Carl Cole — one of two men at the center of Bakersfield’s notorious Crisp & Cole mortgage fraud case — has agreed to admit to one count of conspiracy to commit mail, wire and bank fraud, bringing to 10 the number of people with plea deals in the case.
Cole’s plea bargain, signed Friday and scheduled to go before a federal judge in Fresno Thursday, amounts to a prosecutorial coup that turns attention to his business partner, David Crisp, who has not taken a plea. A trial in the case is scheduled to start Jan. 28.
In exchange for Cole’s plea, prosecutors agreed to drop 55 other felony counts and recommend that he serve eight years in prison, followed by five years of supervised release. The final sentence, however, will be up to a judge.
Cole was a broker and principal at Crisp, Cole & Associates, the once high-flying firm that crashed amid multiple bankruptcies, federal investigations and a January 2011 indictment on charges of fraud, money-laundering and conspiracy.
Cole’s plea bargain, together with deals announced Monday involving his son Caleb and business associate Jayson Costa, suggested to some that the government has put together a strong case.
“I think the reason they’re making deals is, they know they’re going to have a tough time in the trial otherwise,” said Scott Tobias, a Bakersfield real estate broker and owner of Prudential Tobias Realtors.
The plea deals are sure to provide “closure” to locals who wondered at the firm’s questionable property transactions, Realtor Sheeza Gordon said.
“A lot of people will be relieved that there’s going to be some punishment,” she said.
In court papers, prosecutors have accused Crisp, Cole and their business associates of using straw buyers and others to buy and sell various properties multiple times, in each case skimming equity built up using artificially inflated home valuations.
The alleged conspirators are accused of falsifying mortgage documents and using close to 100 percent financing to buy homes, many of which later entered foreclosure. Prosecutors have said the crimes cost the mortgage industry at least $20 million in loans that were never repaid, though observers have said that estimate is low.
Under his deal, Cole would also have to forfeit nearly $30 million that the U.S. Attorneys’ office says is a “reasonable reflection” of the money he fraudulently obtained between January 2004 and September 2007.
Cole and his attorney could not be reached for comment Monday. But Cole told KGET Channel 17 that he does not have the money prosecutors have asked him to forfeit.
He told the station he hoped to pursue another degree and have some quiet time while in prison. He said he was sure God has a plan for him and that he was ready to get his time in prison done.
In previous public statements, Cole has claimed that he was a victim who was blind to fraudulent activity inside the company. He told The Californian that he was distracted by a large commercial-residential project he was working on, and that others in the office withheld crucial information from him.
“I’m an old man, and I was taken in,” he told The Californian in September 2009. “I gave all my money and got nothing back.” Cole is 66.
Regardless, Cole bore legal responsibility for Crisp & Cole’s loan-related activities as the firm’s designated broker. His claims that illegal actions were hidden from him at the firm failed to exonerate
Cole at a 2009 administrative hearing that led state regulators to strip him of his broker’s license.
Cole’s plea is contingent upon a guilty plea by his son Caleb, who according to court papers has agreed to plead guilty Thursday to one count of mail fraud. Caleb would have to forfeit the $663,940 prosecutors say he gained in the case.
Costa has also taken a deal under which he would plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail, wire and bank fraud, the U.S. Attorneys’ Office announced Monday. He offered to forfeit $1.3 million.
On Friday, prosecutors announced that another company associate, Sneha Mohammadi, has also taken a plea deal. She agreed to forfeit $1.2 million and, unlike others in the case, specifically agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
A decision on how much prison time each of the defendants serves will ultimately be up to the U.S. District judge in the case, Lawrence J. O’Neill.