Al Lewis: Catch the Minnow, Let the Big Fish Swim Away

Maria Echeverria fights tears.

"I'm going to turn 50 in jail," the Southern California former mortgage broker tells me. "I have a brand-new granddaughter. I'm going to miss her first year."

Echeverria says she never got as much as a speeding ticket in her life. But on April 28, she will report to federal prison. She recently received a sentence of a year and a day after pleading guilty to two counts of wire fraud.

Echeverria was born in San Diego, to Mexican immigrants. "Nothing came easy," she said. "If I wanted school clothes, I babysat to get school clothes."

She struggled through classes because of dyslexia, which she says she battles to this day.

She took a GED test to finish high school. She married a man who drives trucks and operates heavy machinery. They stuck together all these years and raised two daughters, now 27 and 30.

Along the way, Echeverria took real estate courses at a community college. In 2003, she opened her own mortgage brokerage, Amstar Funding & Realty, employing five people.

Now she's losing her home to foreclosure, slouching toward bankruptcy, and the only class she's attended recently was on how to deal with life in prison.

"I'm terrified," she admits. "I'm taking anti-anxiety medication. .. I'm the full-time caregiver of a mother with dementia. She's having a very hard time dealing with this. .. And I can't tell you how many times I've found my husband around 2 a.m., crying in the living room."

Echeverria was one of 19 defendants stung in a recent mortgage-fraud crackdown by the U.S. Attorney's office in San Diego. She pleaded guilty to ordering up fraudulent CPA letters from Aguilera's Bookkeeping and Income Tax in Vista, Calif., to embellish at least nine loan applications.

The borrowers defaulted, sacking mortgage companies with losses, yet the borrowers weren't indicted.

"Mortgage fraud...contributed significantly to the collapse of the real estate market," U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy said in a press release on Echeverria's sentence. "The punishment delivered today will help ensure that unethical loan officers...realize that this type of behavior has tremendous consequences and will be seriously punished."

Heady talk for a plea agreement that demands Echeverria forfeit a whopping $16,503 in gains over multiple years, plus yet-to-be-determined restitution.

Echeverria will take her punishment. But she told me a different story than the one she told the court.

"I felt pressure to confess to something that I didn't do," she said. "The agents who came to my house told me that if I didn't confess that day, that they would make sure I paid for it."

She said she consulted three attorneys and ultimately signed the plea agreement to avoid the risk of a longer prison sentence as well as overwhelming legal costs.

"I took the blame for the whole office," she said, "because there's no reason why any of my loan officers should have to pay for something that I thought we were doing legally."

Now that she's been sentenced, it's futile to dissect the mistakes Echeverria may or may not have made. The court's ruling stands. But the way I see it, you can't rob someone who begs you to take the money.

Echeverria was providing a corrupt subprime mortgage industry, and ultimately Wall Street, with the raw materials it needed.

She made stated-income loans. During the mortgage boom, a stated-income loan application asked a borrower what they made, and whatever the borrower said was gold. Mostly, what stated-income underwriters relied upon were credit scores.

"The lenders actually sent in reps and taught us how to use these loans," Echeverria said. "They would do seminars. They would do weekend classes. They would come into our office.

"They would call them cheater loans. .. Some would call them liar loans. .. It just depended on what rep you were talking to ...

"I didn't make up these programs," she said. "Why are they not going after the lenders that put the programs out?

"The lenders had knowledge of everything I did. I didn't lie to the lenders about anything. I followed their guidelines."

If only Echeverria had been CEO of Countrywide Financial, WaMu or some other giant mortgage boiler room.

A regulator would sue her, she could use some of her profits to settle, and then the case would disappear.

"I don't want other agents to have to go through what I have to go through," she said. "The little guy is taking the fall for these lenders."