Trial begins for Brighton Heights man in Pittsburgh mortgage fraud case

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As the mortgage wave approached its roaring crest in the middle of the last decade, Jason Moreno was either expertly riding the wave or unwittingly swept up by it, depending on whether you believe the prosecution or the defense in his criminal trial that started Monday.

Mr. Moreno, 30, of Brighton Heights, was just 22 when his company appraised homes at the center of the allegations of conspiracy and wire fraud, noted his attorney, Michael DeRiso.

He was the president, though, of Platinum Appraisal Services, which should have been charging $325 fees for arms-length evaluations of properties but instead was participating in transactions from which Mr. Moreno and his relatives took five-figure checks, countered assistant U.S. attorney Brendan Conway.

"We've already submitted into evidence more than 100 fraudulent mortgage transactions totaling more than $9 million," Mr. Conway said. "Money was more important to him than integrity, than telling the truth to these lenders, these consumers."

Mr. Moreno was training to be an appraiser and teamed up with licensed appraiser Joel Reck, Mr. Conway said. "The problem with Mr. Reck is that, frankly, he's just a wreck" who rarely showed up at the office, the prosecutor said. That left Mr. Moreno to work with people such as mortgage broker Robert Arakelian and property dealer James Platts, for whom he tailored inflated appraisals used to ply outsized loans from banks, Mr. Conway said. For fees in the thousands, he would evaluate a property at several times its true worth, the prosecutor said.

He also would appraise properties in which he or relatives had an interest, Mr. Conway said.

For instance, Mr. Moreno provided the appraisal backing the 2007 purchase of a Beechview property by his mother for a figure officially reported as $82,000, backed by a loan of $65,000. The true sale price, though, was $38,000, the prosecutor said.

Mr. Conway said that Mr. Moreno crafted a fictitious down payment of $20,000 by his mother, then instead transferred to her $15,000 from the inflated loan's proceeds. "You buy a property, and not only do you not have to make a down payment, but you get $15,000 cash back," he said. "How about that?"

Mr. DeRiso said that Mr. Moreno was "taken for a ride."

"You'll see that Robert Arakelian was the main benefactor in every one of these real estate deals," he said. "Look for a kickback to Jason Moreno. You won't see it, because it doesn't exist."

The trial could take a month.

Mr. Arakelian pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy in 2010. Mr. Reck pleaded guilty last year to wire fraud conspiracy. Both await sentencing. Platts is serving a sentence of three years and 10 months for mail fraud and money laundering.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 and on Twitter: @richelord. First Published September 9, 2013 1:15 PM


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