Retired Common Pleas judge Horgos is key witness in fraud case
July 25, 2012 8:00 AM
Alfred Sararo is accused of fleecing Pittsburgh investors in land deals in Florida.
Former Allegheny County judge Robert P. Horgos will testify against a former friend who is accused of fleecing Pittsburgh investors in Florida land deals.
By Torsten Ove Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A retired Allegheny County Common Pleas Court judge who will testify under a grant of immunity against a longtime friend in a complex Florida real estate fraud case was himself deceitful with investors, federal agents and even his own family, according to court records.
Robert Horgos, who retired as a judge in 2009, will testify that his former friend, Florida tennis pro Alfredo Sararo, used him as an unknowing conduit to fleece acquaintances in Pittsburgh out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in bogus real estate deals during South Florida's housing boom.
But a letter from a Pittsburgh prosecutor to Mr. Sararo's lawyer last month raises questions about how much of a dupe the judge really was.
Mr. Sararo -- a former Monroeville tennis champ, county probation officer and partner with Judge Horgos in a West Virginia pizza shop -- goes on trial today in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers on numerous counts of wire and tax fraud.
Mr. Horgos, who signed an immunity deal in August 2011, is expected to tell the jury that Mr. Sararo fooled him and by extension 13 others -- most of them the judge's friends and relatives in Pittsburgh -- who invested some $3.3 million in 2004-06.
The investors, including another county judge, a doctor and Mr. Horgos' brothers and cousins, lent Mr. Sararo money for real estate or gave it to Judge Horgos to invest through Mr. Sararo.
Mr. Horgos of Sewickley Hills is the key to the case because it was his influence that enticed the others to invest.
But while his lawyer has long maintained that he was a victim of Mr. Sararo, a pretrial letter from Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan Conway to Mr. Sararo's lawyer, Robert Rosenblatt, addresses Mr. Horgos' "credibility issues" by outlining numerous instances in which investors and lenders said he lied to them.
It also indicates that the two IRS agents who interviewed him believe he was "less than honest with them."
In addition, the letter says that Mr. Horgos was sanctioned by the Judicial Conduct Board in the 1990s for improperly accepting a $175,000 fee as an executor of an estate and that he solicited a $50,000 contribution from a Florida developer in 2007 so he could run for "president judge" when he was not running for any office.
The letter also indicates he did not report his liabilities and his real estate interests in the financial disclosure forms that judges must submit to the state Supreme Court.
In the Florida case, the judge told his friends that he would buy properties on the cheap through a special pre-foreclosure program at Fifth Third Bank, which they could later sell for a profit.
It was all a con, according to the prosecution.
There was no special program at Fifth Third. Mr. Sararo bought properties on the open market with investor funds, but used only a portion of the cash to buy on their behalf and kept the rest.
He refused to provide paperwork because, prosecutors say, the true price of the real estate was half of what he claimed.
He also persuaded notaries to falsely notarize deeds, according to the prosecution. Two of them, Frances Agosto and Wendy Siciliano, will testify for the government.
Mr. Sararo had shown the judge a beachfront mansion in Naples that he claimed would be available through the Fifth Third pre-foreclosure program for $1.2 million.
Mr. Horgos raised $750,000 toward the purchase and borrowed another $450,000 from flower business owner Jim Selelyo. Mr. Horgos sent all the money to Mr. Sararo for the mansion.
"The reality was that there was no beachfront Naples mansion, at least not one available through a pre-foreclosure program at Fifth Third Bank," Mr. Conway said.
Instead, Mr. Sararo used the $1.2 million to buy two homes in Port Charlotte for $800,000 and pocketed the other $400,000.
It was, Mr. Conway wrote, "a classic bait-and-switch" fraud.