FRESNO — Closing arguments in Julie Farmer’s mortgage fraud trial portrayed her Friday as either an “innocent-minded” office manager kept in the dark about an elaborate criminal scheme, or a witting “vital part” of Bakersfield’s biggest corporate scandal in recent memory.
Prosecution and defense lawyers took turns summing up seven days’ worth of testimony, agreeing that witness credibility should be top-of-mind for the seven-woman, five-man jury that began deliberations just before 2:30 p.m. But they differed sharply on whose word could be trusted.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Christopher Baker and Henry Carbajal argued that Farmer knew far more than she let on during several hours of testimony Thursday. They called her Crisp & Cole Real Estate’s main troubleshooter on illegal “straw buyer” property transactions, and an executive whose fingerprints were on multiple and various fraudulent loan-related documents.
“Why is it that the defendant is the only one that doesn’t know what’s going on here, supposedly?” Baker asked during his 80-minute summation.
Farmer’s Bakersfield-based defense attorney, Scott Howry, shot back with an indictment of the government’s case, saying it relied heavily on testimony from “shady characters” — the handful of defendants who agreed to cooperate with prosecutors as part of their plea deals.
While acknowledging that fraud had taken place at the company, Howry said Farmer was never privy to the loan documents at its heart. He suggested that without access to those documents, her absence of real estate experience or legal training left her unable to decipher what even outside experts could not.
“Julie Farmer had some of the pieces, sure,” he said in presentation two hours, 20 minutes long. But without the loan applications, he added, “it’s like trying to put together a complex puzzle without all the pieces. Can’t be done.”
Friday’s closing arguments came after seven days of testimony in what has been the only criminal trial to come of a fraud case that rocked Bakersfield. Farmer’s bosses, company co-owners David Crisp and Carl Cole, recently began serving 17 1/2-year federal prison sentences.
Farmer, the only one of 15 defendants not to accept a plea deal, is charged with conspiracy to commit mail, wire and bank fraud, six counts of mail fraud, four counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Some of the charges carry maximum penalties of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
The prosecution alleged Friday that Farmer was not only instrumental in the main instruments of the fraud — including bogus employment and bank deposit verifications for the company’s straw purchases — but that she signed falsified loan applications on two properties bought by her and her husband.
One received a lot of attention in the trial as well as in closing arguments. It was a Shaver Lake property the couple agreed to buy on a 50-50 basis with Crisp in late 2005. The loan agreement they signed contained inflated income statements and exaggerated how long Farmer had worked at the company.
The defense contended the loan officer handling the deal made up the incorrect information on his own, as he had in the case of another borrower, and that Farmer was hardly alone in failing to verify every statement in a final loan document. The vacation home ended up going into foreclosure after the Farmers sold it to another Crisp & Cole employee, one of many foreclosures that prosecutors say cost lenders nearly $30 million.
There was also considerable discussion Friday about testimony by two former loan officers at Tower Lending, Crisp & Cole’s mortgage arm. One of them, Jerald Teixeira, said Farmer had been present at closed-door gatherings at which strategic meetings about straw purchases had taken place.
The other loan officer called to testify by the prosecution, Christopher Lance Stovall, said he talked with Farmer about his plans to leave the company because of all the fraud going on there, and that she had sympathized.
Howry told the jury to discount both witnesses’ testimony because they admitted to fraud as part of their plea deals.
Carbajal, however, in his 30-minute rebuttal statement, said it wasn’t plausible Farmer didn’t know about the fraud when Crisp and Cole knew about it, lending manager and fellow defendant Sneha Ramesh Mohammadi knew about it and loan officers knew about it.
“She was a vital part of a multi-year, widescale mortgage scheme,” he said.
But Howry said if Farmer was guilty of anything, it was negligence. He asserted the government had failed to present evidence of any intent to defraud, which he noted is necessary to prove any of the charges against her.
What’s more, he said, several character witnesses had testified to her “exemplary life” prior to and after her employment at Crisp & Cole, and that prosecutors never pointed to a moment when Farmer went bad.
Howry cited instances where the defendant had gone out of her way to seek qualified advice before taking the steps the government says were part of her fraud. These included reaching out to a real estate consultant and a lawyer before buying the Shaver Lake property together with Crisp, and speaking with a loan officer at the company about whether it was OK to put a borrower on her personal savings account, as she maintains Crisp had asked her to do.
“Did she do things with an innocent mind or did she do things with a criminal mind?” he asked. “That’s what the case is about.”
Even before closing arguments began just after 9 a.m., there were tense moments. Without the jury in the courtroom, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill called all the attorneys and Farmer for a conference.
A court employee, the judge said, had overheard one of the jurors Thursday afternoon after court ended speaking on her cellphone. The employee quoted the juror as saying, “Yes, but she has children. I feel sorry for her.”
During a short discussion with the attorneys, O’Neill said “we have a juror who is violating a court order. We have a juror who is violating the law and we can’t ignore it. Nobody can decide a case on sympathy.”
The issue was shelved shortly after the jury entered the courtroom, and the court employee tried to identify the overheard juror. The judge then conferred privately with the parties and nothing more was said about it in court.
Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys would comment.
The jury was dismissed at about 4:30 p.m. without having rendered a verdict. It is scheduled to return for further deliberations Tuesday.