The owner of two land trust firms that operated in Palm Beach County pleaded guilty last month to criminal charges that he obstructed justice and lied to investigators from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Robert J. Vitale, 42, was under investigation by the SEC last year for alleged investment fraud when he told agents he was “insolvent or had little or no available assets,” according to a plea agreement filed in federal court June 5.
But investigators found that the Broward County resident had deposited $100,000 into a Wells Fargo account just weeks before swearing in a deposition the account didn’t exist.
Prosecutors said the perjury was a serious offense because Vitale knew if the account was discovered it would affect the SEC’s pending investigation and “result in adverse action against him.”
Vitale said Monday he is complying with the settlement arrangement, which includes more than $100,000 in fines, and is dissolving his two land trust firms, Heritage Land Trust and Cambridge Land Trust. His sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 9.
“Those who obstruct SEC investigations should realize they will ultimately be held accountable by criminal authorities who work closely with us to rid the markets of securities law violators, particularly repeat offenders like Vitale,” Andrew J. Ceresney, co-director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, said in a statement.
Vitale was charged in 2004 by the SEC in connection to the fraudulent manipulation of Orex Gold Mines stock. According to the 2004 complaint, Vitale operated a call center and solicited buyers, saying the Orex investment was risk free and a “no-brainer.”
“In truth, at the time, Orex did not own or possess any gold mines or gold mining equipment,” the complaint says.
Vitale settled the Orex charges in 2006, was barred from the brokerage industry, and was ordered to pay $100,025 within 30 days as a civil penalty. The recent SEC complaint, filed in May, says that penalty was never paid.
Neither of Vitale’s land trust companies were named in a September lawsuit filed by the Florida attorney general’s office that shut down a handful of similar firms including Boca Raton-based Fidelity Land Trust. The complaint said the companies operated a “mortgage relief scam” that prodded homeowners to sign their deeds over to the land trust.
Vitale said his business model was a copy of Fidelity’s and that once he realized it wasn’t viable, stopped soliciting homeowners.
Still, there are complaints to the attorney general’s office and a Palm Beach County lawsuit from clients who say they were duped by Vitale’s firms. Vitale said he is in the process of signing all of his client’s deeds back to them.
A Davie homeowner complained to the state in October that he gave $3,700 to Vitale to save his home by suing his bank and filing a quiet title lawsuit to remove the bank’s claim on the home. In many cases, the land trusts also ask homeowners to set up a new “mortgage” with payments going to the trust.
“Needless to say, I’m writing you today because Robert Vitale never did file this lawsuit,” said homeowner Joseph Bean. “To make matters worse, Robert keeps calling me asking for monthly mortgage payments that include taxes and insurance that need to be paid to his trust.”
In Palm Beach County, Boca Raton residents Ronald and Trudy Didomenico sued Vitale and the Hartford Land Trust in December alleging they paid thousands of dollars, signed their home over to the trust, but never received any services.
Palm Beach County records confirm Didomenico’s deed was signed back in January.