed Clavizzao had paid it out of the $9,100. But Clavizzao didn't have the money.

After the architect left the room, "Victor was trying to put him down," Wright said. "He was saying that he wasn't right and that we needed to check him out and all the time it was Victor that wasn't right."

Clavizzao became harder to contact. Among the excuses, Wright said, was that his wife had cancer or that he had to pick up his kids from school. When she demanded receipts, he replied: "You sound like something's wrong."

"It is," she recalled telling Clavizzao. "I said, 'We've been working over a year and nothing has happened.' I called him back. No answer. I kept calling; no answer. And then, I knew we were in trouble with this guy."

The Wrights discovered that the seller's lawyer never got the $5,000. They learned that Clavizzao had cancelled the environmental testing. The architect still didn't have his $3,800, so the church had to work out a payment plan.

That wasn't all. Minnie Wright's cousin, Cherry Hallback, said Clavizzao told her he could help her get a loan to expand her assisted living business. She paid him $500, ostensibly for an appraisal and survey, but he disappeared without doing anything, she said.

Asked whether Clavizzao's dealings with the Wrights could be construed as loan origination, a spokesperson for the office emailed this reply:

"(Florida law) prohibits charging an advance fee for the promise of a loan. The Florida Office of Financial Regulation is committed to protecting Floridians from financial fraud… Please ask the couple in Plant City to reach out to us so that we can learn more about the transaction."

Minnie Wright plans to do exactly that.

As a businesswoman, she is perturbed at herself for not getting receipts or checking out Clavizzao more thoroughly. But the thought of finally getting a permanent home for the church clouded her good sense, she says.

"I wanted this so bad, and he'd tell you what you wanted to hear."

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642.

Comments
Florida jobs recover from Irma, unemployment rate drops

Florida jobs recover from Irma, unemployment rate drops

As economists predicted, the tough hit that Florida jobs took from Hurricane Irma was not long-lived. The state added 125,300 jobs in October, almost breaking even from the 127,400 jobs it lost in September. According to state figures released Friday...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Apple will postpone release of  HomePod

Apple will postpone release of HomePod

The Washington PostApple said Friday that it’s pushing back its plans for a Siri-powered smart speaker until sometime early next year.The HomePod speaker was announced in June, with an initial launch date set for December. Apple said that its smart s...
Updated: 4 hours ago
HSN, Good Housekeeping pick five contest finalists

HSN, Good Housekeeping pick five contest finalists

ST. PETERSBURG — Good Housekeeping and St. Petersburg-based HSN have chosen five finalists for their entrepreneur competition. The partners are searching for a novel item to promote as endorsed by the Good Housekeeping Seal, denoting reliability and ...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Trigaux: State of Tampa Bay startups? Disconnected we falter but there’s a plan to fix that

Trigaux: State of Tampa Bay startups? Disconnected we falter but there’s a plan to fix that

How are we doing?That was the Big Question posed more than once this past week in Tampa Bay. First, the Tampa Bay Partnership and USF debuted in-depth and new ways to measure Tampa Bay across a wide range of indicators to gauge whether we are gaining...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Tesla’s latest creation: An electric big rig that can travel 500 miles on a single charge

Tesla’s latest creation: An electric big rig that can travel 500 miles on a single charge

The main course was expected: a pair of sleek silver Tesla semi-trucks that get 500 miles per charge, go from zero to 60 mph in five seconds and — if the hype is to be believed — promise to single-handedly transform the commercial trucking industry.B...
Updated: 12 hours ago
We ask Tampa Bay startup leaders how best to advance entrepreneurial ecosystem

We ask Tampa Bay startup leaders how best to advance entrepreneurial ecosystem

What one thing could be added to the Tampa Bay startup community to help it grow and prosper?The Tampa Bay Times reached out to these leading area entrepreneurs and startup experts for answers.RELATED COVERAGE: Trigaux: State of Tampa Bay startups? D...
Published: 11/17/17
Before you hit the mall: here are some key holiday shopping hours

Before you hit the mall: here are some key holiday shopping hours

Plotting a shopping strategy for the holiday weekend? Here’s a look at holiday store opening hours for some major retailers:Thanksgiving8 a.m.: Kmart1 p.m.: JCPenney4 p.m.: GameStop5 p.m.: Best Buy, Macy’s, Toys "R" Us, Kohl’s6 p.m.: Old Navy, Target...
Published: 11/17/17
Electric, autonomous vehicles featured at Tampa auto show

Electric, autonomous vehicles featured at Tampa auto show

TAMPA — The two biggest trends in the automotive space are ones you’ve likely heard of: electric vehicles and autonomous cars. Both will feature prominently at the Tampa Bay International Auto Show today through Sunday. The event at the ...
Published: 11/17/17
Developer changes approach as downtown Largo project lags in financing

Developer changes approach as downtown Largo project lags in financing

LARGO — Driving down West Bay Drive, you may notice some changes to downtown Largo.A new 29-unit apartment complex on Ridge Road stands finished and ready for residents. South of the complex, land that was formerly home to a community of rundown cott...
Published: 11/17/17
Want to travel solo? Local enthusiasts share stories, tips for holidays trips

Want to travel solo? Local enthusiasts share stories, tips for holidays trips

Stephanie Maisonneuve visited the walled city of Cartagena, a port city off the Caribbean coast of Colombia. She rode horseback down the city’s cobbled streets clucking past flower-filled balconies and massive, wooden arched doors. The travel enthusi...
Updated: 9 hours ago